This will be a strange one for me. For the last five years, I took four days off from my 9 to 5 and ran around downtown Austin listening to music. Day parties, Black Fret showcases, 2 AM listening sessions. All exhausting, all exhilarating, all inspiring. It’s the journalistic highlight of the year.
This year, I’ll be doing the same from the coziness of my computer. While checking out a showcase, I’ll be able to burp my six month old. Instead of ducking into my favorite sanctuaries for meals, I’ll hit the fridge. But rather than be bummed, I’m intrigued and excited. In service to the artists who made the festival what it is today, SXSW is delivering innovative ways for musicians to perform in what’s hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Here’s everything you need to know to join in on the fun.
Rather than three tracks, SXSW Online 2021 combined everything into one unified event. As a result, there’s one ticket to rule them all. As of this article, tickets for the full experience cost $325 per person, $139 if you’re just interested in SXSW EDU. One price gets you access to music, film, and a host of other content. Considering a Platinum badge can set you back over $1,000 in a regular year, this is a phenomenal bargain.
Once in, everything lives in SXSW Online, a one stop shop for the festival / conference experience. In past years, the SXSW app could be considered optional if you didn’t mind wandering around with the book. This year, it’s required. From virtual booths to music showcases, everything lives in the SXSW Online ecosystem. The app is available on all mobile platforms, computers, and select streaming devices. I will definitely be checking out some shows on my big Roku TV.
The Music of SXSW Online 2021
Normally, nearly 2,000 artists flood downtown Austin for the SXSW Music Festival. Due to the virtual nature of this year’s event, the list’s been pared down to a trim 280 bands and musicians. Although this may seem like a massive drop, the quality and diversity of the acts remain as fresh as ever.
Because lines are remnants of a simpler time, all SXSW Online 2021 showcases require registration. None of the music showcases have attendee limitations, but you’ll still need to sign up in advance. And everything lives in channels as opposed to tracks. Like the in-person festivals, Music showcases begin at 5:00 CST on two channels and at 10:00 AM on Saturday. While the majority of the music showcases will be live stream only, the day’s programming repeats at 10:00 PM CST for us night owls and select performances will be available on-demand starting March 21st.
Another interesting wrinkle is the scheduling. Rather than spacing out performances like a traditional show, everything is scheduled at one time per showcase. For example, Black Fret’s yearly showcase features five artists all playing in the same hour. Instead of each artist getting a 45-minute set, each will get two to three songs. While we’ll be missing out on full sets, it’ll be the online equivalent to what I do anyway—bounce around from show to show catching a few songs from each artist.
Taking advantage of the all-online format, showcases will take place from every imaginable place, venue, and setting. From Taoist temples to LA overpasses, SXSW Online 2021 artists embraced the socially distant showcases to create memorable performances. Mix with some of our hometown heroes playing in venues nobody’s seen in a year, and you have a vibe that’s celebratory instead of cynical.
SXSW Online XR
Challenges force innovation and no other aspect of this year’s event expresses that idea than SXSW Online XR. Miss walking down Congress or roaming Red River? A talented team of artists and programmers created a fanciful virtual recreation of Austin’s most famous venues and neighborhoods. With SXSW Online XR, attendees will be able to walk through venues like the Paramount Theatre, Mohawk, and Empire Control Room to check out showcases.
Content includes VR 360 sponsor installations, films designed specifically for the medium, and live music. The idea of taking a virtual stroll to Mohawk to catch a band before instantly warping to Empire is literally my SXSW dream come true. Who needs motorized scooters when you have teleportation!
Even the parties will take place on the platform. Really looking forward to exploring this virtual spaced not only for music, but for the immense amount of content residing in this virtual playground. All without leaving the comfy confines of my house.
Embracing Limitations to Create Something Inspiring
And yes, I know. Nothing will replace live music. The direct connection music creates between audience and artist is unique, special, and irreplaceable by any medium. Music is the purest art form in existence and seeing it performed in person can’t be duplicated.
In the face of this truth, SXSW could have looked at the COVID case count, shrugged their collective shoulders, and said, “Oh well. Maybe next year.” But, like everyone in this great city, they shook off the dust and went about creating something memorable. This year’s slate of showcase artists captures the diversity SXSW is known for and in the end, that’s all that matters. Add to the mix some truly innovative ways to enjoy the art and you have a one-of-a-kind festival experience that’s truly too exciting to miss. Especially when you can do it in your pajamas and slippers.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
Gearing up for SXSW Online 2021? Who are you looking forward to checking out?