South by Southwest Festival

27/03/2015

Austin once again became the home to South by Southwest – a sprawling smorgasbord of panels, performances and promotion. With only five days to pack it all in, a record 30,000 visitors descended on Texas to lap up the knowledge of the festival’s 800 sessions in between catching some of the most exciting musical acts of 2015.

To give just a taste of what was on offer: Buzzfeed ventured into how brands could integrate with so-called ‘weird Twitter’ to engage with a young and disenfranchised audience. The creators of Vimeo’s most popular series, High Maintenance, opened up debate into how storytelling was being redefined in a new media age. Disney’s Maker Studios hosted a workshop about how data and platform could improve, rather than limit, the scope of short form content.

However it was musician Win Butler from Arcade Fire whose voice cut through the void. When discussing the burgeoning “celebrity economy” of the music industry, fellow panel member and Nielsen representative, Titiana Simonian, acknowledged that the dialogue between artists and brands was indeed beginning to develop. Butler seemed less than impressed and avowed “artists are always screwed over”.

Another artist who shone through was Snoop Dogg, who was unexpectedly invited to the event as a keynote speaker. Dressed in gold rimmed glasses and dapper bowtie, Snoop Dogg took the opportunity to talk conversationally with his manager about his life and career, touching upon his role as a mentor to young rappers, his expertise in social media and an upcoming HBO series about his childhood.

As the event drew to a close, many heralded it as the “year of the woman”. Not only did panels exhibit greater gender diversity but women seemed to be leading the festivities in in a host of disciplines. Notably Ann Powers, in a retrospective on her career as a music journalist, noted that the birth of the internet had enabled women to cut through the “boy’s club” reputation of the industry.

There was a monolithic presence from brands at every part of the festival. The Fader, Spotify and Vice were among many who were front and centre – quite literally – sponsoring grand spaces for musicians to perform. Everything from beer tokens to ponchos were taken as an opportunity for brands to feed their personality into the make-up of SXSW. However, some worried the festival had become oversaturated with corporate images while simultaneously attempting to inspire unconventional thinking. Mark Duplass, co-creator of Togetherness, seemed to prescribe to this ideological spirit when he called on budding filmmakers to remain in the grassroots and refuse the tempting commercial dollar.

In true tradition, SXSW also had its fair share of bewilderment, from Hannibal Buress taking to the stage with Speedy Ortiz to over a dozen protestors taking to the streets to fight against robots taking over the world. Without a doubt SXSW endures as one of the most thought-provoking and evocative cultural gatherings of the year.

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