Innocents In Austin: Buying and selling at South by Southwest
Culture For all its hipness, the festival is still a trade show, and we capitalists mean that as a compliment | Warren Cole Smith
AUSTIN, Texas—For all its music and movie coolness and indie roots, South by Southwest is in some ways not that different from the convention of Mary Kay Cosmetics that will fill Austin’s convention center later this month. In other words, it’s all about networking and selling.
A few cases in point: Yesterday morning, while walking from my car to the convention center, two nice young men in matching polo shirts asked me if I wanted a free breakfast. What’s the catch? They would scan the QR code on my festival badge and I would receive information about what they sell. The company, Volacci, said it sold “market intelligence.” When I asked a few more questions, I discovered they did something with email marketing. When I said, “Oh, like Constant Contact on steroids,” they clearly looked annoyed—and then admitted, “Yeah, I guess.
I took a brochure and a couple of their business cards, and I had a breakfast taco, a cup of coffee, and a plastic cup of orange juice, which is what you get when you order a mimosa without the alcohol. This was the second day in a row I had been offered liquor at 9 in the morning.
Fortified for the day ahead, I finished my short walk to the Austin Convention Center and checked in at the pressroom. It’s actually a very nice spot, also with free coffee and soft drinks (though no food, at least not while I was there). But I couldn’t get an internet connection. One of the ironies of SXSW is that while it bills itself as über-high tech, I talked to several people who said the Wi-Fi was spotty. In fairness, there were a lot of people trying to get online, and there may have been lack of bandwidth and capacity problems.
One of those guys who told me he had been having trouble was Christopher Hayes, editor at large of The Nation. I just happened to sit down next to him at one of the open tables in the common area of the conference center. If you don’t know The Nation, it claims to be the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States. It’s certainly one of the most liberal/progressive publications around, even calling itself “the flagship of the left.” So when he told me where he worked, I said, “I guess we’re on pretty much the opposite ends of the spectrum politically.” He laughed, agreed, but was nonetheless cordial. We chatted for a few minutes, but he had to go, he said, to a book signing. We quickly exchanged contact information (of course) and he rushed off. Even progressives gotta make a buck, you know.
By now, the trade show floor was open. One of my first stops was the booth of the Knight Foundation, which funds a project called TurboVote. The project’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Kathryn Peters, explained to me her group uses technology to get people registered to vote, especially young people. Is her group conservative, liberal, or non-partisan, I asked. “Oh, strictly non-partisan,” she said. Further questioning revealed that they did their work on college campuses and, of course, at SXSW. Since they were strictly non-partisan, and since the data indicate that most college students vote for Democrats, I wondered if the group also did outreach at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or at homeschool conferences, or perhaps even at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting. The answer was, not surprisingly, no.
Even the artists at SXSW are hustling. I saw an excellent movie today, Coldwater, a fictional account of a juvenile detention facility designed to “scare straight” its inmates. Things go horribly wrong at the facility, and mayhem ensues. Think Cool Hand Luke meets Pulp Fiction, with a touch of The Shawshank Redemption thrown in. If these comparisons sound dismissive, I don’t mean them to be. I consider all three of these movies to be excellent, and Coldwater deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence, though I should warn you that the language and violence are often intense.
After the screening, I visited with the director, Vincent Grashaw, an interesting and thoughtful guy, and obviously an excellent filmmaker. As we finished up, he asked for my business card, and I—of course—asked for his. I asked him what was next for the movie. “We’re looking for a distributor,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”
That, it seems, is why most of us are here: We’re either buying something or selling something. And—as a capitalist myself—I mean that with nothing but love.
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