When I first attended SXSW 10 years ago, the festival was already 17-years-old and, appropriately enough, known as "indie rock spring break." It was an annual chance, nay, excuse, for the Toronto, New York and London music industries, among others scattered about largely northern climes to decamp to Texas' sunny capital city for a week of small bands, free beer and endless BBQ.
Those days are gone.
Now SXSW's a full-blown, all-encompassing cultural happening that will bring 300,000 festivalgoers to Austin over the next 10 days to witness an arguably more fully realized take on Perry Farrell's original Lollapalooza vision.
Yes, there are some corporate grotesqueries these days, perhaps best symbolized by Doritos' three-story high vending machine within which Snoop Dogg performed last year and which will feature LL Cool J this time, hopefully turning Ladies Love Cool Ranch into a satirical trending topic. (Which, presumably, Doritos would probably like and LL's being paid enough to not care either way.)
It's certainly not what it once was, but then again, when Farrell kicked off the Jane's Addiction reunion tour here five years ago, he did it at a SXSW Playboy party in an abandoned Safeway grocery story. And as a '90s kid who used to mosh in my Manic Panic purple hair, Lolla T and waist-tied flannel, over the years I realized that as "alternative" became a corporate branding exercise it never undercut the authenticity of those of us embedded in the subculture itself.
SXSW's music festival now attracts boldface names — Justin Timberlake and Green Day this time; Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z and Kanye West in recent years — among its 2,000 or so barely-known bands. Also, SXSW's now nearly as famed for its SXSW Interactive technological and SXSW Film cinematic streams, with the pair now rivaling the original music portion for buzz and excitement.
In one single Saturday afternoon timeslot alone, festivalgoers have to choose between seeing Al Gore pontificate on the future, Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre "in conversation" with cult author Neil Gaiman, Buffy creator Joss Whedon discuss his Avengers follow-up Much Ado About Nothing (which is, in fact, a verbatim film version of the Shakespeare play), or attend a panel about the future of porn.
Earlier on that same day Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle will preview his new film Trance alongside Underworld buddy Rock Smith while SXSW's Comedy arm will host the likes of Sarah Silverman, Reggie Watts and Michael Cera.
And that's not counting the hundreds of workshops, panels, meet-ups, pool parties and after-dark throwdowns that will fill practically every available building, parking lot and alleyway in Austin long before music rolls out next week with a keynote by Foo Fighter mainman Dave Grohl, who will later perform with his Sound City Players, a group inexplicably including Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty and Rick Springfield along with members of Rage Against The Machine and Slipknot.
That may sound like an eclectic collection, but all of SXSW is similarily unfathomable. Where else could you find Elon Musk, the CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors and private rocketship company SpaceX, 3D Printer revolutionaries (Bre Pettis of MakerBot and Cody Wilson of the controversial Defense Distributed project to print plastic guns) as well as Depeche Mode and 50 Cent?
The importance of SXSW is that it now under its umbrella futurist Douglas Rushkoff, newswoman Rachel Maddow, Beyonce sister Solange, acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar, Oscar-winning to Al Gore, hero mayor Corey Cooker and the James Franco-led cast of Harmony Korine's controversy-baiting Springbreakers can all be in the same place at the same time.
Over the next 10 days there'll be concerts and pool parties and raves and screenings and LAN gaming tournaments and cosplay competitions and countless panels and performances covering every aspect of modern cultural and technological life you could possibly imagine. There are now more than enough unafiliated day-parties, after-parties and even concurrent festivals by the likes of Fader and Vice that you could entertain yourself quite well in Austin without ever setting foot into an official event.
That first year I attended a decade ago, I saw Sonic Youth performing in a BBQ joint backyard, ate breakfast beside Little Richard at Denny's and the festival was still about "getting discovered." Like, Broken Social Scene, who played their first SXSW in 2003, impressed important business people and from there were well on their way to claiming international stardom.
Sure it may be more rare these days to stumble across, say, a young drunk British girl named Amy Winehouse playing in a tiny bar at 1 a.m. But that's because it's not the same festival it was a decade ago. And why should it be? Music, film and technology evolve, so why not the festival that showcases them?
For all those who gripe that SXSW has gotten too big, too corporate and lost its focus, well, what matters now is its critical mass. If the old SXSW was like a CD flipbook, the new one is like a 64 gig iPhone. In other words, that was then, this is now.