“We’re chronically sleep-deprived as a culture”

March 16, 2018

SXSW: The Place Where the Powerbrokers Meet the Hipsters

In 1987 Roland Swenson, an American journalist on the alternative paper The Austin Chronicle, set up South By Southwest as a way of shining a light on local talent. Thirty-one years later, SXSW is a bizarre and ever-expanding mishmash of idealism, tech evangelism, corporate interest, drunken college kids going crazy on spring break and more than 2,000 acts from around the world plying their wares in every bar, club and street corner in the Texan city. Each year people complain that the festival is not as good as it was. Each year SXSW sets the pace for music, film and technology. Here are a few things we learnt at the festival in 2018.

1 Humanity is the new buzzword
Taking the next logical step on from the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, the overarching theme of the 2018 conference was humanity: how we treat people in the workplace, what tech companies are trying to achieve, what AI will do to us, just . . . what is the point of it all, really? “Can [the American workplace] work for people who don’t look like my dad?” asked Melinda Gates in a highly personal keynote speech. All kinds of apps were being launched at SXSW Interactive, but the question that speakers from Elon Musk (who argued that AI is a greater threat to humanity than nuclear war) to the former American football player Wade Davis came back to was: how can we better connect as people?

2 Sadiq Khan is an American hero
In Britain we may view him as a diminutive former lawyer with a slightly dull obsession with diesel emissions, but at SXSW the mayor of London was welcomed like a rock star, his talk at the Convention Center attracting a queue that snaked round the block. Why? Because he stood up to Donald Trump. The first British politician to give a speech at SXSW addressed the social responsibilities of tech giants, illustrating his point by reading out all kinds of abusive tweets directed at himself.

3 Augmented reality is replacing virtual reality
There were 20 virtual-reality installations, including a remarkable recreation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that puts you into the orchestra, and a mock-up of the set of the television series Westworld. Best of all was A Colossal Wave by the British company Marshmallow Laser Feast, in which a real ball, dropped from a great height, creates a virtual wave experienced by VR users. This synthesis of the real and the unreal can create problems, however. “We’ve had birds nesting in it,” says the VR film-maker Robin McNicholas on the challenges of building a 50ft tower in the centre of Austin to drop a ball down.

4 Steven Spielberg is getting in on the act
The film director was in town to launch Ready Player One, an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel about a teenager who creates a virtual online world. The film, which is filled with 1980s arcade-game references, also proved that even the virtual world is subject to real-world problems. At the film’s launch at the Paramount Theatre on Sunday the sound kept cutting out. Spielberg claimed that it caused him to have the greatest anxiety attack he has experienced. Also in town were Neil Young and Daryl Hannah, here to launch their Netflix movie, Paradox, a low-budget psychedelic western that Young describes as best enjoyed “with a big joint”.

5 British music is as important as ever . . .
As jingoistic as it may sound at an event that showcases music from Peru, Russia and Colombia, the Brits still manage to create the biggest excitement. Northumberland’s Jade Bird succeeded in taking coals to Newcastle by making her rootsy, emotional Americana the talk of the festival, while the south London teenagers Shame and Goat Girl reminded everyone what young, loud, snotty, thoroughly British punk rock should sound like. Sam Fender was another name on everyone’s lips, alongside the Fish Police, a wildly imaginative, unusual electro-funk band whose singer Dean Rodney Jr and guitarist Matt Howe both have autism..

6 . . . particularly British jazz
Jazz has always been a hard sell at SXSW, but a showcase featuring the best young British jazz musicians was a standout event. The south Londoner Moses Boyd performed an incredible solo drum set, while Nubya Garcia, a north London saxophonist, blasted off on a set with a three-piece band so impassioned it appeared to take even her by surprise. People don’t generally scream uncontrollably at the end of a ten-minute saxophone solo, but they did here.

7 Blockchain will be massive
“Cryptocurrencies: a New Future for Money” and “Why Ethereum is Going to Change the World” don’t sound exactly scintillating, but they were just two of the 38 packed panel talks addressing Blockchain, a transparent platform that registers global transaction data (imagine a system that logs every step of a piece of wood, from being part of a tree in the Amazon to a plank on the shelves of B&Q) and is the verifiable ledger powering cryptocurrency. It was another SXSW 2018 keyword.

8 Sleep music is the new genre
The contemporary classical musician Max Richter staged an all-night concert for which 80 attendees bedded down for the night while being lulled into the Land of Nod by an eight-hour sleep-inducing ambient music marathon. Richter says: “We’re chronically sleep-deprived as a culture,” a statement never truer than at SXSW, where events run well into the early hours. This is also a festival where a room in the most basic downtown hotel can set you back $400 a night. Who in their right mind would give that up to listen to sleep music all night?

9 The British have brought culture to new technology
“The British have identified a gap,” says Crispin Parry of British Underground, the body that works with the Arts Council to give SXSW an official British presence. “There is a space for content in among all this tech. People are realising you should start with an idea and then find the technology to support it, not the other way round.” Hence the arrival of the Royal Shakespeare Company to work with Intel on a digitally reimagined version of The Tempest and Nasa working with the Philharmonia to stage a VR version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

10 None of this changes basic human behaviour
SXSW is the most forward-looking festival in the world, yet so many things are the same, year after year: the long queues to get into concerts, the number of spring-breakers overdoing it on 6th Street, the search for the perfect midnight taco, the buzz around an act that seems so important for that hour or two before common sense kicks in and we all go home . . .

Seven hundred people turn up to the first SXSW event, although only 150 had registered; 177 local and regional artists perform at 15 venues over four days. By next year the number of artists will have swollen to 415.

Johnny Cash attends the event as a keynote speaker. During his speech Cash, 62 at the time, intermittently plays a few tunes and speaks of his love for music and his struggle to learn to play the guitar. It is also the first year in which interactive content and films are shown during the inaugural SXSW Film and Media Conference.

Just ten years after its launch The New York Times declares SXSW “the domestic pop and rock music industry’s most important annual event”. Moby speaks at a New Wave of Electronica panel and Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh come together to discuss film.

The SXSW line-up is by now as fiercely international as high-profile. Among the 1,012 showcasing artists are the Black Eyed Peas, David Byrne, Interpol, Mogwai, Idlewild, Peaches, the Strokes and the White Stripes. Evan Williams (who will go on to co-found Twitter) appears on an SXSW Interactive panel and the Burning Man founder, Larry Harvey, shares his musings about community.

The year in which Adele plays at SXSW and only a small handful of people show up to catch her. The British superstar, who has just signed her record deal, is filmed performing in an almost empty hotel room. Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Kings of Leon play shows, while Judd Apatow brings the house down with the world premiere of Knocked Up.

Lou Reed does the keynote address, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos attend, Airbnb launches and bands from Tehran to Sao Paulo perform during the 22nd SXSW, at which 1,809 artists fill the venues.

After Lena Dunham’s debut with Creative Nonfiction at SXSW 2009 and her 2010 screening of the award-winning film Tiny Furniture, she shoots to fame after the world premiere of her HBO series Girls. Speakers include Bruce Springsteen, Mark Wahlberg and Nas, and Ed Sheeran plays a show.

USA Today 
refers to SXSW as “one of the largest and most influential gatherings on the planet” in a year in which Lady Gaga appears as the keynote speaker, Coldplay perform, and there’s a virtual conversation with the whistleblower Edward Snowden. There’s also the world premiere of the HBO series Silicon Valley as the festival sets the trend for small-screen serials.

Barack and Michelle Obama give keynote speeches during this cultural mega marathon of 2,224 showcasing artists and 378 panels and workshops.

Source: The Times