South by Soutwest 2006; Audio in Austin

AUSTIN, Texas – Many students take spring break as a chance to both unwind and get wound up, traveling to exotic locales to work on tans or purge livers.

But have you ever considered Texas for a spring break destination? No, not the whole state, just that beautifully liberal bastion of Austin, home of Whole Foods and mother of the world-famous South by Southwest festival.

Yeah, there’s free alcohol and food, sun and all-night parties, but there are also thousands of the most highly creative minds in the music, film and interactive media industries. Not to mention every band you ever wanted to see playing in approximately six square blocks.

You can still get pizza at three in the morning and make out with someone whose name you forget as soon as your lips separate, but you’ll also hear some killer music and will spend the flight home mulling over new ideas about the rise of Web 2.0.

The confab that is the SXSW experience comprises three separate yet related festivals: the famous music festival, founded in 1987, and the film and interactive media festivals, added in 1994. After 20 years in Austin, SXSW has etched itself deeply in the consciousness of the city while attendance has exploded, with nearly 20,000 registered attendees in 2006.

Music

South by Southwest is to music as the Sundance Film Festival is to movies. The majority of acts are unsigned, courting contracts from the label executives that haunt Austin for the week. A band may play as many as six shows in three days to get itself heard by the right people. Yet sometimes there is a reason these acts remain unsigned. As the musician Morrissey said snarkily in a public interview, “I think there are maybe too many people making music.”

Speaking of Morrissey, SXSW Music is also used by older, established acts to garner media attention and to add a renewed shine to their careers [Morrissey releases his new album Ringleader of the Tormentors (Attach/Sanctuary) on April 4.] Additionally, labels will host showcase nights, baiting the audience by placing well-known acts at the end of the night, making attendees arrive early to secure a seat and therefore having a built-in audience for newer acts. Yet the hottest showcases usually have nothing to do with the official SXSW organization and are hosted by tastemakers ranging from glossy magazines to independent music Web sites.

These unofficial gatherings are not counted in the estimated attendance of 10,000 at this year’s festival, according to a March 20 Washington Post article. These thousands of attendees saw approximately 1,500 acts in 62 venues, including a renovated produce warehouse, a BBQ joint and a plastic tent in a dusty parking lot. Add all of the unofficial showcases and parties, and you’re looking at one wild spring break.

Film and interactive

SXSW film has become the next stop in the film festival circuit after Sundance in January, drawing a large number of extremely high-quality films to quirky theatres downtown. While there are only two days of panels, the sheer quantity of films showing makes up for this fact. Documentaries, feature-length narratives and animated shorts are but a few of the genres shown throughout the week, with screenings scheduled throughout the interactive and music festivals.

SXSW interactive has slightly higher attendance than the film festival, owing to the fact that it comprises four full days of panels with leading experts of interactive (read: Internet-related or new high-tech-type stuff) media. Distinguished speakers of 2006 included Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.org, interviewed by Wikipedia President Jimmy Wales, and illustrious bloggers Jason Kottke (kottke.org) and Heather Armstrong (dooce.com) interviewing each other.

Some panels focused on high-tech industry concerns such as how to develop digitally convergent devices for cars, but for the most part anyone with a working knowledge of the Internet and an interest in where new technology will lead us will find interactive fascinating and compelling for the new ideas raised.

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