Last Friday night, to mark the first day of SXSW Interactive, the New York Times Magazine held a high-profile party at the Mohawk, the storied Austin music venue. Ads promoting the event were plastered all over downtown Austin. It’s a town the magazine’s new editor, Jake Silverstein, knows very well: he was previously editor of Texas Monthly, which is based here.
So whose food did Silverstein, who is famous in part for hiring the nation’s first-ever full-time barbecue editor, decide to order up for his huge event? The answer: Shake Shack, the New York company which recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange and which is valued by the markets at more than half a billion dollars. Shake Shack doesn’t even have an Austin location (the announced late-2014 opening never happened), which in a sense makes it the perfect catering choice for a festival with shrinking local roots, where everybody wants to be the fast-growing national #brand of tomorrow.
The New York Times Magazine event was perfectly emblematic of SXSW in another respect, too: while anybody could simply walk in through the main entrance (there was no admission fee), there was a line around the block to get in to the VIP entrance around the corner.
In its earlier days, SXSW had much of Austin’s natural welcoming, democratic nature. Its roots are in the city’s vibrant year-round music scene, and to this day the interactive part of the festival is built on a core program of encouragement, helpfulness, and inclusivity.
The problem is that, at this point, the core program is pretty much an afterthought. I met one woman who left after three days in town without even picking up her $900 badge or once setting foot in the convention center. For every person like her, there are half a dozen festival-goers who never even bother to register in the first place. SXSW is now dominated by large companies with six-figure (or larger) marketing budgets, with delegations who spend their time going to each others’ parties and catching up on industry gossip. The real reason why people wanted to go to the New York Times Magazine party had nothing to do with the musicians on stage; rather, it was all about the networking, which was only available with a precious yellow wristband.
Alongside what you might call the professionalization of SXSW Interactive—the move away from scrappy start-ups and towards domination by the likes of Yahoo, McDonald’s, and Capital One—is the similar professionalization of Austin itself. I haven’t been to SXSW since 2012, which in hindsight was probably an inflection point; the city has now grown to be able to encompass the Spring Break influx much more easily than it did in the past. There are many more hotels in Austin these days, including the enormous, shiny new JW Marriott; you can get decent cellular reception pretty much anywhere, at any time; and the sharing-economy networks built by Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb have relieved a huge amount of the pressure under which Austin’s small-town infrastructure used to habitually buckle.
Today’s Austin is a fast-growing and expensive finance and technology hub; I’m writing this while drinking a (delicious!) $4.39 pourover at a coffee shop on the ground floor of a glass-and-steel bank building. As Joe Yonan says, Austinites were bemoaning the yuppification of their town for decades before the “Keep Austin Weird” slogan was invented in 2000—but at this point the war is well and truly lost: Austin is now about as quirky and countercultural as Haight-Ashbury.
The result is that SXSW is no longer a tech conference. Or rather, it is still a tech conference, but in the same way that every company (even McDonald’s!) is a tech company. Look at the way just one word, "hacker," has become meaningless: there were sessions this year on “Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief” (about creative directors); on “Hacker Humanitarians”; on “Turning Customers into Hackers”; on “Civic Hackers and Advocates”; and an “Interview with Hacker Josh Klein”, a man who gets to call himself a hacker just because he’s decided that it sounds cool.
If the old SXSW was full of impecunious start-up teams crashing four-to-a-room in student housing, the new SXSW is a pop-up NBC-sponsored sports bar on the lawn of the Four Seasons, where rooms have never been so expensive nor so painlessly paid for. SXSW is part of the big time, now, and has something for everybody: but anything with such a broad reach tends to lose its definition. It’s already lost its core group of regulars. There are precious few attendees who have been coming since the early days, and I’ve never met more people who are here for the first time.
SXSW, then, is still a great place to be able to catch up with a broad group of professionals, especially if they’re in marketing or the intersection of technology and finance. But if you’re looking for the excitement of lo-fi creativity, I’d recommend that you phone up your airline and get yourself rebooked to Detroit.