SXSW: Where Tech Mingles with Music

At this year's Interactive Conference, exhibitors from Facebook to Animoto will vie for the kind of buzz Twitter earned last year

For 21 years, the annual South by Southwest festival has catapulted relatively unknown indie bands from small stages in Austin, Tex., into the national spotlight. Franz Ferdinand, for example, created a stir with its performance at SXSW in 2004. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no newcomer to the limelight, but he hopes to build similar buzz at SXSW for his social network's little-recognized music and film efforts.

Zuckerberg will give a keynote address at this year's conference, which kicks off Mar. 7 and continues until the roadies break down the final music set 10 days later. On his agenda: features that let musicians and filmmakers create pages and promote their wares.

Zuckerberg's planned appearance reflects the growing prominence of SXSW for the technology industry. In years past, bands including Franz Ferdinand and Artic Monkeys were the big names to emerge from Austin. Nowadays musicians must share the spotlight with Web startups like Twitter, the microblogging site that was all the rage in 2007, and Meebo, an instant-messaging service. "[Twitter] hit the tipping point at Interactive last year," says Hugh Forrest, event director at SXSW's Interactive Conference, which focuses on the Web and digital media.

Increasingly Interactive

As one of the longest-running conferences for independent artists, SXSW embodies the do-it-yourself ethos of the Web. The Interactive part of the festival has blossomed as new social Web technologies amplify the Internet's role in building communities, distributing content, and generating word-of-mouth buzz. "In the late '90s, [SXSW] was all about independent DIY can-do spirit and fostering a community of like-minded people," says Eric Hellweg, editorial managing director of Harvard Business Publishing, who has attended the conference for 10 years. "Finally the Web at large has caught up to it.… It is the conference to attend right now."

This year's Interactive Conference promises to be the biggest yet. Last year, roughly 6,500 badges were doled out to attendees, including conference staff. This year the number will significantly exceed last year's total, says Forrest. Similarly, five years ago there were 70 to 80 panels, with a couple focused on business. This year, there are close to 200 panels, with 18 on business alone.

The growth in Interactive panels has been driven by the festival's embrace of community input. Last year, for the first time, the Interactive Conference launched a "panel picker" that encouraged attendees to submit their own ideas for discussions. The public voted for the best ideas. Last year, the festival drew 350 entries. This year, the total doubled to 700. "Whatever growth and improvement we've experienced is because we are able to better connect with that community," says Forrest.

Music Meets Technology

Many first-time exhibitors are launching products at this year's festival. Ian Hogarth, CEO and co-founder of Songkick, is launching a service that notifies users of local music shows in their area based on their musical tastes. It delivers the information, in part, by combing News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace for band info and influences. "It is the perfect place to launch because it combines technology and music," says Hogarth.

That's the thinking behind Facebook's appearance. The social network has already begun letting artists set up MySpace-like promotional pages where fans can hear music, watch videos, post comments, and even purchase songs or tickets via links to outside stores. But the November debut was overshadowed by a kerfuffle over a controversial new advertising program (, 11/7/07) introduced around the same time. The company is hoping for a warmer reception in Austin.

Facebook has other music-related initiatives in the works, though they're probably not going to get much billing at SXWS. The company is in talks with major music labels to sell music on its site, BusinessWeek has learned. While an announcement is not imminent, insiders say the labels want to strike a deal. "Something is in the works," says one insider from Sony BMG. "Not being able to sell music through Facebook would be a huge lost opportunity." The sticking points are disagreements over pricing and copyright control. Earlier this month, the Financial Times reported the discussions.

For Some, A Breakout Event

SXSW is also rising in popularity among techies hoping to become a breakout hit of the conference. Last year, Twitter exploded onto the scene after winning an award for best blog—and installing giant plasma TV screens that broadcast the Twitter feeds of conference attendees.

Animoto, a Web video service, is among the startups angling for airtime in Austin. The company is a finalist in the film and television category for its service, which lets users turn photos uploaded to social networking sites into documentary-type films. CEO Brad Jefferson shelled out $10,000—the most marketing money his company has ever spent—to promote his application at the conference. "For a startup it's a big chunk" of cash, says Jefferson. But he thinks it will be worth it: "[SXSW] is this interesting combination of film, music, and interactive, so it was absolutely perfect."

Facebook is putting marketing money behind its efforts as well. The company plans to host two events at the conference. The first, Motion, is intended to showcase how Facebook can help distribute and promote films via members' social connections. The second, dubbed Night of Mayhem, is a party for developers, encouraging them to build applications on the site. Each event features live music and an open bar.

That points to one of the other big SXSW draws. Mixing live bands and open bars with business is a surefire way to attract a bunch of people stuck at their desks all day. "I want to meet smart, engaging people. I want to see some new tools that we can take advantage of," says Hellweg. "And I want to eat some great barbecue."

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