Every year, thousands of bands, bloggers, filmmakers, social media gurus and entrepreneurs come to the South By Southwest Music, Film and Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. When I joined the MCDM program in 2008 and heard about SXSW, I started to work on plans to be actively involved. Sooner than expected I had the opportunity to participate on one of the music panels—and got to spend a week soaking in the latest in digital media, while enjoying entertainment and Southern hospitality. Attending SXSW was well worth the lessons, networking contacts and, sometimes, the free food.
Pitching a panel
Last November, at the Showbox in downtown Seattle, I met with the SXSW music committee, which was accepting submissions from bands, record labels, and anyone else who wanted to pitch an idea. For the past two years, I have been filming a documentary on legendary blues singer Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter and using the MCDM program as a testing ground for the documentary’s online marketing and digital distribution strategies. I successfully pitched an MCDM-inspired panel based on the evolution of Lead Belly’s music from analog recordings to digital formats. Staying true to the digital storytelling code of honor, my presentation, “Lead Belly to Ludacris: From Analog to Digital,” included a video mash up I produced especially for the panel. The video mixed a rare performance of Lead Belly with hip-hop artist Ludacris covering a popular folk song. (You can read a review of my panel in the Austin Chronicle.)
Best of SXSW
In addition to presenting, I learned about a few innovative technologies and saw some great films at SXSW. Here are some of the highlights:
Location-based services like Foursquare, Loopt and Gowalla were competing for new users at SXSW as everyone tried to locate their friends or free food parties in the frenzy of downtown Austin’s Sixth Street. With these and other applications, masses of people moved to different venues based solely on cell phone alerts.
SXSW used Quick Response (QR) barcodes on registration badges, providing smartphone users a fast and easy way to exchange contact information rather than using traditional business cards. (This Fast Company article that gives a good explanation of how it worked for attendees.) QR codes haven’t yet reached their full potential among business owners, but we can expect to see more usage in the near future. On a visit to Washington, D.C., after the conference, I noticed a salad and yogurt shop had placed a QR code on its front door. Eager to see a real example of how mobile scanning applications can work for a small business, I tried it. My phone was directed to a Web site that rewarded me a free yogurt for my next salad purchase.
Another big talk of the town was start up company Stickybits. With Stickybits you can attach a barcode to a flyer or other print product. When someone uses a mobile phone to take a photo of the bar code, the phone displays photos of the items being sold. Or, for example, you could use this technology to attach a video to a birthday card. This is a brilliant idea and we will see more and more people using bar codes and mobile phones to create and share instant digital content.
Clay Shirky spoke candidly about the evolution of technology and how it impacts society. He mentioned that often times technology evolves because the actual hardware itself becomes useless once we retrieve the information it stores. For example the Compact Disc (CD) is only useful until we have uploaded the music or photos it contains. The CD itself can be discarded, traded or shared with others because we no long need the physical CD anymore. He compared this example to cable companies who focus mainly on consumption rather than communication. The CD-ROM era in the 1990’s was a one-way closed medium unlike today’s open-source amateur produced content on the web that creates a often chaotic two way forum. I even got a chance to speak to him for a lengthy period and reminded him that a MCDM graduate Keiichi Iwashita recently translated his book “Here Comes Everybody” into Japanese.
The SXSW film festival has been building a great reputation. Skipping a few panels, I packed into a crowded theater to watch “Beijing Taxi,” directed by Miao Wang which documents the city’s bumpy ride to modernization in advance of the Beijing Olympics. I also watched “The People vs. George Lucas,” an in-depth examination of fans obsessed with Lucas’s science fiction universe and how it defined an entire generation. The film panels were loaded with informative topics, from “Can online video charge?” to “Writing a successful screenplay.”
Overall, SXSW exceeded my expectations; it is really the frontier of what is new and what is next in digital media. A big thanks and shout to my MCDM cohort/peers who contributed insights and contacts to help me have a great SXSW experience. Keeping my eyes on the main goal, I am actively following up on conversations and leads to further develop a marketing and distribution strategy for my documentary.
Alvin Singh is a digital media consultant and disc jockey who lives in Seattle and enjoys tennis. He is currently producing a full length documentary on the life and music of blues singer “Lead Belly.” Follow me @Bookido