And just like that, it was over. Rather than a ten day marathon of sights, sounds, and showcases, SXSW Online 2021 concluded in five. It was different and while I still long for the traditional SX experience, this year’s event was full of innovations that made it feel like home. In fact, some of these should stick around for years to come.
Keep It Online. Sorta.
On the first day, I saw two fascinating talks on the music industry and watched an amazing short film in the space of an hour. This never happens in a traditional SXSW setting. Since I cover music, my daily schedule is full of shows with little room for film and interactive events. Being able to jump around from track to track (or channel to channel) was fantastic.
The implementation was great too. Both the website and the TV app worked flawlessly with good video quality all around. In fact, I’d love to see a version of this tech for future festivals. While it’s not practical to have every session recorded, online-only content may be a nice way to flesh out the experience and provide a way for those who can’t travel a chance to experience the event.
Film Online = Must Have
As a former film critic, I love checking out at least one movie during SXSW. Doing so can be a beast. Carving two hours out of my music coverage can be a challenge. Not so during SXSW Online 2021. Last week, I was able to watch a wonderful documentary about the rise and fall of WeWork in three sittings (blame my six month old). And, if there was something I missed, it’ll all be available for the next couple of weeks.
This on-demand model is a win-win for everyone. Attendees get to watch movies at their leisure and filmmakers get more eyes on their work. Seeing a film online is nothing like in person, so I doubt it would dent the theater numbers. If a filmmaker wants their movie to be in-person only, they could even opt-out. Seeing movies on my own time was a game changer for me and I hope it carries over to 2022.
SXSW XR Was Neat. When It Worked.
SXSW XR is a great idea that landed a year too early. Navigating a virtual avatar (I was a hot dog) around a stylized downtown was novel for the first 10 minutes until glaring holes appeared. The biggest was the empty streets. The few people I encountered were wandering like me and with an attendee limit of 40 users per instance, there was zero interaction. The colorful environment was barren.
That’s not to say it was a waste. In one section of Red River, I stumbled across an in-progress avatar talk. Walking into virtual Mohawk with a showcase playing on-screen showed the potential of the experience. If there had been 40 virtual people in the space checking out the show, it would have been awesome. My experience was myself and two people having a very loud conversation on the show floor. Add to the issues a buggy early access Steam app, clunky, complicated set up process, and features that simply didn’t work (I was desperate to take a selfie as my hot dog avatar). SXSW XR ended up as a neat addition that, with a little more polish, could be really cool.
Note: I only used SXSW XR a couple of times during the festival, but I could have gotten low use servers. Others could’ve had a better, more immersive experience.
Seeing Music. Lots of It
My main bread and butter, SXSW Music, was a diminished success. As mentioned earlier, there’s nothing like the live experience. But thanks to the flexibility of the online format, I saw nearly as much music online as I would have in person. Changing the channel is light years easier than dashing venue to venue.
The performances were across the board great. Some artists even allowed themselves the freedom to make mistakes. For example, Mamaduke asked her DJ to restart one of her songs when she missed a line rather than demand a new, cleaner take. This combination of allowing for live energy in a recorded setting made the experience feel authentic. And for those outside ATX, the settings and videos were incredible. I would have loved to see these performances archived like the film screenings, but I suspect it’s not feasible. At least the day’s channel programming was re-streamed starting at 10:30 PM. Perfect for night owls like myself.
Music is Still Music, Art is Still Art, Collaboration is Still Collaboration
Despite the limitations, shortened schedule, and occasionally wonky technology, the spirit of SXSW was strong in this year’s virtual edition. The music slapped, the films were great, and the panels were inspiring. And best of all, connections were still being made. Panel chats were full of good questions and interactions, music showcases were full of virtual oohs and ahhs.
After all of the showcases, free booze, installations, and parties, the soul of SXSW is the in magic of discovery. And this year, just like every other, I found my fair share of new things to love and enjoy. Hopefully next year returns to the ten days of craziness I fell in love with back in 2016 and retains some of the cool innovations unveiled in 2021.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
Did you attend SXSW Online 2021? Tell us about your experience!