March Madness

Austin’s Sixth Street, the beating heart of SXSW.

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The convention floor during the interactive conference.

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Fitz and the Tantrums live at The Belmont.

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The backyard scene at the Sonos Studio.

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I interviewed Sonos head of culture and PR Ivan Entchevitch on the neon furniture we created for the activation.

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BeCore Director of New Business Roger Malinowski with client Dan Schaffer of Cricket Wireless.

I’m a lifelong music fan, and for years I’d heard about the legendary SXSW music festival in Austin: bands, fans, beer, and more. What could be better? In recent years, the event has grown to encompass a film festival and an influential interactive conference as well. Much to my chagrin, however, I’ve been active working on spring running events since about 2005. So I was never able to justify leaving town during my “busy time.” This year was different, however. Not only was I unchained from running event production, but now as a part of the BeCore experiential marketing agency, I had a couple projects going at the festival. We were helping both Cricket Wireless and Sonos with their activations.

So I traveled to Austin with our head of new business Roger Malinowski. As soon as I landed, I ran into former client and friend Tim Leake. He’s now with digital education agency Hyper Island, and he led me to my first party of the event, at the GSD&M ad agency. At SXSW, like Sundance, parties and events are where business really gets done, often until the wee hours of the morning. My time in Austin spanned from the end of the interactive conference into the early part of the music festival. So at GSD&M, you had every agency, production company, account person and marketing client in the universe. I ran into friends I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I was amazed at how the marketing business had co-opted SXSW interactive as its own event. Like every other event in town, live music is central to the experience, and Delta Spirit played the party. The parties range from tiny gatherings in bars to massive events like the Fader parties, sponsored by Converse. Some are completely open, and others require a coveted invitation.

Virtually every single event during the week has top-flight live music. It’s in the DNA of the city and the festival. For instance, one morning I wandered into Lance Armstrong’s temple of bicycles, Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop. At 10:00 am the place was packed with a couple hundred people to hear famed British folk balladeer Robyn Hitchcock. In a bicycle shop!

The main drag in Austin for music and nightlife is of course 6th Street. Once the music festival clicked into high gear, the street was closed and turned into a packed promenade lined with live performance spaces. Dozens and dozens of them. The street felt more crowded than Disneyland’s Main Street USA, only with lots of drunk folks and the smell of cannabis wafting through the air. As you walk down the street, you’re constantly dodging musicians lugging drum kits, upright bases, and guitars to their next gig. Over 2,000 bands played at SXSW, with many of them playing a dozen times or more during the week.

I was amazed at how hard the bands played. Before I arrived, I suspected that some bands would treat their shows like an industry showcase and phone in their performances. Precisely the opposite is true, particularly for the young bands: they play as if their life depends on it. KCRW DJ Jason Bentley gave me the background. He said that SXSW is like a right of passage that determines whether a band can hack it on the road. Do they have what it takes to set up and play four times a day in parking lots, noisy bars, and empty rooms? Furthermore, they never get to do a sound check, and they’re typically setting up and taking down their own gear. Talk about exhausting. Every single band I saw, from unknown to famous, was giving 150% in their performances.

Because we were working with Sonos, I spent a lot of time at their activation. As one festival veteran and tastemaker told me, it was arguably the best brand experience at SXSW. Sonos took over a couple houses near the center of town, and the vibe was perfectly in keeping with the event: picnic tables, bands playing all afternoon, art installations, KCRW live broadcasting Morning Becomes Eclectic, build your own speaker from a cardboard box, etc. Not only that, but the Sonos brand itself is a perfect fit for SXSW; it’s all about the seamless integration of music listening and technology. In my opinion, SXSW isn’t right for every brand, and there certainly were some companies at this year’s event who did themselves no favors with contrived activations that felt off-key.

I was also able to shoot a lot of video content while I was there. Working with great local cameraman Paul Escandon, I wanted to cover two things: a case study of our work on the Sonos house, and also a “South by 101” piece. We roamed all over the city interviewing interesting people to get many perspectives on the event. We talked to bands (French Horn Rebellion, whom I loved), a music fan from England, Julie Muncy from Warner Music Group, veteran festival curator Jonathan Rudnick, KCRW’s Jason Bentley, and Ivan Entchevitch from Sonos. Each of these people has their own unique take on the festival. I hope to synthesize this into one coherent piece that sums up the experience.

Overall I loved my time in Austin, and I look forward to making the roadtrip an annual event.

Peter Abraham

**Bands I saw in the span of 48 hours at SXSW:

Delta Spirit

Fitz and the Tantrums

Matt and Kim

Just Blaze

Robyn Hitchcock

Ashley Monroe

Saints of Valory

French Horn Rebellion

Natalie Maines and Ben Harper

Iron & Wine

Dawes