The South by Southwest Experience

AUSTIN, Texas – Many destinations offer all the key elements of spring break – booze, sun, young people and parties. But only Austin, Texas, was packed with all this and 14,000 of the world’s most innovative thinkers. The bastion of liberal thought, bathed in 70-degree weather and plastered with tattoos, is the home to three festivals that compose the South by Southwest experience.

For 19 years, the goal of SxSW has been to attract creative people interested in developing careers and sharing ideas. The 700 original music lovers who first gathered in rustic music venues throughout downtown Austin quickly began to garner national attention. Since then, SxSW has steadily evolved into a heavily-sponsored smorgasbord of flyers, music, films and networking opportunities.

After picking up a SxSW pass ranging in price from $230 to $810, the freebie influx begins. Platinum badge wearers are shuffled through the Austin convention center to pick up the notorious “big bags” which overflow with dozens of trade magazines, party invites and paraphernalia. Back upstairs, participants can play with cool gadgets at the trade show, pick up deeply puzzling technobabble or hear distinguished speakers discuss ideas that haven’t yet reached the general public.

Hard core partiers have no problem getting an early start, although, at times, SxSW makes Austin feel uncharacteristically posh. With the metropolitan crowd comes certain metropolitan customs, whereby getting your name on the right guest lists grants access to open bars, gourmet barbecues, fashion giveaways and Red Bull-sponsored parties.

Home to most of the bars and music venues, by 5 p.m. the city’s main 6th Street strip swells with street performances, greasy sausage carts and open doors with blaring live music. As the locals continually emerge, late night Austin’s free-spirited nature becomes contagious, and convention-goers become increasingly withdrawn from long lines or any other signs of pretension.

The street echoes with the sounds of strangers becoming friends and friends reuniting from past years. Indeed, SxSW has an ability to string together a series of once in a lifetime experiences. Where else could you see more than 50 music performances each night, hitchhike with porn star Britney Rears, meet a paraplegic rugby player and have Al Franken write a letter to your mom?

Music

There are several reasons why Austin is considered to be the live music capital of the world. SxSW is just one of them. With more original music than any other city in the world, the convention started as an excuse for people to come down to a curious arts oasis in the middle of Texas. Austin’s city limits boast the historic cultivation of country, folk, jazz, blues and rock.

SxSW repeatedly reaches out to musicians all over the globe, inviting them to come to one of the few events exclusively hosted in venues that celebrate American musical traditions. Twenty percent of this years arts were international, with Japanese, British, French and Australian artists hosting their own mini-showcase events.

In addition to drowning 60 downtown venues with nearly 1,300 musical acts over four nights, this year SxSW drew more than 1,500 members of the music media as well as many industry bigwigs. Each night Austin became littered with flyers and albums distributed by bands hoping to say they were one of many to be discovered at SxSW.

Film and interactive

In 1994, SxSW capitalized on the Austin’s growing entertainment resources with the self-promoting debut of two additional convention components. The lesser known but equally awesome SxSW Film and Interactive events attracted approximately 7,000 people this year.

The Film festival screens movies from around the world in several formats, including narrative and documentary features, animated shorts, music videos and even a high school competition. This year, SxSW screened more than 180 films and, keeping with the grassroots, anti-establishment attitude of the city, used such venues as the back rooms of coffee shops and old time theatres designed for live performance. In drastic contrast to the high-rolling, glitzy Sundance Film Festival, SxSW invites viewers to pull up a hammock, grab a cup of organic coffee and talk about that great new documentary about Guatemalen farmers.

Techno geeks and glasses fit in well at the Interactive festival, a haven for the furious bloggers who line the convention center hallways with Apple Powerbooks as far at the eye can see. The four-day festival is divided into three sections: panels, which examined topics from the ethics of online pornography; “how to” sessions, which dealt with technical concerns such as “How to Trick Out Your Blog;” and a distinguished speaker series that featured (among others) author Malcolm Gladwell, Air America personality Al Franken and the festival’s most popular speaker, Ana Marie Cox, of wonkette.com. The interactive festival provides much of the brain food during an otherwise brain-destroying SxSW week.

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