But should you care? At first glance, massive culture conferences don’t offer the best value proposition to Yalies. We’re already surrounded by more live music and speakers than any person can absorb; our classmates are the kinds of people who will themselves be conference-speakers in 10 years.
On the other hand, if you can find a friend or stranger to crash with, it’s cheaper than a cruise or Cancun. Free food abounds. Organizers warn you to bring an extra suitcase to carry back your load of free stuff—and unlike the Yale career fair, the companies handing out merchandise don’t want your soul or your resume. Just your attention.
Attention is, of course, the Internet’s most precious resource, and even as a music fest, SXSW is as close to walking around the Internet on two legs as you’re likely to get before Google Glass becomes the new Gmail. If you can think of something you’ve stumbled over online in the last year, it’s probably the subject of a keynote speech. Randall, of “Honey Badger Don’t Care,” will be signing books, alongside Nate Silver, Guy Kawasaki, and the author of something called Gluten Is My Bitch. That guy who used a 3D printer to help make a gun will give a speech addressing “whether software will eat the political world,” which sounds bad. Can we shoot the software with our print-guns? Will that make it stop?
Still, though it lacks a guiding theme, the festival’s everything-goes mindset is key to its lasting value. Cowboys and journalists and programmers get the rare chance to hear each other’s perspective on climate change and social media. Record labels of every variety come looking for musicians—and in a world where labels are losing ground to the god of almighty buzz, musicians have the chance to play for an audience 10-times anything they’ve seen before. Directors gain a launch pad for their work that isn’t as cluttered as Sundance or Cannes; Kathryn Bigelow premiered The Hurt Locker at SXSW 2008, to such wide acclaim that some thought she’d locked up her Best Picture Oscar then and there. Without SXSW, there’s no “MMMBop,” no mumblecore movies, and no John Mayer. (Well, he’d be alive somewhere, I assume, but not necessarily famous.)
Alas, in every department, not everything about SXSW is Oscar-worthy. Specifically, though, some of the movies premiering at SXSW range from the story of a man learning to live with the demon inside his large intestine to a documentary featuring Baltimore’s reigning motorcycle gang. Each of these movies is launching its “WORLD PREMIERE” and has “LIMITED INTERVIEW SLOTS AVAILABLE.” (Most notably, “Big Ass Spider!”)
But the music at SXSW is promising, and also the most accessible part of the festival. There are big names aplenty—the Flaming Lips, Third Eye Blind, Icona Pop—but from the samples I’ve heard, even the underdog artists have talent to spare, not to mention stories. Crew Peligrosos (“Dangerous Crew”) spits the raw truth of life in urban Colombia, but also devotes time to teaching local children the basics of hip-hop. DJ Pharris rose from nothing to become an official representative for Ciroc Vodka, renowned for his ability to “connect with the targeted demographics.” (I quote, readers, directly from his artist page.) And neo-soul group Fitz and the Tantrums’ “recipe for success” includes “six killer musicians” and “five dapper suits”; with any luck, their concert fee will finally let them all afford matching clothes.
And seriously, there are some great tunes coming out of South by Southwest—its status as a vital place for new music is justified. To get a taste for the festival’s diversity, consider sampling: the jagged dance-pop of Shiny Toy Guns, the Yeasayer-evoking synth anthems of The Pass, the old-school New York rap of Action Bronson, and Farzad Golpayegani’s instrumental rock, which bundles Mogwai and the Middle East into three-minute chunks of the best movie soundtrack you’ve never heard.
Final verdict: even for Yalies, who live in a constant festival-like campus bubble, SXSW is a worthwhile destination. So whether you’re seeing it in person or using it to distract yourself from mom’s request that you spring-clean the garage, you should spend some time in Austin before it’s back to just being Texas again.