SXSW: Has Southby Sold Out? (and book reading post-mortem)

In the last two days, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have both run front page stories about Austin’s South by Southwest Festival, known as “Southby” to festival aficianados. The Journal story reported on the rising influence of corporations at the music part of the festival–and the consequential crackdown by festival organizers on private, invite-only corporate parties that violate the open access ethos of SXSW.

Long-time music critic Jon Pareles has a different take in today’s NYT. On the contrary, Pareles notes the declining influence of the major record labels (i.e. the corporations) on the music industry. SXSW, he reports, “is full of people seeking ways to route their careers around what’s left of the major recording companies.”

“Major labels used to help create stars through promotion and publicity, but their role has been shrinking,” writes Pareles. “Multimillion-selling musicians who have fulfilled their major-label contracts — Radiohead, the Eagles, Nine Inch Nails — are deserting those companies, choosing to be free agents rather than assets for the system that made them famous.”

I have not had the pleasure of attending the music part of Southyby. I barely survived three days at the non-stop Interactive segment. But I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find hardly any sign of corporate influence at SXSW Interactive. Heck, Facebook was the biggest show in town and their CEO is known to wear flip flops and T-Shirts to the office.

Southby is sort of like the anti-CES. It’s not about being overwhelmed by a blizzard of press releases and product announcements or marketing shlock. It’s about the conversation, about exchanging ideas and inspiration with like-minded creative folks down in the trenches. Think TED with an indie bent.

While I was in Austin for three days, I played a game to prove this point: I called it the find-the-man-in-the-suit-and-tie game. Before I arrived, I had heard complaints about the growing role of “suits” at SXSW. So for three days I searched for someone wearing a suit and tie. I found not one. I didn’t even find one single soul sporting a suit, let alone a tie. Instead, I saw an endless stream of cool young people dressed in jeans, T-Shirts, dress shirts and hoodies, with the occassional rebel donning a sport jacket.

Confession: I actually brought a suit to Austin (no tie though). Since I was giving the debut reading of my book and I had never been to the festival before, I decided to play it safe and bring one. Roaming the convention center, I quickly realized, it was as if I had brought a bathing suit to Alaska. The suit never saw the light of day.

Book B&N

I ended up wearing the Southby uniform–jeans and a long-sleeve shirt. The reading went pretty well, though I made a few mistakes. The biggest? I chose too many stories to read, didn’t pick all of the right ones, and underestimated the time it would take to read them. The result was that I raced through the end of the talk and left no time for Q&A. Doh!

Next reading I will pare down the number of stories and tailor their selection more tightly to the audience. Another cool part of SXSW was that Barnes & Noble set up a portable book store in the trade show area of the conference. Here’s a photo of my book for sale. I feel proud to be sandwiched between best-selling authors Bill McKibben and Timothy Ferriss. I hope their pixie dust rubs off on me.

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