Last Friday marked the start of another year at SXSW.
This crazy conference and festival is held in the heart of Austin, Texas, and each year the hottest and brightest strut their stuff, hoping to be the Next Big Thing.
I’ve come to Austin most years since 2003, and over that time noticed a change in the culture defining ‘new and exciting’. Kids still dream of hitting it big in Austin, but not for music. Now they seek the attention of a different, curiously parallel, group of folks.
Once, SXSW was famous as the world’s biggest festival of new music. It was prestigious and fun.
Each year, ambitious young music artists and managers scraped together all the cash they could and headed to Austin with dreams in one hand and guitars in the other.
For five days, record industry executives, media and music fans descended on the town, combing bars, clubs and music spots in search of that Next Big Thing.
I first attended the conference in 2003, sprucing a young band called Evermore that I’d discovered in New Zealand. I’ve been virtually every year since, each time in order to launch a new act.
For a band manager, the game at SXSW is to create as much hype about your band as possible ahead of the conference so that all the important industry execs and press come to your show.
When the performance starts, you bite your nails at the bar, praying that the band presents a good show and the sound doesn’t cut out.
This year I’ve joined the trend. I’m not in Austin to launch a band, but to launch an app: Posse.com. It’s a site we’ve worked on for the past couple of years, and after many iterations we’re finally ready to launch. But if you asked the development team back in Sydney, working around the clock to finish the mobile app and website, they’d say we’re nowhere near ready.
The music part of the conference used to be huge, with 12,000 people and 2,500 bands in attendance – the biggest event of its type anywhere. This year, the interactive festival surpasses it with 20,000 techies planning to attend.
I notice many parallels between the music and tech industries. Both are driven by people trying to create or become part of a ‘hit’. ‘VCs’ are the new ‘A&R’ guys who scout out young talent and ideas in the hope of signing deals. ‘Companies’ are the new ‘records’ which VCs like to nurture and grow organically before they’re ready to scale – or in music industry speak, ‘go mainstream’. Both are young, male-dominated groups who like to party more than I imagine people in other industries do.
But the most interesting thing is the huge shift from music to tech. A few years back at SXSW, you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing band posters and stickers everywhere, with buskers on every corner. The jumble of posters survives, now they promote xnewcompany.com.
Buskers have become walking start-up advertisements offering free Wi-Fi in exchange for downloading their app. At night, the hottest shows had lines around the corner; now the lines are bigger during the day, for keynotes by the founders of companies like Airbnb or Pinterest.
And the hits are bigger too.
SXSW’s biggest music discoveries included John Mayer and James Blunt, but in recent years billion dollar companies like Twitter and Foursquare came to prominence by being discovered by tech tastemakers at SXSW.
Launching anything at SXSW is hard; you’re competing with thousands of others jostling for attention. In 2003, Evermore were one of the hottest bands at SXSW – the club was packed with every top A&R guy in the world.
The PA system blew in the third song, leaving the band soundless on stage for a whole two minutes. They were aged just 14-18 years old and this was their first trip to the US. They freaked out and it was a disaster!
Fortunately, the A&R guy from Sire Records wasn’t there that night and saw a much better show a few months later. So they still landed a US deal – but that night felt as if the world had ended.
It’s the same in tech – there are horror stories about sites that launch in a big way at these festivals, then crash. Just as with the bands, I have a great team, we’ve done all the preparation we can, but ultimately it’s out of my control. That’s scary!
It’s hard to deny the shift from music to tech. SXSW amplifies these trends. A few years ago, when I first noticed the .com stickers and queues to hear tech founders speak, I paid attention.
It encouraged me to make the jump; now I’m back at the festival launching my first start-up. It’s hard work, with new sets of challenges and new groups of smart, enthusiastic people.
That makes it all fun and worthwhile.