Rice students mentioned that discovering new music was one of the primary perks of SXSW, and I’m inclined to agree with them. Eager to get their voices heard, newer artists put on energetic shows, laugh with their audiences and indulge in awkwardly endearing moments with each other. Often coupled with raw talent, these bands keep SXSW’s music scene fresh and the festival worth attending. The best part? Most of these showcases are free or easily heard from outside of the venue, meaning your next favorite indie band is just one step away on 6th Street.
Satire and style of ‘Sorry to Bother You’
“Sorry to Bother You” is a sci-fi fantasy comedy releasing in July. The film features a stacked cast of break-out talent like Tessa Thompson, Lakeith Stanfield and Steven Yeun. Although it doesn’t take itself too seriously, “Sorry to Bother You” manages to get across deeper implications about what it means to be black in the corporate world. Read the full review here.
Mark Hamill’s surprise
Mark Hamill played an at times stubborn and arrogant Luke Skywalker, but his real personality could not be further from that. Brought onto stage during a keynote discussion with “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson, Hamill filled the room with his humble energy.
I really enjoyed Hamill’s candidness about his own ability and the franchise itself. It stood in refreshing contrast to other keynote speakers, such as Susan Wojcicki – Wojcicki claimed YouTube would use Wikipedia to fight fake news, an effort that Wikipedia had no knowledge about.
Like Johnson, Hamill also shared several touching moments that he had with the late Carrie Fisher. He mentioned her sense of humor and their discussions about returning to act for the Star Wars franchise. Watch the full interview with Robinson, Johnson and Hamill here.
Wisconsin Cheese Lounge
It must have been destiny when I walked by a sign heralding the Wisconsin Cheese Lounge. After waiting in line for a few minutes, I was ushered into a room that contained an entire wooden barn – and in that barn lay over 1,000 pounds of cheese. Said cheese was paired with wine, crackers and other side dishes to complement the dairy tastes. Needless to say, I did not need to eat lunch that day. My favorite one? Ghost-pepper infused cheese.
The Wisconsin Cheese incident is just one of many that made SXSW a great experience. Beyond the million planned events, I encountered multiple moments that felt wonderfully spontaneous — like the time when I casually chatted with the guy next to me in line, only to later find him on Twitter as an acclaimed Turkish film critic with over 300,000 followers. Or when I befriended a stranger so we could share a slice of over-priced pizza. Or just walking down 6th Street, listening to music from all the bars blending together. SXSW does the most, but it also massively increases the probability that you might be involved in a perfect coincidence.
The Austin community has recently suffered a series of package bomb deaths, with one occurring during the festival. These bombs, sent through the mail, appeared to target minorities. Although Austin Police said the package bombs seemed to have no connection to SXSW, a highly anticipated show by the Roots was canceled due to a bomb threat. Equally disturbing was the collective apathy of almost every attendee at SXSW toward the deaths, especially as a focus of the festival was diversity and minorities in industry.
SXSW’s lack of an overall vision
The ambition is clear at SXSW – the festival aims to provide an interesting space to almost every human on Earth. While I can respect the concept, it makes attending the festival pretty difficult if you have more than one interest in the many represented at SXSW. Conflicting times and locations force festival-goers to choose between their interests, and it has become harder and harder to see why certain events are even included in SXSW. In short, if you asked me to give a thesis sentence on what SXSW was, I would seriously struggle to make one without using at least ten commas. Regardless, with the 2018 finish of SXSW’s 12-floor HQ, I doubt that they’re stopping the expansions any time soon.
Every Rice student I spoke to did not purchase a badge or wristband, and it’s pretty clear why. The most coveted badge, Platinum, costs a neat $1,600 and does not guarantee access to any popular event – in fact, events like the “Ready Player One” premiere required waiting hours and hours for the chance to get in. Volunteering for a free Platinum badge is an option – if you have 64 hours to spare. Without a badge, viewing any popular event becomes impossible. If SXSW wants to attract younger people and truly increase diversity of attendees, it will have to provide more affordable ways to attend parts of the festival.
I (kind of) understand why blockchain and cryptocurrency is important to the future of technology and data. But when every other panel and flier featured the buzzword, I had to start thinking about just how important it could really be. For every speaker that warned about the gold-rush mentality toward blockchain, there was a “blockchain bro” holding a taco and blowing hot air about his latest innovation that somehow brings blockchain, weed and VR into one nice package with a bow on top.
(Lack of an) Art program
Tying into SXSW’s problem of being stretched just a little too thin, the art on display at SXSW was lacking. While specialized rooms like Virtual Cinema brought in hordes of people and long lines, the art rooms saw a meandering trickle of visitors. Exhibitions of technology-based art are often successful, as seen at Day for Night or at modern art museums, but SXSW’s art lacked that interesting spark. This problem was exacerbated by the lack of context for the pieces and just how few of them there were: five total installations, scattered amongst the various SXSW-affiliated hotels.
With South by Southwest fell on spring break this year, some Rice students headed up to Austin, Texas to see free music showcases and films. As badges and wristbands can be pricey, students stand to benefit from the free entertainment of local bands and indie films at smaller bars and venues.
“I knew nothing [about SXSW]. [I] decided on an impulse to go, Googled it once and left with a group of people six hours later,” Lovett College senior Jahnavi Jagannath said. Jagannath went to Tank and the Bangas’ free show and said it was a “religious experience.”
Will Rice College sophomore Clara Tian put a bit more planning into her one-day SXSW adventure with Will Rice junior Priyanka Jain.
“We did a lot of research on the schedule – especially free events – this year, so we were decently educated [on] what we could do,” Tian said. Tian and Jain were able to get free tickets to the screening of 1985, a film about a closeted man who returns to his conservative family upon discovering that he has AIDS.
“We got to see some really amazing movies that most people pay $800-$1000 to see [and] pretty much only paid for the Megabus to get there, which was more than worth it,” Jain said.
Like Jagannath, Duncan College freshman Emmett Bertram explored the free music at SXSW.
“[My friends and I] Ubered around from an Airbnb to a lot of small free shows and saw mostly indie bands. We saw Gus Dapperton, Post Animal, Mt. Joy, White Mystery and some others,” Bertram said. “It was really fun [and I] heard a lot of music that I never had listened to before and enjoyed time with friends.”
Being from Austin, Duncan sophomore Emma Foster has grown accustomed to SXSW.
“I’m from Austin [and] enjoy SXSW because I’ve discovered a lot of emerging artists there, but traffic gets ridiculous,” Foster said. Foster and Duncan sophomore Paul Novak went to a few free outdoor shows at Waterloo Records and Jo’s on South Congress.
Foster pointed out that SXSW has evolved far past its music roots.
“I sort of grew up around SXSW and it has transformed from a less-concentrated version of Austin City Limits into a place where lots of industries share their new talent and technology,” Foster said. “It’s cool, but often it’s been a catalyst for gentrification as tech companies set up shop in Austin.”