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What We Learned At SXSW 2016

Food, diversity, female empowerment, and more: Here are our takeaways from SXSW 2016.

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Crowds walk down Sixth Street during South By Southwest on Saturday, March 12, 2016, in Austin, Texas.
(Photo by Rich Fury/Invision/AP)

We digested quite a bit of information during nine days of interactive, film, and music programming at SXSW 2016, each of the conferences offering a different view on the future of their respective industries. The Texas Monthly SXSW team sifted through the marketing melée to find out the best of what’s next for Texas. Here’s what we learned.

The Future of Food: BREAKING: Food does have a future outside of Instagram. Perhaps it’s because of the rise of those Tasty videos clogging up your Facebook feed, but it seems that 2016’s SXSW Interactive had heavy helpings of food-related content. From a keynote speech from culinary bad boy Anthony Bourdain (who talked a lot less about food and more about being Anthony Bourdain) to the unveiling of a new interactive foodie community, there was plenty to take away.

Nom, the brainchild of YouTube cofounder Steve Chen and partner Vijay Karunamurthy that debuted last Monday, combines a Food Network approach with accessibility. The platform takes food porn several steps beyond the, erm, bite-sized short videos that have taken over social media and adds both live-streaming capabilities and interaction between channel hosts and audiences.

This further indicates the rise of the digital kitchen. According to Google’s research teams, people over 35 are still likely to print out a recipe, but 59 percent of millennials are heading to the kitchen with a smartphone or tablet to follow recipes or learn new skills. With products like Nom or Kitchenbowl, which offers step-by-step photo recipes online (and also showcased at SXSW’s trade show), young adults are learning the kitchen skills that their busy baby boomer parents never pressed on them.

Speaking of millennials, SXSW speaker and celebrated chef Jose Andres, who heads the ThinkFoodGroup, has high hopes for how they will change the food industry. “More professional chefs being involved in feeding the many,” Andres said in his featured talk. “I think that’s the biggest change we’ll see in the twenty-first century.” Part of that, at least for Andres, means creating high-quality, affordable joints such as his new chain Beefsteak, a vegetable-based fast casual dining experience. Andres, by the way, has a translated message from his produce: “I’ve been listening to vegetables. They don’t want to be known for health. They want to party with you.”

Not only does Andres believe that these kind of sustainable food options will appeal to millennials as customers, but also as a career. As farmers age across the board (in Texas, the average age for workers in the agriculture industry is 58-years-old), it’s clear young people aren’t flocking to the business. For Andres, that’s less about the immense start-up costs and more about the rural locales. His solution? Move the farms into the city. Andres believes that urban farming will be a huge part of the next generation’s food conversation, and he practices what he preaches. At several of his restaurants, including the D.C. Mexican restaurant Oyamel, Andres uses the roof to grow vegetables. That’s a lofty pitch for millennials, who—as an audience member pointed out—are coming out of school buried in student loans. Still, Andres believes urban farming will “change the rules of engagement” for the industry.

“This Is For My Girls”: Hundreds of puzzled tweets preceded First Lady Michelle Obama‘s SXSW Music keynote, many of them pairing excitement with a pretty obvious question: Why was the first lady—though undeniably a big get for the conference—speaking at the music portion? That question was quickly addressed when she announced “This Is For My Girls,” a feel-good anthem for all things girl power that benefits FLOTUS’s newly announced initiative aimed at making education accessible for young women worldwide.

Beyond the Let Girls Learn initiative, though, the panel focused on the importance of empowering women. Each of the women on stage during the first lady’s keynote—Queen Latifah, Missy Elliott, Diane Warren, and Sophia Bush—recalled times in their lives where the decks were stacked against them simply because of gender inequality. That conversation echoed throughout the festival.

Former child of destiny Kelly Rowland‘s speech highlighted the need for darker-skinned female role models. Music journalist Jessica Hopper discussed the boundaries to women throughout the music industry. Wendy Davis made several appearances promoting her community of “action-oriented women,” Deeds Not Words, and spoke at SXSW’s first online harassment summit.

SXSW has long been known as a bastion for new trends, and, luckily, it seems that female empowerment was one of 2016’s hottest. Throughout the separate conferences, the message was strong: We need to start understanding the problems women are facing, otherwise we as a society will never live up to our greatest potential. And for dude-heavy industries such as tech, music, and film present at the conference, that’s a good message. Perhaps FLOTUS herself put it best:

“This Is For My Girls,” Part Two: On Friday night, Des Ark—a North Carolina band who, like many bands in Austin during SXSW, was booked for multiple shows throughout the week—canceled their final performance after frontwoman Aimée Argote had an encounter outside of the venue in which they were supposed to play for their official showcase:

Obviously there’s no way for SXSW to know who’s being booked at what venue, or what things they’ve threatened their fellow members of the music community with in the past. But two things stand out about this encounter: One, Des Ark canceled their show, but whoever was loading in next door was able to play like nothing happened. Two, the music world really needs to develop some better systems for weeding out abusers within its midst. In the wake of Kesha’s legal struggle with Sony and producer Dr. Luke last month, and the serious allegations against high-profile music publicist Heathcliff Berru in January, the idea that a woman in a band might randomly encounter a man who’s hurled abuse her way while loading in on Sixth Street during SXSW sounds sadly inevitable. At the very least, we’ve learned in recent months how many women in music have had horrible experiences with men in their industry, and how until very recently most of those experiences are never discussed. We aren’t proposing any solutions here, but the fact that there are so many female musicians who are talking about what they’ve had to endure from men in the business is both encouraging—it’s not like that sort of thing is new, so it’s good that it’s being talked about—and depressing as hell.

Location, Location, Location: When we’re talking diversity, location matters. If you’re inviting diverse voices to the table, or under your “big tent,” make sure they’re at a decent seat at the table, not in an outer tent ring. This is especially the case with the Online Harassment Summit, a portion of the conference created when SXSW infamously dropped the ball dealing with online harassment last year. They didn’t seem to quite pick it up: after all the news and announcements about the day-long summit they were organizing and the guest speakers—including Wendy Davis—that they were now inviting to fill the day, they stuck the summit on the south side of the river in the Hyatt Regency, noticeably removed from the the rest of the conference. At this year’s only #BlackLivesMatter session, audience members and panelists were very aware of where the session was taking place, in a small room in the JW Marriott, and not in the Austin Convention Center. SXSW Interactive is pretty reflective of the industry it represents (tech) and the city it takes place in (Austin), and because both have problems with the inclusion of women and people of color, so does the conference. The conference seems to know it has a problem and if dropping the ball with online harassment is any indicator, they still aren’t quite sure how to fix it. So here’s some advice from the panelists who are experts where SXSW is lacking: Next year (and following years), bring marginalized voices closer to the heart of the conference.

Vince Staples’ Big Year, And What It Means: People have long lamented that SXSW is no longer about discovery, that the smaller artists get all the air sucked out of the room by the megastars who parachute in, etc., etc.—but this year, not only were the megastars (except for Drake) largely absent, but the myth of bands being “discovered” at SXSW needed to be re-assessed. One way to do that is to consider the story of Vince Staples, a 22-year-old rapper from Long Beach, California, who entered the festival as an artist on the rise—his last time in Austin, he played an early afternoon slot at the ACL Festival, touring behind his well-received debut Summertime 06—and who left, after a half-dozen shows, as one of the most talked-about acts of the festival. Part of that was due to the rapper’s outspoken statements from the stage, calling out audiences and sponsors alike, but mostly it was because he was a downright electrifying performer, thrilling and/or alienating audiences based on their own enthusiasm and what they offered to him as a performer. That sort of SXSW experience—when an artist comes in riding some good buzz, and comes out likely to be a headliner in their own right—has long been a part of the festival, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. Vince Staples’ SXSW 2016 is a lot like the SXSW that Kendrick Lamar had in 2012, or the one that Whiskeytown had in 1995, in other words, and it reveals that the beating heart of the festival is still in the undercard.

The End Of The Megastars (Except Drake)? The good news: Smaller and mid-range acts like Vince Staples can still have a big impact at SXSW. The bad news: The days of SXSW as the chance to watch (or stand outside of a venue while more important people watch) global megastars play intimate venues for million-dollar checks may well have passed. Drake and Future did show up for Fader Fort on Saturday, but beyond that, most of the stars who you’d have expected to see at SXSW in recent years took a pass. Kanye West, Macklemore, and Kendrick Lamar—three experienced SXSW vets with new albums that are less than a month old—all looked at their schedules and decided that a trip to Austin didn’t fit, and no brand thought it was worth their while to bring them to town. Samsung, which in years past has booked Prince, Kanye, and Jay-Z, and D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige in recent years opted for relatively modest stars like The Strokes for their private showcases for new phone owners. That’s not a tragedy—there are consequences to the exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that brands used to bring to SXSW—but it does mark a potential turning point in how things are marketed at the conference.

Economic Impactin’: It’ll be interesting, with all of that in mind, to see how SXSW’s annual economic impact report shakes out when it’s released in the fall. Last year’s figure was $317.2 million, according to the report that the festival commissions—a number that’s hard to fully understand, given that the 2015 version of the festival sure looked smaller than the year that preceded it, which reportedly had a smaller impact to the tune of $2 million. In order to continue justifying the quality-of-life costs of the festival to the non-participating Austinites—i.e., the road closures, the disruptions, etc.—SXSW needs big numbers to point to, and up to this point it has never had a year where the economic impact was smaller than the year that preceded it.

But just looking at what we could see with our own eyes, it sure seems like that impact is going to be smaller in 2016: Parking lots that, in years past, were rented by brands for the duration of the festival were just parking lots this year. (Parking, as a SXSW industry, was generally depressed throughout the festival—even as late as the Friday and Saturday of SXSW Music, spots in prime downtown garages were going for $20 or less, which is a massive dropoff.) Spaces that typically host giant installations and activations from massive brands ended up with hastily-arranged projects—where once stood the Subway and McDonald’s on the lot at Fourth and Red River adjacent to the Austin Convention Center, this year stood a kind of half-hearted art project for AMC’s Preacher, which closed down halfway through the festival. We can only assume that, if fewer spaces were rented this year, the demand was down, which would have similarly driven down prices. All of which is to say that we’ll be watching the economic impact report with curiosity to see if SXSW can pass a year that sure looked like a down year off as growth.

A Smaller SXSW: Does it matter if the festival had a down year, though? There were fewer megastars, there were fewer brands, there were fewer mind-blowing activations (though shout-out to Mr. Robot‘s ferris wheel!)—but the festival endured! It brought a ton of interesting conversations to Austin, it brought countless musicians who delighted festival goers. It brought one of the stronger film slates any festival is likely to see this year. It continued to grow as a hub for smart discussions about sports. It served communities who are often alienated by SXSW through free showcases at Auditorium Shores and Promiseland Church.

A SXSW that inspires FOMO in the entire world is a neat thing, but it’s not all that the festival can, or should, be. Rather, a SXSW that’s a little more manageable, that involves a little less money, and that still captures the attention of much of the world suddenly seems like a possibility. SXSW is three decades old now, and the few years in the late aughts and early ’10s when it was mostly about giving people the chance to interact with all of their favorite brands may end up being a blip in the festival’s ultimate identity. Something shifted for SXSW in 2016, but what, exactly, that was is a question we’ll see answered in the years to come. Based on what we saw, though, it doesn’t look like it’s a disaster—and if SXSW can survive scaling down a little bit, then that’s great news for the festival going forward.

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