Here’s how I know that SXSW is back to its usual self: “I had to pass up on the race-track event because I accepted an invitation to visit a nuclear reactor instead” is a true statement about my scheduling for this gathering in Austin. Even if it is also a profoundly weird one.
(Yes, there is a small research reactor on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, and I have my journalistic reasons to stop by.)
Years ago, South by Southwest developed a second life as Marketing Spring Break–a time when social media managers, PR reps, ad execs, and brand ambassadors felt at liberty to set corporate credit cards on fire to try to get the interest of journalists and, more important, influencers with free tacos, free drinks, free BBQ, and more free drinks.
And then the pandemic rudely slammed the door shut on that judgment-free zone in 2020–in the process punching a hole in the pocketbooks of service-industry professionals and many other Austinites who counted on March as a bonus-income month.
SXSW resumed in person last year, but it wasn’t clear that its marketing-driven gift economy would resume. Now that does seem certain, to judge from the clogged state of my inbox as a stream of messages come with requests that I stop by this panel or that reception or this “activation” (in the SXSW context, that means renting out a bar or restaurant and turning it into a three-dimensional ad for the company in question). I can only imagine the ROI calculations that went into some of these events.
To be clear: I’m not complaining! Being this sought-out is nice, even if some of these PR types may be putting in this effort because they still think I write for USA Today. And even if all this attention–see also, CES–can make one wonder why the compensation of journalists doesn’t reflect the apparent value of our time and attention as indicated at events like this.
Because despite all the marketing hype, SXSW continues to gather smart people to talk about interesting problems in a city that I enjoy coming back to, and which has excellent food even if you must pay for it with your own credit card. See you soon, Austin!
Updated 3/10/2023 to make the title compliant with season definitions.