As SXSW 2021 comes to an end we take a look back at this year’s event, highlights from the festival, and how it coped with being in a completely online environment.
With the world having been in the grasp of the covid pandemic for over a year, creative people and fans of the arts have been starved of live events and connecting to other people who share similar interests for far too long. With doors shut at live venues and gigs cancelled or rearranged with the hope of taking place at a later date, SXSW was one of the first live events to make the brave step of announcing that its 2021 festival would be completely online.
South By South West is one of the world’s biggest showcases of new music and films, as well as a place for industries and individuals to host talks on a variety of interesting subjects that could affect the future of us all. It’s a place for creativity to live and breathe and a haven for passionate industries to meet like-minded people. We recently looked back at the history of SXSW in a previous article so won’t want to go into too much detail here, but it’s a true utopia for people willing to learn, listen, watch, and connect.
SXSW is renowned for its music showcases, conference sessions, and showing off up-and-coming films, all of which are, normally, very social events that rely on interaction and being there in person. Transferring these vital elements of the festival into a completely online event was going to be a mammoth task. A task that, after attending the event, was pulled off in a fantastic way.
With nothing like this having been done on such a large scale in such a short space of time, the organisers performed miracles to create an online platform that catered for everything in the best way it could. Below, we’ll go through an overview of the event, how being online empowered certain areas, as well as a look back at some of the fantastic content that was available. Being a music publication, we had our music heads on for the entire event and will focus our review on performances, conferences, and films based around music and the music industry.
The Online Experience
To begin with, let’s talk about the actual website and user experience. With so much happening at SXSW the online platform was going to need to be easy to navigate and intuitive to make sure you didn’t miss anything. You could log in through the website or a phone app which both operated in similar ways. Once logged in, you’re hit with a lot of options which can be overwhelming at first, but you quickly grow accustomed to the layout.
The main events taking place over the festival are split down via the online platform by Conference Sessions, the Music Showcases, the Film Festival, and the Comedy Festival. You can click any of these to look through the entire lineup over the five days of the event or you can have a look at the schedule in its entirety.
One of the great functions of the platform was the ability to build and save your own schedule by clicking which events you’re interested in and adding to your own personal schedule. Your schedule can then be accessed at any time. You also get reminded when an event is taking place beforehand so you never miss anything.
The events included a mix of live showcases and sessions, pre-recorded pieces, and interactive get-togethers for everyone to join in with, including zoom conferences and Clubhouse talks. To make it seem more ‘live’, the events that were pre-recorded were still shown at specific times which, on occasion, could be difficult for more international attendees with difficult time differences, but many of the recordings were also ‘on-demand’ or replayed at different times throughout the event. Many events will also stay online and accessible for a month or so after the festival finishes which is a nice touch. In many ways its more interactive than actually bring there in-person…not that we would ever give up attending the live event (fingers crossed for next year)
Building your own schedule was fun and I’m guessing, like many, we ended up with a massive amount of events to attend. There was so much to watch and participate in and the catchup functions made this all possible, even if some things on your list were scheduled for the same time. From the vast array of musical showcases around the world to conference talks on an array of interesting topics and film premiers, it was a true smorgasbord of culture to enjoy.
Networking and Much More
Another big part of SXSW which makes it so appealing to many is the chance to meet new people, share experiences, and network with those in your industry or with similar interests. You can do all of this at this year’s online version, with perhaps the event even more tailored to networking opportunities.
You can’t obviously bump into people physically and start a conversation over a beer at a gig – it’s different. Not only do the online capabilities make it easier to connect with people, but it also makes it easier to reconnect and keep in contact with them. Each event, whether it be a music showcase, a pre-recorded conference or a live talk, is accompanied by a chat function where watchers can all converse, swap details, and have a bit of fun whilst the event is taking place.
It’s a great tool and one that really brings people closer together. Some of the artists and hosts even get involved. Whilst watching a pre-recorded performance of Scottish rockers Dead Pony, lead singer Anna Shields was contributing to the chat as she performed. It was a unique interaction and gave a really fun connection to the band as you watched them play.
Then there are the conferences and meetups that are more based around interaction. How did this translate to an online environment? Very Well. The world has become very well-versed at attending online events over the last year via zoom chats, live streams and the new arrivals of live voice conferencing such as Clubhouse. These were all utilised during SXSW in interesting and inventive ways.
For those that were so inclined and had the hardware, virtual reality experiences were also available – SXSW always likes to push the boundaries after all. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to experience this but I heard from others it was an eye-opening and fun way to connect, and again, something that will only grow in popularity with time.
Instant Messaging and Connecting
What makes all of this even easier is the fact that the online platform had a section called ‘Connect with attendees’. This allowed you to connect and send messages to anyone taking part in the festival – whether it be conference speakers, musicians, or other attendees. This enabled you to follow up with someone you may have previously been chatting when watching a performance, ask follow-up questions to speakers at a conference or, just link up with people. It truly was the definition of an online community. Constantly talking and connecting with others may not be for everyone, however, and it’s perfectly fine to just sit back and enjoy the myriad of talks, music, and movies if you wish.
Stand Out Events and Showcases at SXSW 2021
Music, Movies, Conferences. The Big Three of SXSW and why most people attend. Below we give an insight into some of our favourite music showcases, music-based conferences and music-based films we caught over the five days.
Music Showcase Highlights
Being a music website, this was our bread and butter. This is why we love this event. This is what SXSW was first famed for and the place that any up-and-coming artist or band wants to showcase their talents. Yes, it was different this year with no crowds in sight at the online, socially distanced gigs, and I’m not going to lie, I missed seeing these amazing artists in person.
BUT, the musicians still managed to give it their all via digital screens. Usually showing off three or four tracks, artists are split into showcases from around the world and given the chance to let their talent do the talking.
Below are four strong picks from, frankly, a ridiculous amount of fantastic up-and-coming artists. So much so, we actually have a whole other article focussing on the music of SXSW 2021 that goes into much more detail and features more showcases.
Panamanian singer Sofia Valdés has already been featured on Vinyl Chapters in the past (that’s right, we’re always at the forefront of new artists!) and it’s easy to see why with her SXSW performance. Her showcase gave off a cinematic, cultured feel against hints of Jazz and lofi pop. She’s got a big future ahead of her.
Aussie solo artist Alexander Biggs has contemporary folk down to a tee. Set in a park with birds chirping along in the background, Alexander released his deep lyrics, soulful vocals, and beautiful melodies to the whole of SXSW. Australia really does have some great talent coming through in the music industry at the moment and Alex is one of them.
London’s very own Connie Constance showed off her quivering vocals and sultry sound before sliding into her faster-paced, pop-laden sound during a unique showcase. Her confidence shines through even with an absent crowd, but she’s someone who will be making waves at packed-out gigs in the future.
Hard garage rock with a hint of 90s Nostalgia? Look no further than Scotland’s Dead Pony. Fronted by Anna Shields, she owns the stage as the band walks us through big riffs, heavy sounds, and blistering highland energy that’s impossible to get bored of. They took their SXSW showcase by the scruff of the neck and definitely found some new fans.
The film showcases are a major part of SXSW and have been for many years now. Not part of the festival at its humble beginnings, they have come to be integral, especially those movies based around music.
Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil
This year, the headlining film was Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil – exploring the singer’s near-fatal overdose in 2018 and her awakening in the aftermath. Directed by Michael D. Ratner, it’s a powerful piece that provides real insights into the singer’s life, the music industry, expectation, and mental health.
Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free
Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free from director Mary Wharton was another powerful piece that captured the period between 1993-1995 when he created his most emotionally raw album, Wildflowers. Featuring interviews with Rick Rubin and original Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, it provided a lovely backdrop of the artist during this period and the creativity and freedom that helped the music flow.
Alone Together also deserves a mention. Used as a closing-night piece, Alone Together follows singer/songwriter Charli XCX as she records her album, How I’m Feeling Now, during lockdown. It’s an intimate and personal account recorded over five weeks and shows off all the creation and connections that quarantine can evoke for people around the globe at this difficult time.
The only drawback to the Film showcases is that many of them were geo-locked to the US, meaning that anyone outside of the US was unable to watch a large portion of the films on show. It’s to do with rights and global access issues which unfortunately wasn’t able to be rectfied, so this was one of the only disappointments of the event for the international crowd.
There was so much to choose from when it came to the conferences of SXSW 2021, and because they could all be accessed online, it was really hard to organise a schedule where you got to see everything you wanted. That’s what made the ‘catch up’ ability for some of the talks so special. There were famous faces in conversation about various topics (Matthew McConaughey talking about US soccer springs to mind), to zoom chats with a participating audience. This year’s conference talks were a mixed bunch of learning, networking, and looking towards the future. Below are some of our favourites, once again leaning towards the music side of things.
Willie Nelson – Keynote Speaker
Keynote speakers are a main part of SXSW, and this year’s number one on many people’s list was the legend that is Willie Nelson. Keynote speeches would usually draw in the biggest crowds, but this time it felt more intimate as a pre-recorded zoom type call between Willie and Austin City Limits Radio’s, Andy Langer.
It was more of an interview type back and forth, Willie talking through highlights of his career, sharing jokes, bringing up his cannabis brands, and in seemingly high spirits. He’s just one of those musicians that’s a delight to listen to, even if he is providing short answers. To the commendation of Langer’s interview technique, he knew the answers would be short and sweet so had an ample amount of questions to pose to the red-headed stranger over the 40-minute running time. It created a sincere and enjoyable example of what SXSW is all about. It was just nice to be in the company of a man who has loved life and was willing to share his happiness.
The Way Forward for Artists
A really interesting talk between Tim Westergren who is the CEO of Sessions – an online live streaming platform aimed at building revenue for artists – and Marc Geiger, founder of Loolapolooza who has recently been investing in small venues to build an indie-touring network. The talk was based around the sleuth of new and existing digital tools that are helping artists monetize in ways they haven’t been able to before and how this is going to affect the music industry and consumers. It was an interesting chat and one that could see the future of music more about ‘monetising communication’, especially between fans and artists.
Why The Music Biz Is Buzzing About The Metaverse
We all know by now that music and online technology are forming closer alliances with many avenues being explored for the future. Why The Music Biz is Buzzing About The Metaverse took a host of speakers, including the head of music at online game Roblox, to discuss what this future holds. The potential for games is huge for the music industry at the moment; let’s take Roblox for example – recently Lil Nas gave a performance from within the game to over 30 million fans. Wow. Video Game Fortnight has also done the same with Travis Scott and has more events planned. The panel looked into the future and gave us an idea of how virtual worlds and music can continue to grow together.
Music Tech Meetup
This one was really interesting. A few meetups spread over the five days of SXSW, it was a chance for like-minded music-tech people, or even just people interested in the future of music-tech, to get together and talk. Hosted by company Music Tectonics but the majority of the conversation being between attendees, it was a chance to exchange ideas, engage, and network. From Zoom meetings to Clubhouse chats to even meeting up in an online world as an avatar, you could just listen in to the amazing ideas and conversations or join in and put forward your views. A fantastic event.
SXSW 2021 Conclusion
SXSW 2021 was a feast for the senses, the imagination, and a brief glimpse of what we can expect for the future of the music industry. Being forced to be solely online for 2021 could actually benefit SXSW going forward. It has been such a success that the organisers MUST make sure that elements of the digital platform are integrated into the essence of the festival for the future. It will help keep delivering everything the festival has to offer to a global audience and those that are unable to make it to Austin, Texas. Yes, being at the real-life event was missed, but the spirit and inventiveness of SXSW was still there and shining bright.
SXSW 2021 was a complete success which is down to the great efforts of the event organisers, the willingness of the attendees to interact and enjoy all it had to offer, and the speakers, artists, and hosts providing the energy, insights, and performances to keep us all entertained. The integration of technology into live experiences is where all large events should be looking to going forwards and SXSW has just set the standard.