“This doesn’t happen every day.”

Robbie Krieger, playing a rare full set of material by The Doors, after Dennis Quaid dropped in to sing lead vocals for two songs at the Belmont, 3/14/23.

I’m big into pattern recognition, and it somehow felt important that it was 25 years ago that I made my first and only trip to Austin, Texas. 

I was in film and TV development back then, and I’d been invited to be a judge for the screenwriting competition of the 1998 Austin Film Festival. I remember the opening night party at the Driskill Hotel and loving the freewheeling music and film-loving vibe of Austin that had been immortalized for movie fiends like myself in Richard Linklater’s Slacker

Fast forward to now, and lo and behold I’m staying at the Driskill, wearing the sweet badge of an Ayzenberg colleague who went every year but had to drop out with a conflict. My goal was to soak up as much as I could in the short time I was there, just three of the ten days that the festivals and conferences would run and swim in the slipstream of the more than 300,000 folks estimated to descend on Austin to listen to the heartbeat of popular culture. 

Over twenty different panels offered up “The Future of” one thing or another, from music and film to design and healthcare, which is just what the doctor ordered for a creative with a bone-dry well, who just stepped off the most intense heads-down, live-in-the-present client treadmill of his life.

With over 350 panels and sessions and over 1400 musical acts playing this year’s South By (the official Spotify playlist clocks in at over 64 hours of music), I quickly gave up any illusions of seeing “the best” stuff and shifted my focus on the experiences that I thought I would get the most out of for myself and my tech and gaming-focused integrated agency space.camp. The SXSW app is a mobile marvel, and guided by my RFID badge, an incredibly helpful and well-staffed volunteer army, and QR codes as far as the eye can see, I dove into Day 4 head first.

As an insatiable music fan 30 years into their career, I’m too old to be young, but also far too young to be old. This compass setting guided me to showcases that featured a blend of living legends like New Order, Robbie Krieger, and French disco legend Cerrone and up-and-coming acts like Loose Articles, Bartees Strange, and spill tab.

Bartees Strange was a standout.

Music is such a critical component of a creative’s life, from trending sounds of TikTok to the soundtrack of a trailer, and keeping your references both timeless and timely is the key to collaborative fluency. It’s also an enormous endorphin release to step out from behind your laptop and dance with your colleagues and new festival friends that happily accumulate during your time in Austin.

The friendliness of your fellow festival goers at SXSW cannot be understated (my tote getting nicked by this badge-wearing bandit notwithstanding).

I was also eager to check out the state of experiential, with no shortage of brands, films, shows and products setting up shop to use the power of SXSW to catapult into the social sphere. 

I won’t name names because I don’t want to throw any shade on what was undoubtedly a ton of hard work, but the playbook felt a bit tired and uninspired on the whole. Scan the QR code for an IGS effect, take a selfie at the booth or in front of our screen array, grab a bit of swag and don’t forget to use our hashtag. I was only there for a fraction of the fest, so please let me know what experiential moments you saw at SXSW that you felt moved the needle.

Look mom, I’m in a kaleidoscopic chip bowl!

The panels I attended were global, thought-provoking, uplifting—and entertaining as hell. Hearing stories from the front lines of The Infinite Frontier of Virtual Production at the Australia House was informative from a technical standpoint and affirmed what I’ve been seeing anecdotally at work—more women are in more positions of power in production than ever before thanks to the power of persistence and perseverance.

Listening to Joost van Dreunen, professor and leading academic on gaming and interactive, deliver a master class on “All About Games: Data, Trends, and What’s Next for 2023” was like drinking from the firehose.

Did you know that the number two global fashion brand in the world was Fortnite? With $5.8 billion in digital apparel, Fortnite is second only to Gucci and ahead of Ralph Lauren and Prada. 52 different video game companies hauled in over $1 billion last year, but the big fish keep getting bigger. Doja Cat is drawing huge audiences by streaming her Power Wash Simulator sessions on Twitch.

As a marketer, all this intel gets the hamster wheels spinning. I can’t wait to be back with my team to start applying this to our current workstreams.

From the fanboy perspective, sitting in on the Evil Dead Rises panel was pure bliss (gong hits will do that to you). Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell anchored a panel of cast and crew of the latest entry into the Evil Dead cinematic universe that now somehow spans over four decades.

The gong on stage left figured prominently in the panel 😉

Sam Raimi said “It’s all about entertaining your audience. With the Evil Dead franchise, we’ve left enough room for the audience’s imagination to fill in the dark spaces we’ve left for them.

Connect the audience to the wants and needs of your character and they will be more susceptible to the journey these characters have are on, from an epic quest to a walk down a dark hallway. Once that connection is made, you can deliver the maximum punch.”

Words to live by, for all of us. 

The Metaverse felt more Cronenbergian than ever.

One of my favorite professional experiences was leading creative for the go-to-market campaign for Oculus Rift in 2017. Launching the first consumer-grade VR hardware and catapulting VR gaming from ultra-niche to the mainstream was heady stuff, and it felt like a reunion of sorts to walk the XR Experience Ballroom and experience first-hand the insistence of the Metaverse as it continues to incubate and mutate. The dissonance of Meta announcing another five-figure round of layoffs while innovators and founders work tirelessly to launch the next killer use case was top of mind with the folks I chatted with on the floor. 

Comedians and drag queens unleashed a Texas-size torrent of frustration at the state of affairs in the ever-escalating culture wars.

The world at large flowed through SXSW. The night before I flew in, Bechdel test-acing film Everything Everywhere All At Once nabbed seven Oscars and became the most-awarded film ever almost a year to the day after its debut at SXSW 2022. Silicon Valley banks failing and Washington threatening to boycott TikTok were fiercely discussed.

Did I mention I was only in Austin for 72 hours? If you and your team are lucky enough to go to SXSW for the first time next year, here’s a quick checklist to get you off to a great start:

  • Use the SXSW GO app early and often, and overschedule yourself so you have options once you’re there. You still won’t be able to see everything, but you’ll give yourself a fighting chance.
  • High-profile events give you the option to request a SXXPRESS Pass that guarantees you entry at 9 AM the day before the event. If it’s important to you, have your app open at 8:59 and fire away, they go fast.
  • Don’t turn your back on your SXSW tote, even for a minute. 😉
  • Do as much pre-research as you have time for on the musical acts to ensure you’re seeing the kind of music that lights you up.
  • Take at least one pedicab ride to your next session; the drivers are a hoot.
  • Talk to strangers! I’ve never been to a friendlier fest where everyone is down for a quick chat and a scan of each other’s badge to follow up later.

So, after the dust settled, what did it all mean? What patterns triggered my radar the most? It came down to the people who were there, all drawn by SXSW’s stated mission of “helping creative people achieve their goals.”

The diversity of the attendees, geographically, gender, age, sector and style—from students to septuagenarians and everyone in between—matched the unique blend of bands and brands nearing or surpassing the half-century mark, inspiring and uplifting nascent movements and music.

These diverse and inclusive forces who linked arms together at SXSW, united in the cause to push culture forward, stood in stark contrast to the larger forces in our culture who sow discord between the generations and battle for a supremacy that history tells us is impossible to achieve.

When Krieger and the Doors arrived on the scene, they were leading voices in the counterculture, actively trying to incite the youth to wrest control from the corruption, entitlement and ingrained violence of the establishment. That battle, splintered though it may have become over time, still rages today.

I’ve seen the future, and it’s female, phygital, funky—and pissed off. 

SXSW is amplifying that message for the world, whether you like it or not.

David Rielly is Group Creative Director at space.camp and a regular contributor to AList.