My first trip to SXSW Interactive came with a surprising revelation: the Austin festival’s colorful pageant of industry parties and grand sensory spectacle isn’t simply a tacked-on excuse to let loose. It’s a reflection of the tech innovation community’s acute awareness that those moments of raw human connection are precisely what spur the best interactive experiences.
AUSTIN, TEXAS — I stepped off the plane and blinked my eyes slowly like the clumsy newborn fawn of SXSW that I was.
“I am drowning in a digital sea
I am slipping beneath the sound
Here, my voice goes to ones and zeroes
I’m slipping beneath the sound”
Only a few hours earlier, I had met my traveling companions Paul (Deputy Editor, LA Times) and Chris (Director, KUSC Interactive) at Los Angeles International airport in the middle of the night. My decided lack of sleep now gave an especially surreal aura to the huge, colorful guitar statues that adorned the baggage claim carousels in Austin’s airport. It was a stark cry from the utilitarian and warehouse-like baggage claim at LAX. Now 1500 miles from LAX’s flickering, yellowish fluorescence, I found myself suspiciously eyeing a glass-paned, brightly sunlit airport terminal boasting its own small barbecue restaurant — with an attached live music stage, of course.
As we crammed our way into a taxi van bound for downtown Austin, my mind raced through the circumstances that had brought us here. KUSC Interactive’s app for Spotify, Geotunes, was nominated for a 2014 SXSW Interactive Award, an honor essentially without equal in the digital world. Chris was no stranger to these awards, having won in Austin in 2011 for the Tiziano Project, but this was my first time being a part of a collaboration that was recognized on such a big stage. Geotunes, a discovery tool and interactive map that helps users find songs about geographic locations and events, seemed so perfectly aligned with the deeply musical tradition of SXSW. Could we actually pull off a win on my first trip to Austin? We had to. As the taxi rumbled past freeway signs and grassy Austin landscapes that felt visually foreign to me, my competitive nature burned inside me like a barrel of Texas’ finest crude oil… although that could have also just been the greasy airport bagel I inflicted upon myself at 4am.
To give some perspective, the SXSW Interactive festival draws over 30,000 attendees from over 70 countries worldwide. As I would find out, Austin devotes about a square mile downtown to a carnival-esque mash of music, trade shows, tech, and sponsored events (read: open bars and product-branded swag at every turn). SXSW Interactive was 180 degrees removed from the mental picture I subconsciously harbored of this storied Texas festival, where I figured that 10 gallon-hatted cowboys rode their horses through the dusty streets, clicking their spurs in frustration upon having to settle for 4G instead of LTE.
Later that first night, we were joined by our KUSC Interactive teammate (and developer extraordinaire) Marc at our first big event of the trip: ff Massive. This kick-off party was hosted by marketing mastermind, music connoisseur, and all-around good guy Kwasi Asare. Kwasi’s relationship to the KUSCi team is best described as “a friend of a friend,” which I came to quickly realize could describe virtually everyone I would be introduced to during the week. That’s the thing — SXSW Interactive packs more networking and personal introductions into an hour than most events can manage in total.
But what is networking, exactly? The word sounds slimy and impersonal, conjuring images of forced conversation and sweaty business card swaps. That’s not what I experienced at SXSW Interactive. There was a tangible sense of gratitude among the attendees I met that first night, a feeling that we were all lucky to be able to gather together in this onetime auto body shop that was now converted into an ad hoc concert venue. Our badges dangled from our necks like albatrosses, displaying job titles and organizations that seemed like a distant memory amid the roaring music and neon green lasers emanating from the stage.
Our badges dangled from our necks like albatrosses, displaying job titles and organizations that seemed like a distant memory amid the roaring music and neon green lasers emanating from the stage.
Though I certainly gave and received my share of “elevator pitches” during my time in Austin, it was in these music-filled evenings spent at places like Empire Auto, Spotify House, The Parish, and others that I witnessed the soul of our innovation community reveal itself. Here we were, a gathering of some of the brightest minds and most prolific technology innovators in the world, awash in a digital sea of electronic and live music, laughing and getting to know each other while gripping Shiner Bock bottles and smartphones. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that the reason the development community spent the other 51 weeks of the year slaving away at their consoles, battling bugs and testing iterative design comps, is to create tools that connect with — and ultimately augment — the human experience itself.
Perhaps innovation can be thought of as a reaction to a human need, a perceived deficiency in our daily experience that can be bridged with just the right dose of creativity and jQuery. Just as the best artists draw upon their own formative experiences, and the best teachers have made demonstrable contributions to the field they teach, maybe the best development teams are those who can return again and again to what it’s like to be a regular person and tech consumer in the year 2014.
Perhaps no event got that particular sentiment right quite as perfectly as Spotify House’s first party of the week. We loaded up our paper plates with southern-style food that looked and tasted homemade, grabbed a frosty Lone Star, and set up shop at a ping pong table that was about 5 feet from the main stage where Chromeo was playing. The bass response and resulting WHOOSH of air from a stack of nearby JBL speakers added a hilarious unpredictability to the ping pong ball’s flight. The developers we met at this event were, almost across the board, rabid music fans looking to create a way to enhance the relationship between artists and listeners. As Chris, Marc, myself, and our friends temporarily crossed the rubicon from developers to listeners that night, I found my own mind racing with the kernels of new ideas for future apps and platforms.
As KUSC Interactive’s trip drew to a close, we found ourselves at the Hilton in downtown Austin for the SXSW Interactive Awards gala. We were photographed from every angle and promptly handed a quick snack that I can only describe as something like stir fry in an ice cream cone. As we waited for the ceremonies to begin, I looked down at my meat cone. It made me nervous. Once we were underway, the awards’ host Jessica Chobot practically raced through each category, aided by the 140 character limit on winners’ acceptance speeches. Most winning teams sent a single delegate up to the stage to accept the trophy, but we swore that if KUSC Interactive won, we’d drag our entire entourage up on stage.
We didn’t win.
For a few brief moments, my ultra-competitive side choked out any awareness of the amazing trip we’d had to that point. The new friends I’d made, the laughs we’d shared, the literally priceless advice I’d received from everyone willing to help me refine and formulate my own nascent ideas — it all vaporized, replaced by acrid tasting disappointment, as my fist clenched around the beautifully designed program outlining the evening’s awards.
It wasn’t until 30 minutes later, as I rode in a pedicab with a plastic exterior replica of Game of Thrones’s iron throne, on my way to
sneak into legitimately enter the iTunes Festival and Coldplay concert, that I felt better. I looked back in awe at the sheer number of places I had been during the week, the people I had met, and the fact that I shamelessly stood in line for an hour to take a picture with Grumpy Cat. I had seen a tall man in a werewolf mask and American flag pants play a fiddle at a near-virtuosic level. I had eaten my weight in street pizza and pulled pork sandwiches, chatted with Pompa and Mager from Spotify about obscure Swedish pop musicians, taken a guided tour from Lisa Fletcher of the legendary Arlyn Recording Studios, and picked the minds of some of the finest digital innovators in the entire world — all while getting to listen to live music nearly non-stop.
The rest of my frustration easily melted away and transformed into a desire to reach even higher peaks next year. I couldn’t be prouder of what our team has accomplished, and it was an amazing opportunity to learn from my friends and colleagues. I smiled to myself and fist-bumped Chris and Marc. So, I thought, this is what professional development feels like at SXSW.