March is here and, this year, it marks a severe milestone. It has been one year in this pandemic landscape, and it is beyond denial that life has changed in such a significant way. We are all spending more time inside and far less time in the company of others. Live music, parties, and conferences are a full year in the past, with a growing but not yet fully realized hope of returning. Into this persistent uncertainty, SXSW 2021 is attempting to make the best of an impossible situation. Having built its cultural magnetism over years of turning Austin into the creative center of the universe for a week in March, the coronavirus pandemic robbed the storied conference of its 2020 iteration. Certainly, many other traditions and experiences have been lost to this season, but the fate of SXSW 2020 marked the beginning of a year in lock down.
Every year, the conference is meticulously scripted and scheduled. The entire production mobilizes artists, creators, brands, and venues; and an entire year’s worth of economic impact is condensed into ten furious days of activity. With the increased risk that in-person gatherings posed, the conference made the bold and ground-breaking call to cancel the 2020 conference, mere days from its proposed beginning. Looking back, it could not have been a better idea.
Considering what we know now of travel risk, the communicability of the virus in large gatherings, and the effect that city-wide events have had on the spread of COVID-19, the postponement of SXSW 2020 seems elementary. Many decried the move, pointing to the revenue lost, the effect on so many lives, and a fear of what could happen to live music in its beloved capital. People wondered what would happen to the Austin area economy without the adrenaline boost that SXSW provides to entire industries dedicated to culture – live music, brand activations, and technological innovation. Looking forward was going to take an incredible effort.
Luckily, the conference has change as part of its very core. From tiny shows at Antone’s and Liberty Lunch hosting the upstart festival in 1986, to the teeming masses that regularly poured out of Stubb’s in the mid 2010s, SXSW has grown and innovated constantly. The launch of Film and Interactive elements became essential to the culture of the conference and the global culture. Twitter, Instagram, Apple Music, and Facebook all gained strong footholds by being a part of the conference.
Already in the process of reinventing itself in 2019, big brand involvement and grand spectacle excess led to new wisdom. Events, concerts, and activations were scaled back and made more intimate and therefore more valuable. With a refined focus and more streamlined process, SXSW was well positioned to pivot and reinvent itself yet again.
And that is precisely what they did. Organizers brokered the technical know-how and a audience that was increasingly online to facilitate a completely remote festival and conference. It undoubtedly took motivation and time, but SXSW organizers had both in ample supply after that fateful 2020 day.
SXSW Online was born, and looks to prove that their efforts, while perhaps not the same as a city full of culture, parties, and music, were incredible. They have pioneered an exclusive online schedule of films, sessions, concerts, experiences, and even immersive environments that can all be enjoyed from the comforts of one’s own home. And, far from the hierarchy that often plagued attendees, this year’s SXSW has no levels of access. There is one pass and it gets you everything. This is likely to whet appetites for the resumption of an in-person event, but it doesn’t matter. Attendees can enjoy Demi Lovato’s documentary, followed by a Q&A that the star attends. A keynote with Willie Nelson won’t have a line of people denied entry. A Tom Petty retrospective won’t have anyone denied at the door. And, if those weren’t enough, Wisconsin Dairy’s Cheeselandia will return and deliver cheese directly to people’s homes to enjoy with Nick Offerman, remotely. All of this with short films, musical sets showcasing artists looking for their big break, and every informative session anyone in a creative or technological career could want.
All in all, SXSW 2021 Online looks like it might pave a new path for future conferences to follow its lead (although most hope it’s just a one-off, as life returns to “normal”). Stay tuned to Texas Lifestyle to see how it all goes.