Pretty much everyone in Austin this week is either doing SXSW things, or really, really tired of hearing about SXSW things. Either way, there’s a question about the festival that’s gotten harder and harder to answer over the past few years: What exactly is SXSW? 

It’s a film, music, and technology conference and festival—but describing it like that doesn’t really summarize the experience of rushing from the Spotify House to the Mophie Hangar to the FADER FORT Presented By Converse to the SXSubway Square, or taking in a performance at the Doritos #BoldStage, or walking past a pedicab adorned like the Iron Throne from HBO’s Game of Thrones. It doesn’t explain why this dude jumped from thirty feet up to snatch a ticket for Lady Gaga out of the air, thanking Doritos all the way down. It doesn’t cover the line that started at 2am on Tuesday morning for Samsung Galaxy owners to receive a free ticket to see Jay-Z and Kanye West play an intimate show at an as-yet-undisclosed location. It doesn’t cover exactly what occurs at HBO’s Game Of Thrones: The Exhibition at the Austin Music Hall, or the live-action Mario Kart racing that Pennzoil set up over the weekend at the Palmer Events Center. 

So what is SXSW? Really, it’s a nine-day takeover of Central Austin by some of the world’s most important brands, in which they desperately try to create engagement with people by offering them exclusive access to exciting events in exchange for their attention. All of the other stuff—the film, the music, and the technology—are the thing they use to get the attention of the consumers they’re trying to reach. 

These installations, or “brand activations,” as the marketing lingo for them goes, can be pretty cool. Like, Oreo showed up at the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Trinity for five days and made custom cookies for anybody who showed up, that were based on Twitter trending topics, at its “Trending or Vending” setup. Who’s going to complain about free Oreos? 

At 4th and Red River, meanwhile, Subway staked out a parking lot for the SXSubway Square, where badgeholders (and only badgeholders) are treated to free “Flatizzas,” or Subway’s equivalent of flatbread pizza. There are chairs for relaxing, charging stations to replenish the ever-dying smartphone batteries, and a special section in the back to play cornhole. There’s a station for filling up water bottles, and snack chips available free of charge, as well. 

Head up the block and you’ll find the Doritos #BoldStage, a 60-some-foot-tall vending machine stage in which various stars—Ludacris, Riff Raff, and Schoolboy Q among them—perform in exchange for hefty paychecks. The Doritos flow freely here (at some point, it makes the idea of actually paying for the chips seem like a sucker’s move), and Lady Gaga will also play a Doritos-sponsored event at Stubb’s BBQ for a reported $2 million paycheck. Access to that one is restricted; Gaga is a megastar and Stubb’s holds 2,200 people. How does one get in? They can enter the “#BoldRace” and “skate one lap against Roller Derby pros and get the flag from the lead jammer, all while wearing an inflatable sumo wrestler suit,” or enjoy the #BoldSuitcase and “trade your suitcase and everything in it for a Doritos suitcase. Keep it for 48 hours and wear what’s inside to Lady Gaga’s show.”

It’s weird enough that it makes the entrance to the Samsung Concert Series seem downright ordinary by comparison: to get access to the series, which kicks off with a performance by Jay-Z and Kanye West (perhaps the two most famous rappers alive), fans only had to own a Samsung phone, line up all night, and download an app that they showed to a Samsung rep. Free tickets to an exclusive performance by two of the biggest artists in the world just for owning the right phone? It’s hard to argue with that. 

Of course, if you don’t have a Samsung phone, you’re left out of that party. Most of the less-exclusive activations, meanwhile, required only a feat of endurance and a lot of time. HBO’s Game Of Thrones: The Exhibition, which took over the Austin Music Hall, was completely free and open to the public for its run from March 7-11th. The line to enter the building, of course, often took over an hour to clear, and then after fans of the series were through marveling at the costumes and props set up in a museum-style display, they had another line to sit through: This one for the virtual reality experience, which used technology from the VR company Oculus Rift to create a fully-immersive experience in which one’s senses were completely overwhelmed with visual, auditory, and tactile information that told them that they were climbing the show’s infamous Castle Black “Wall.” The line for the VR experience—which was utterly breathtaking and unlike anything else—took another hour or more, most of the time. 

Still, what’s a couple of hours, or an app download, or a weird stunt, or a Twitter/Oreo mashup, in exchange for cool, free, unique experiences? 

That’s the trade-off with SXSW, and it’s the thing that brings most of the money into Austin. The hotel rooms fill up, the restaurants churn through tables at an unprecedented rate, the pedicab drivers earn more that week than they do in an ordinary month, etc, etc—but it’s these big brand activations, which cost staggering amounts of money to pull off, that have come to increasingly define SXSW. Want to see Kendrick Lamar at ACL Live tonight? That’ll be up to Apple and its iTunes Festival. 

There are thousands of musicians, and hundreds of films, in Austin for the festival. Those things are still relevant to SXSW—but increasingly, they’re the sideshow to the events that continue to define the festival. Those are the big activations that trade access to once-in-a-lifetime experiences for direct engagement with their brands. 

That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. The people with the Samsung phones and the time to wait in line for Kanye and Jay-Z tickets are probably going to have the time of their lives, and anyone who endured the wait for the Game Of Thrones virtual reality experience was able to do something that few human beings have ever been able to do before. Even the smaller activations are mostly harmless—who’s going to complain about free Doritos? But if you find yourself at a loss for words to describe what SXSW really is, don’t focus too much on words like “music festival” or “film conference”—it’s a big brand party, and the attention of the consumer is worth a fortune to the people who pay for it. 

(image via Flickr)