Featured image above: A pop-up music performance in Austin during SXSW (Image by Connie Rock)
One minute you’re chowing down on a breakfast taco, the next you’re in a Swiss-themed station petting an adorable St. Bernard who delivers Mophie phone chargers to desperate digerati. On your way to lunch, you pass by people dressed as squirrels and a guy in a gorilla suit cruising on a longboard in the middle of the street. Feeling like your head is going to explode? This is your brain on South by Southwest (SXSW). But not to worry, if your mental and emotional batteries need recharging at the end of the day, there are people offering free hugs. It’s all part of the madness that is SXSW, moments that are not to be missed. We’ve compiled our own personal favorites.
The Breakfast Club, Saving the Cats and Craft Cocktails
By Steffany Powell – @SteffanyPowell
There were so many wonderful things I saw in Austin, it is hard to choose just one. There was the first night when we took a pedicab to an Irish pub and were treated to a blues band with an amazing female vocalist. Then there was the one evening where we went to CU29 and had delicious craft cocktails made by Chris the bearded bartender. The pre-teen inside me was thrilled to be in attendance at the 30th Anniversary screening of The Breakfast Club (including a Q & A with none other than Molly Ringwald and Allie Sheedy).
But as an animal lover, the event that stuck with me more than any other was the one put on by PetSmart Charities and hosted by self-proclaimed “Cat Daddy” and star of My Cat From Hell, Jackson Galaxy. This session focused on the eight million animals that end up in shelters every year, and the four million that end up being euthanized. Ironically, because of the popularity of cats on the Internet, most animals who end up euthanized in shelters are cats. The topic of the day was how to change the reputation of cats and show that you don’t have to be just a dog person or a cat person but you can be “bi-pet-able.” Those of us in the session were left with the challenge of changing the conversation about cats and using the hashtag #savecats to boost awareness of adoptable cats in shelters. I just love it when digital media is used for good.
Exploring Austin, Brandsanity and the Cookie Monster
By Fritz Kessler – @HelloFritzCom
This may be cheating a bit, but, having already written in some form or another about all of the various panels I attended at SXSW, I’ll point to a broader experience as my favorite “hidden” piece of the conference – exploring Austin. It’s an incredible town to begin with, and, as I already noted in my piece on the brand presence at SXSW, Austin becomes what I assume is an entirely different place for 10 days, adding a new layer of depth to the process of discovering its riches.
The actual hand, voice, and puppet of Cookie Monster could be posing for photos right behind you while you catch up on email in the PBS lounge. You might be waiting in line at the best taco truck in Austin with both Morgan Spurlock, and a team of kids claiming they want to stop AI from taking over the world, but who are actually just part of an elaborate viral marketing campaign for a new dating app.
Whether it’s authentic Austin, incredible visiting artists or even just marketing BS, you simply never know what’s around the next corner at SXSW. It’s exhilarating, sometimes exasperating, and, ultimately, pretty awesome.
Clever Stunt or True Harbingers of Doom?
By Kirsten O’Brien — @KirstenOBrien
It’s no secret that SXSW has become the holy grail of crazy marketing stunts and off-the-wall advertising tactics. There is one “stunt,” though, that I never quite figured out if it was a clever promotion for artificial intelligence, or a group of legitimately concerned citizens warning the tech-savvy crowd of the perils of robots becoming too smart for their own good.
When asked what exactly they were doing, one demonstrator explained they were a group of concerned students, warning everyone else that one day artificial intelligence will reach levels we won’t be able to control. Then at that point, the whole world will plunge into an Isaac Asimov-esque nightmare where we become the ones serving our robot overlords.
All the demonstrators wore blue shirts with an Elon Musk quote on the back: “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.” The quote comes from a talk the Tesla Motors CEO gave at the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics department’s Centennial Symposium in October 2014.
The next day, the demonstrators were replaced by a group of people offering free hugs. So clever stunt or true harbinger of doom, I guess we’ll only know if they were for real if their ominous predictions come true.
Inspiring Keynotes, Calling Out Manterrupting and Pop-Up Music Performances
By Connie Rock – @Conrock_Media
Some things never change at SXSW, especially the fact that there are more sessions that I want to attend than I can ever possibly attend and retain my sanity. This year, there was a healthy mix of great keynotes and smaller sessions. Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud’s keynote was inspiring and so is her work to empower Saudi women in the workforce and launch a breast cancer awareness and women’s health awareness campaign.
The How Innovation Happens session, with Eric Schmidt (Chairman of Google), Megan Smith (Chief Technology Officer of the United States) and Walter Isaacson (CEO of the Aspen Institute) was decidedly more mixed. While the panel discussed how to attract and retain more women in tech, among other things, a major note of irony was sounded as Schmidt continually manterrupted Smith. During the Q & A, a member of the audience called Schmidt on the carpet for his behavior, after which members of the audience applauded. An authentic, unscripted SXSW moment.
Beyond the sessions, there are the streets, haunts and sounds of Austin. One of my favorite personal traditions is a stop at the Driskill. It’s a warm, inviting, classy place. Outside the hotel, in clubs and on the streets, there are wonderful, serendipitous moments of music to be had.