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Review of SXSW 2011

This year was my first experience of SXSW and now, a couple of weeks after the event, I feel that I'm pretty much recovered enough to write up a short review of the conference/festival.

For those of you who aren't familiar SXSW is a ten day festival held in Austin each March.  It covers three main tracks - interactive, film and music - each of which overlap throughout the course of the ten days.  The overlapping of tracks draws a diverse crowd and it's this which makes SXSW unique to anything else I've attended in the past.

I'd wanted to attend SXSW for a number of years but kept talking myself out of it primarily on the basis of cost.  This year when it came around to booking tickets I ummed and arred for a couple of days but with some gentle encouragement from colleagues Paul Downey and Jeremy Ruston I figured 'why not, if not now then it'll be never'!  And I'm so very glad I did.

Armed with a platinum pass entitling me to entry to all three tracks I headed over to Austin spending the first week with friends from London and going it alone for the second week.

The interactive track covered the first five days.  Each day was packed full of talks and panel discussions covering a wide range of topics – everything and anything from 'How Does SciFi Influence Our Future Cities?' through to workshops covering advanced CSS3 and HTML5 techniques.

Overall the quality of the talks was reasonably good although the sheer number of things happening at any one time was a little intimidating and somethings I managed to miss out on purely through being indecisive about what to do next.  Negotiating a way from one venue to another also proved tricky during the busier talks – and this not helped by the offer of free beer at every corner!

Some of the highlights of the interactive week were talks combining technology and music.  Jess Hemerly, Jason Schultz and Larisa Mann ran an excellent panel entitled "Music & MetaData: Do The Songs Remain The Same?" Over the course of an hour they covering aspects such as how metadata aids the discovery and socialisation of new music, the implications of data accuracy as well as the legalities and copyright concerns around the ownership of the music data.  The audience was mainly made up of technology focused individuals, so as you'd expect there was a strong bias towards open and socially driven data models.  It'd have been interesting to hear the same debate again during the music week when the panel audiences were made up of music industry folk. 

Something that I'm keen to get involved with are Music Hack Days.  Dave Haynes and Matthew Ogle held a panel entitled "Love, Music & APIs" where they discussed the concept of a hack day and demonstrated some of the outputs from previous events.  I've been to a few (non music) hack days in the past and I'm always amazed at what can be produced in the space of just 24hrs hours.  Built at the recent NYC Music Hack Day, and my pick of the demo's at SXSW, was Invisible Instruments.  It combines a Wii remote and iPhone/Touch to allow you to play practically any instrument with amazing authenticity.  One of the beauties of a hack day are when they provide the seed of an idea which continues to grow after everyone has gone home.  Invisible Instruments is attempting to launch to the masses and if its something that you might like to use then you can support them over at Kickstarter.

As good as the talks were the real value of the interactive week was in the networking opportunities.  It felt as though everyone you wanted to speak to was out in Austin and with dozens of parties happening each night it was impossible not bump into an old friend or someone you've only ever followed on Twitter.

Overlapping the interactive week was the start of the music event.  In a similar fashion to interactive there were a number of panel discussions during the day however the main focus was on live music.  And with over 90 venues each with full line ups every night there was always something to go and see whatever your tastes.  

Before heading out to Austin I pulled together a shortlist of bands I really wanted to see.  And by shortlist I mean around 50-60 bands.  My main concern was that I'd spend too much time queuing to get into venues and miss out on too much.  However with the exception of the Foo Fighters (which was actually the interactive closing party rather than part of the official music week) I never had to queue for longer than around 10mins and managed to see pretty much everyone I'd hoped along with plenty of new discoveries.

To pick an absolute highlight of SXSW music would be too difficult, there were too many.  Stumbling into a Chris Cornell gig along with Phil Whitehouse, Phil Hawksworth, Ben Barnett and Simon Doggett would rank towards the top.  As would the mid-afternoon Le Butcherettes gig at the Dirty Dog (which would also rank as perhaps the most scary event of SXSW, but that's another post).    Seeing bands like White Denim, The Black Angels, and Black Joe Lewis for the first time almost justified the cost of the trip alone as did seeing big names like Queens Of The Stone Age and The Kills play in small venues. 

Having been to a number of music festivals in the UK I can say with absolute certainty that SXSW was by far the best I've been to.  The quality if the bands was out of this world amazing.  The organisation was fantastic.  The people were great.  And a number of the Austin venues have instantly become some of my all time favourites – although not in its original location the chance to see bands play at the legendary Antones was incredible.

If you're a user of Spotify then I've created a 'my pick of SXSW' playlist.

A blog post about SXSW wouldn't be complete without saying how much of an amazing place Austin is.  It was my first time in Texas and any preconceptions I had were completely blown away.  Everything about Austin is to be loved, from the the food, the music, the friendliness of Austinites, through to the official city slogan 'Keep Austin Weird'.  If I could live anywhere outside of London then I think I'd be hard pressed to find a better place than Austin.

Roll on SXSW '12.

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Reader Comments (4)

Sounds like you really immersed yourself in the experience. Great fusion for you no doubt of the interactive web and music. Personally I couldn't hack the volume of people, but I know love the vibe. Austin seems to have really grown on you also. Look forward to catching up soon.

April 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAxel

Thanks for that Matt. I've been wanting to go to Austin since, yes I've said this before, since Slacker. Please tell me you've seen this Matt..

The negative feedback from the VC minded panels is well balanced from someone who genuinely wanted to see the music. Glad that it is still something else though.

April 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDE

David -I'm ashamed to say I've not seen Slacker, but I've queued it up for viewing! I reckon you'd really enjoy the SXSW experience, there's certainly something for everyone.

April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatt Lucht

Hey Axel, Austin's a great place. I can totally see myself ending up there! Definitely due a catch up...

April 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterMatt Lucht

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