The ripple of devastation that echoed early last March as South by Southwest (SXSW) announced its 2020 cancellation was not just a hint at the year to come but a palatable loss for the innovators, creators, and tastemakers that rely on those two weeks in Austin to spark the rest of their year (or their careers!).
Rolling into 2021, the announcement that SXSW this year was turning into a week-long online event, was not surprising. The true surprise was that after a year of virtual events that felt more like a sad reminder of what used to be rather than a replacement of any substance, SXSW was able to capture something truly special. Leave it to a festival that prides itself on technology and innovation to figure out how to pull something together that capitalizes on the online forum, while still retaining much of its purpose and original essence.
After a week of panels, films, showcases, and more, let’s talk about the big Winners and Losers of SXSW Online 2021:
Winners: The SXSW Community, Wisconsin Cheese, SXSW Films
The SXSW community is a chatty one, built upon inspiring conversations and chance run-ins. The SXSW Online platform was constructed to keep this chat and ability to connect at its core, weaving a live discussion function into all the official panels and showcases, hosting an internal (and intuitive) messaging system for attendees and guests and utilizing chat platforms like Clubhouse and Mentorly to foster greater conversation and connection. It was easy to find familiar names or meet like-minded people to have a topical (or completely random) conversation. These chats were the pulse behind the entire week.
SXSW laid a solid groundwork, but it was up to the participants and vendors to make the week memorable. A few vendors did a particularly good job at capitalizing on the new format. MTN Dew Rise Energy sponsored daily at-home workouts, The Financial Gym offered 1:1 Zoom consults, and Swamp Motel created a thrilling online mystery team building event. But none sparked the magic of SXSW more than SXSWisconsin who held a live cheese tasting that included trivia, prizes, a chorus of kazoos, and Nick Offerman who interviewed a cheesemaker while everyone at home sampled cheeses that were shipped out the week before. Well done, Wisconsin!
One big advantage of the online platform is that you’re not racing against time (or Austin traffic) when making decisions about what to do. In 2021, if you miss a panel, you can watch it later. If there is a conflict, a click of a button takes you back and forth between events. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this model was the SXSW Film Festival. Sure, it’s not the immersive experience provided by the theater, but watching the films (and shorts, documentaries, and pilots) on demand at home gives them a much wider audience. This year, even those who came to SXSW 2021 for the tech or music were talking about wonderful films like the audience award winners Language Lessons and The Fallout.
Supernatural: a TV show that, although ended last year, became a meaningful topic of conversation between keynote speaker Stacey Abrams and N.K. Jemisin.
Your feet: The online format saved attendees from trekking miles across downtown Austin. As long as you did your MTN Dew Rise Energy workouts every day, you got plenty of exercise, right?
Pandemic-inspired technologies: The shadow of the past year was everywhere, in film plots, keynote speeches, and the subject matter of many panels and conversations. Nowhere was the influence of the pandemic more interesting than in its obvious influence in new technology trends. From the prevalence of at-home healthtech, communication platforms to combat zoom fatigue and devices designed to alleviate working from home burnout to the very inception of the SXSW Online platform, SXSW 2021 is a clear example of how adversity can lead to creativity and innovation.
Losers: SXSW Music, product vendors, BBQ Lovers
Not to get too negative, but it must be made very clear that for all that it provided, SXSW Online will never be as good as the in person gathering. This was particularly felt by the SXSW Music Festival. Music Showcases were all pre-recorded and offered only a handful of songs from each artist. And although SXSW stalwarts like The British Music Embassy and Sounds Australia brought together music fans from around the world to showcase some truly stellar talent (Ryan McMullan, Lilla Vargen, Hachiku, Didirri), nothing will ever replace live music, the intangible connected-ness it fosters and the feeling that hits when watching a new favorite band perform for the first time.
Another entity that struggled were the product vendors. It’s simply not as enticing to buy a product you aren’t able to look at, test, and talk about in person. The one aspect of the online platform that seemed most clunky was the exhibition hall booths. It became tiresome to click through all of the pages and the visuals were not overly inspiring. As cute as those boba postcards might be, if you have to squint to get a look at them, they probably aren’t ending up in your shopping cart.
Overall, the thing most everyone talked about missing the most this year was Austin itself. The city plays a huge role in the vibe of the week. Although an attempt was made to recreate downtown Austin and some of its venues in Virtual Reality, it’s impossible to truly emulate walking down a crowded 6th street, getting lost in the Convention Center Exhibit Hall, or making the annual stops at Waterloo Records and Magnolia Cafe. Bottom line: It really isn’t SXSW without some Austin BBQ.
Overall the SXSW Online 2021 general consensus is “this was well done, but we the people can’t wait to get back to Austin.” Perhaps SXSW will take a few aspects of the Online version forward to future years and perhaps other event organizers will take a few notes on how to better host virtual conventions and festivals (looking at you San Diego Comic Con). But at the end of the week, the one thing that must be said is Thank You, SXSW! We’ll see you next year!