Last week, the music, film and interactive media sectors converged on Austin, Texas for the annual “spring break for geeks”- SXSW. Started as a music industry conference 25years ago, SXSW captures the quirky character of its host city (unofficial motto: “Keep Austin weird”) by integrating creative talent, early adopters and emerging media. This year, 19,000 registrants came to see a mix of old and new media compete for buzz.
SXSW has a proud tradition of launching emerging talent and technology:
SXSW 2000: John Mayer plays SXSW and quickly signed to a major record label
SXSW 2002: The documentary Spellbound wins at SXSW and earns Academy Award nomination
SXSW 2007: Twitter, launched the previous year, captivates the SXSW digerati
SXSW 2009: Foursquare launches at SXSW. The company now has more than 7 million users, adding 35,000 newbies per day
SXSW 2009: Premiere of “Hurt Locker,” Academy Award winner
Live music abounds at SXSW. Nearly 1,000 bands come from around the world to play in over 100 venues for an influential mix of industry decision-makers. This ranges from the biggest acts (Foo Fighters, Duran Duran, and “Ye and Jay”- Kanye West and Jay Z) to buzz bands such as Mother Mother (Canada), Sondre Lerch (Norway), The Naked and Famous (New Zeland) and Menomena (Portland). Government programs from countries like the UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland and even Barbados (15 bands!!) arrange comfortable venues to feature their artists. For its part, the Israeli consulate sponsored five bands/artists, Hadag Nahash, Eatliz, Electra, Onili, and Yoni Bloch.
The film festival is known for showcasing first time directors. It has also become an important acquisitions source for the major studios. Because of the music festival, there were multiple premieres this year related to music. Documentaries about the Foo Fighters (Director, James Moll), REM (Multiple directors- Sam Taylor-Wood, James Franco and Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan), and John Mellencamp (Director, Kurt Markus) were acquired, as was “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” directed by Harry Knowles.
The biggest buzz may have been for the British film, “Attack the Block,” written and directed by Joe Cornish. This won an Audience Award. However, because of the impenetrable British slang (some reviewers recommended subtitles) the film has not yet been acquired for broad release.
The interactive portion examines emerging trends and the intersection of old and new media. Several key trends were evident.
Key Trend #1: Group Messaging Services
There was buzz aplenty for group texting services. Americans are SMS-crazy, sending an average of 631 texts per month (21 per day), tied with the Philippines for most texts per capita. Group texting simplifies the process by allowing friends to easily create, manage and disband shared SMS lists. Although group texting has been popular in Japan for years, the early leader in the US is GroupMe, which raised $11.5 million. Competing service Beluga was acquired earlier this year by Facebook. Another social network, Ning, chose SXSW to launch its own group messaging service, Mogwee. They will compete with the likes of GroupedIn, Fast Society, Kik, Brightkite and TextPlus.
Key Trend #2: Start-ups Rule!!
Many of the keynote presentations featured young Founders taking an unconventional approach. Blake Mycoskie, founder of Tom’s Shoes, donates one pair of shoes to impoverished communities for each pair purchased. Seth Priebatsch, CEO of SCVNGR (which raised $20 million at a $100 million valuation), integrates game mechanics into the physical-world, within schools, cities and work. Chris Poole, Founder of 4Chan, has built a social platform that encourages complete anonymity. “Historically, many of the greatest creative and technical achievements were made in anonymity,” says the 24 year old.
Conference attendees were encouraged to do more than listen passively to keynote presenters. Several hacker competitions awarded prize money and other services.
Start-up Bus: 38 teams of “buspreneurs” departed from cities all over the country. Each conceived an idea, and during the bus ride built a prototype, created a web site , and pitched to a team of judges.
SXSW Accelerator: Sponsored by Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) BizSpark program, this competition includes a live audience and panel of expert judges to identify the most innovative advancements in social media, mobile applications, web entertainment and music technology. The winner from over 400 entries was Roqbot, which delivers music through any IP-enabled device, allows Smartphone owners to influence the playlist and handles all licensing fees.
SXSW Independent Propeller Award at SXSW Gameburn: Two lads from Brighton, England (ages 19 and 20) borrowed £ 2,000 from their parents to develop GLiD. This winning game earned $50,000 in prize money and access to a network of experienced mentors.
eBay Speed Hack at SXSW: Developers are given access to senior eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) technical teams and premium tools, with prizes totaling more than $15,000 in cash
Key Trend #3: Visualization, and prioritization, of social media data
Large advertisers and brands have begun migrating larger budgets toward social media and location-based services. For example, recent campaigns include Facebook/Gap (NYSE:GPS); Whhrl/UPS (NYSE:UPS); My Town/Travel Channel; SCVNGR/Coca Cola (NYSE:KO); Gowalla/Disney (NYSE:DIS); and Foursquare/Pepsi (NYSE:PEP).
These advertisers would like to visualize the slice of social media that matters to them, including influencer analysis. At the moment, the semi-automated tools in non-owned channels are not considered reliable.
Addressing this issue was one of the more “buzzy” start-ups at SXSW- Klout. The Klout Score is the measurement of a brand’s overall online influence. It uses over 35 variables on Facebook and Twitter to measure True Reach, Amplification Probability, and Network Score.
The awkward blending of creative and technical cultures may have been captured best by Bob Geldof. In his keynote address, he referred to Facebook as “a fraud and a friend.” Similarly, Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes is “friend and enemy,” noting that “they’re working it out.”
In the meantime, Geldof challenged content creators to do better. “Music is only successful when it’s relevant. The industry will not exist on the cauterwauling of divas or pretty boys with lovely mouths. This thing we call content is actually about this conversation society has with itself.” Last week, SXSW helped stimulate that conversation.
Levi Shapiro is a Partner at TMT Strategic Advisors, a global research and strategy firm focusing on the technology, media and telecom sectors.