Sitting On an Escalator: SXSW Reflection A (The Big Takeaway)

For those looking for the more fun SXSW reflection, hang tight. I need to get this out first.

At one point during The Benson Interruption, a comedy podcast taped live at South by Southwest, comedian and host Doug Benson told a story/set up a joke about a woman at the airport he saw sitting on an escalator. He turned it into a larger joke about people on moving sidewalks, and society’s general aversion to putting work into moving. While hilarious (and it really was), it also gave me a great way to frame my experience at South by Southwest, and a lot of other aspects of my work as well.

A brief history: South by Southwest started in 1987 in Austin, TX as a way for the city known for music to be able to unite and showcase music. Thriving on its status as a part of the counterculture, Kevin Smith referred to it as “a place for hipsters”.

But he then went on to admit that it’s no longer a place for hipsters, a fact made starkly evident to him when his 80 year old mother asked if he was going to South by Southwest. And in its 26th year, it has clearly moved beyond that niche market. With a keynote from Bruce Springsteen, appearances by major national acts such as Train, The Counting Crows, Timbaland, T.I., Jay-Z and Kanye West, and a tradeshow booklet that rivals Vogue or Glamour in its space devoted to ads, South by Southwest has outgrown its small reputation. Yes, it’s still a way for smaller untested bands to be discovered, but they get to do so alongside major players. And with additions this year of higher education and ecological sustainability sections, and an increasing emphasis on developing its comedy section, it is showing no signs of slowing down.

Yet there are those in the old regime, those of the original opinion of South by Southwest’s creators, who decry this expansion of the festival into a full blown media conference, longing for when the offbeat nature of the festival helped to “keep Austin weird“. And frankly, I saw some of that in sessions and at events. There were those who showed open disdain for aspects of panel discussion that didn’t apply to them (none more audible than the grumbling during discussions of electronic music at clubs), and titles of panels like “The Year Dance Music Killed Rock and Roll” show that a war is clearly brewing here. Moreover, I witnessed a general attitude that if you were at SXSW, you should be there for the smaller bands, and to enjoy the larger, more popular bands, meant you were there for the wrong reasons. And, to paraphrase Honest Abe, “a festival divided against itself cannot stand.” Can it?

In this analogy, the festival is an escalator and the holdouts for the old regime could be seen as the woman sitting on it. They want to stay still, but are being carried somewhere (for the sake of argument, let’s say that it doesn’t matter which direction the escalator is going- I could write way more about that if direction was relevant). Think about this principle as it pertains to you- to your day, your work, your life. For my part, I see application of this analogy applying to consolidation talks between ACPA and NASPA, to the format of NACA, and even to the nature of programming on my own campus. Are you an escalator, hoping for movement and consistently on the move? Or are you sitting on it, content to stay put and get carried away?

I’m not placing a value on either approach, for the record. I simply wish to draw attention to a sharp difference in philosophy that I picked up on as a first-timer to the conference and festival. But I urge you to take note the next time an oppprtunity for change arises- are you the escalator? Or are you sitting still?

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