Overcrowded, Overmarketed, but SXSW Is Still Crazy, Vibrant and Fun as Ever

Much of the Really Cool Stuff Wasn't Even on Display in the Convention Center

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Jim Louderback
Jim Louderback
Pepsi supposedly spent a cool million dollars on its SXSW presence, with a huge stage, free Pepsi One for everyone, music, BBQ and a partnership with Foursquare. And they weren't the only brand dumping major bucks. GE's crazy solar-powered carousel was a confusing anomaly, and mostly ran empty. Even AOL, while dumping a broad swath of talented employees, dropped a half-million on the event -- according to one of the displaced that I talked to.

Much of the really cool stuff wasn't even on display inside the convention center. CNN rolled out its TV Everywhere strategy, along with a nifty new HTML5 site design in its very own restaurant, across the street from Pepsi's soda and barbecue cafe. I had a fascinating demo from the CEO of Interlude.FM, showcasing continuous streaming and branching video, but even though the technology is public, their presence was invisible.

GM had a neat promotion going, to augment its huge sponsorship of the event. A handful of new Chevys drove around town, letting anyone hop in and get a ride anywhere within five miles. I stumbled upon one of them at the most opportune time, and was carted across town by a charming young Police Academy trainee. She didn't know Austin too well -- but she did let me switch the built in XM from Radio Disney (she was hoping to hear the latest Justin Beiber song) to the Grateful Dead channel for the duration of the trip. The car was pretty plush too.

I ran into a friend of mine from JWT on Monday, and he said that last year he couldn't even get the company to pay his way, yet this year more than 40 execs were blanketing the show. And along with agencies, brands and Hollywood have discovered SXSW too. Even the hyper-rich were cavorting around Austin over the weekend -- a handful of them turned up at our VIP section during our Diggnation Stubbs party, and rubbed shoulders with Demi Moore, Aston Kutcher, and web celebrity Felicia Day.

Acerbic internet personality and startup cheerleader Jason Calacanis is certainly a polarizing individual. But still that was no reason for a disgruntled attendee to toss a drink on him at our party. Despite being a three-time black belt, Jason restrained himself from punching the boor out. Unfortunately, that was not an isolated incident. This year it seemed like there were a lot more rude drunks than ever.

Airplane WiFi is definitely great -- except when you're on a plane full of SXSW attendees. I flew the nerd bird back and forth from San Jose to Austin, and the GoGo service was practically useless. They definitely need to up the bandwidth on those geek flights.

Cellphone service, though, seemed to be pretty darn good. Despite the proliferation of iPhones on the AT&T network, no one seemed too upset about the service. That's a far cry from a few years ago when the subpar network helped fuel the AT&T backlash.

The panels continue to be hit or miss, according to the attendees I talked to. One of the few that generated any significant buzz, on social TV, was plopped into a room barely big enough to hold a football team -- and it was horribly over-attended. So those that couldn't get in formed an un-session of their own in a vacant room next door led by the NY Times social editor Jen Preston called RebelTV. Alas, the show staff kicked them out halfway through.

It seemed like twice as many people attended the interactive portion of SXSW this year, swelling the crowd to near 30,000 people. That led to gridlock in downtown Austin, as attendees tried to get from far-flung hotels to the conference and then back to their beds. The show might well be outgrowing the town -- but it's inconceivable that the show would work anywhere else. Lots of attendees opined that the show had jumped the shark, but it seemed just as vibrant, crazy and fun as ever.

Jim Louderback is CEO of Revision3 Internet Television in San Francisco.
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