Is SXSW no longer what it’s hyped up to be?

Tiff Seeto, junior strategist at Hopeful Monsters, argues that the official conference programming at SXSW kind of sucks. While this may be a hot take, after speaking to a few people, she realised many others think the same.

Now, let me just preface by saying that I’m not here to discredit the impact of SXSW. It’s been at the forefront of the creative industry for three decades, and for most part, it deserves to be. It’s given a platform to underrepresented communities and helped bolster startups, foster connections around the globe, and enable discovery for the curious. 

However, just days after settling back into our humble Chippendale office and reflecting on my time in Austin (while also making comparison to my experience at SXSW Sydney last year), I’m here to say that maybe, SXSW is no longer what it’s hyped up to be.

SXSW’s currency has always been hype. Since its inception, people have flocked to Austin to come face-to-face with the biggest names in music, then film, and then tech. It was all about being the first to know about the next big innovation or startup and getting those bragging rights to say you were one of the 3,000 people who saw Kanye West and Jay-Z perform a semi-private show for Samsung.

But this year, I sensed a weird energy in the air. I thought to myself, “Could this mainly be due to the boycott by many of SXSW’s scheduled musicians which has jeopardised the festival’s credibility, or maybe people are no longer buying the hype?”

What originally began as a music showcase for new and emerging talent soon grew into an inaugural event that now celebrates all things creativity and innovation. At the peak of personal computing in the early 90’s, it was only a matter of time before digital media became a permanent part of the festival and eventually evolve into what is the core of today’s SXSW: tech & innovation. 

What SXSW is for tech is what Flavor Flav was for Public Enemy – the hype man. Sure, tech is still cool, but the wheels of ‘tech innovation’ are racing faster than a Porsche on the Nűrburgring. It’s quite easy to feel the tech burnout because we’re seeing it everywhere, and what the laidback weirdness Austin was famous for is now becoming overshadowed as a tech megapolis for Silicon Valley exiles.

Yes, this year’s hot topic was AI and boy, it was spoken about in all conference tracks. From music to journalism to healthcare, AI was on the lips of almost every panellist, in every industry. Looking back at the standout themes in past years like NFT’s, blockchains, cryptocurrency, Web3, the metaverse… What was once peak hype in tech has now fallen off the hype cycle into mediocrity.

Big tech companies have slowly taken over the city to a point that it’s killing SXSW for attendees. It’s something people have picked up on and no longer buy into because too much of a good thing is, at most times, a bad thing. 

People are becoming less and less excited about tech while SXSW is still championing it. Don’t just take my word for it. We literally saw SXSW audiences loudly boo the festival’s pro-AI presentation.

People come to SXSW to learn about new things, and even they are gagging on this stuff. The days we used to celebrate the equal partnership of creativity and tech are no more. Tech seeps into all corners of the festival to a point that it’s almost impossible to escape. 

Now, I know I said at the start SXSW kind of sucks but there was one thing I took away that made the experience pretty invaluable. The lack of substance and “exclusives” coming from the majority of the scheduled talks on the conference program is made up in the scale of serendipity of new connections. SXSW only matters because of the scale of people that attend and how they make the most of connecting with like minded people. From lining up for a session to standing in a crowd at a gig to even just eating a taco by myself at a bar, conversations at SXSW happen in a way that is incredibly authentic and blissfully unforced. The best experiences from my time in Austin came from talking to someone I wouldn’t have normally interacted with or seeing a talk or act I wouldn’t normally have sought out back at home.

So, with SXSW Sydney returning for 2024, what would be my advice for those attending? 

Having the best time at SXSW, like anything else, comes down to what you make of it. Don’t line up for a keynote, film or act just because it’s been hyped up as the headliner. Be open to doing things you wouldn’t typically do. Speak to people you wouldn’t normally speak to. The best parts that come out of SXSW aren’t on the scheduled program. Those bits only facilitate the unexpected conversations and experiences the people who go to SXSW bring with them.

Tiff Seeto is a junior strategist at Hopeful Monsters.


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