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Music! Film! Interactive! SXSW 2000 brings it together
AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- If noted author and zeitgeist professor Tom Wolfe (or someone familiar with his work) walks into the Austin Convention Center this week, where the South By Southwest (SXSW 2000) interactive, music and film conferences are headquartered in one sprawling trade show, he (or someone aping him) might describe it like this:
Kandy-colored streamlined iMac computers lining a booth like fruits on the Internet market, just one of many kiosks squeezed together like suburban living rooms in some futuristic neighborhood, but one that is also happening right now! shining obvious in your face like the neon signs over there, the ones that say Espresso and Miller Lite and Celis Pale Bock, near the stand selling pizza and pretzels, but not overshadowing the kiosks, all so full of media promise, melding together technologies that would make 1960s acid trips so much easier and less exciting.
And, perhaps in a reflection of the changed times, many of the companies are luring potential clients and customers and friends with bowls overflowing not with drugs but with Tic-Tacs! Tootsie Rolls! Jolly Ranchers of every flavor! and those red-and-white peppermints twisted in clear plastic and Super Bubble bubble gum and one booth that is apparently trying to out-candy the rest by offering, for free, Hostess Lucky Puffs, which are really just sugar highs disguised as pink cupcakes.
But back to those kiosks. All of them are run by people trying to make eye contact with you, just like those folks who take surveys at the local mall -- Just a moment of your time, please, so we can tell you why we're here -- and they're all here for different reasons (Theirs is a completely original, cutting-edge company.), but for the same reason (They want to sell that company to you, a new customer.), and many of the company names are known, and some of them actually ring bells in some far-off corner of your mind (Something a friend e-mailed you during a busy workday?), but now they're here, run by real people, so take a look around, because represented at this orgy of media technology, to name just a few, are:
Jobs.com, HOB.com (House of Blues, with a booth featuring a plush couch and a candle flickering warm ambience), The Robot Group, the Screen Actors Guild ("Someone gets you here," its ad line advises would-be Oliviers), something called Casablanca, Road Runner (promoted heavily by a woman in clown wear, her big red smile framed by a Pepto-Bismol-pink wig), Lava.com, Campusvibe.com, Spawn.com (with a skeleton logo with flaming eyes, daring you to just try it), Fusion Inc., a kiosk called "Jim Beam's Back Room" (with a billiards table and yessir, old Jim himself) the Independent Film Channel, some company that goes by the initials "IBM," all of these companies and many more, visited by a steady stream of computer geeks, film geeks, music geeks (and cool varieties of the aforementioned), old people, young people, men in dress pants, slackers in shorts, girls with Princess Leia hair, middle-aged women in cowboy boots, one particular woman walking an invisible dog on one of those trick leashes, and, outside, a woman walking down the street with a live parrot on her shoulder.
High tech and grass roots
Yes, SXSW 2000 is filling Austin air with a unique electricity. It's like Comdex, the conventions that bring the Internet to companies large and small. But some think it's a little more "grass roots," helping pilot media to new horizons -- and, most of all, helping everyone figure out just where in the world we're headed with all these hard drives and softwares.
Panels, film screenings, and music concerts fill the agenda each day. An estimated 6,000 media professionals are converging on the Texas state capital for the events.
The interactive portion of the conference began Friday and concludes Tuesday. Approximately 200 Internet industry experts are taking part in 50 panel sessions and roundtables.
The film segment stretches more than a week, from Friday, March 10, to Saturday, March 18. Guest panelists include actress Janeane Garofalo -- she has two films here, "The Independent" and "Steal This Movie" -- plus filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater. Harry Knowles, founder of Ain't It Cool News.com, also is on hand.
The music segment, beginning Wednesday and lasting until Sunday, dominates the second half of SXSW 2000. Scheduled to perform: Steve Earle, Cypress Hill, Elliott Smith, Roger McGuinn, Reverend Horton Heat, Gomez, The Dylan Group, Bio Ritmo, Sebadoh and others.
In the far corner of the trade-show circus, meantime, in the section called the Day Stage, a panel concerns the convergence of the Internet and the media and the hybrid companies they produce -- the proposed AOL-Time Warner merger, for example. The panel, which is being Web-cast by U.S. Creative, includes Matt Hulett, Atom Films' chief marketing officer, and Gregg Hale, one of the producers responsible for a little money maker called "The Blair Witch Project."
A frontier getting tamed
The Internet, despite losing some of its wild-and-wooly reputation as large media companies stake their claims in the new communications frontier, is still a rich source for enterprising souls, Hale believes.
"The big value for indie artists right now, is that if you can get an idea on the Web and build a little audience, you have a really viable market for a video game or comic book," Hale says. "So I think it's really a rich place for no-budget, creative people to start."
What about convergence? Hulett says the coffee has been brewing for a while, and now people are finally waking up and smelling it.
"Everyone talks about convergence, and no one knows what it means," he says. "This deal (between AOL and Time Warner) represents the big slap on the face of what convergence is."
Convergence is at the heart of SXSW 2000. The conference started in 1987 as a music festival featuring Austin's eclectic sounds. Film and interactive followed as SXSW grew in popularity.
Now, at the trade show, you have guys like Derek Bridges of The Robot Group, an Austin-based organization of folks who, yes, like to build funky-looking robots. On display at the convention center kiosk are erector-set pieces forming what some might consider art -- that one resembling a female mannequin with a bright halo, for example. Then there's "Project Boris," a six-legged, moving contraption with golf-ball feet. It's the exhibit's centerpiece, a machine that encourages lingering.
"It's good exposure," says Bridges of SXSW 2000. "We have a free booth, because we don't have any money, but we have a really interesting display."
Over at Lava.com's booth, Barry Raskin, the company's director, explains his product -- software that helps independent artists put 3-D computer images to their MP3 files. Confused? Picture one of those lava lamps on your computer desktop, and you get the idea.
Raskin says he came to the conference to schmooze, and found a laid-back mentality.
"What I like about South By Southwest is that it's very grass roots," he says. "The type of people we meet here and the relationships we establish here and hope to build on later is incredible."
Not far away from Lava.com is Campusvibe, another young dot-com. The 4-month-old company hires interns to file reports from college campuses across the country, offering the latest on sex, dating, film, music and other topics that dominate late-night dormitory discussions.
The week in Austin has been one long party, says Michael Lewis, who helped start the site and is directing Web-casts of dozens of music acts at SXSW 2000 this year.
"We put up the booth and basically buy beers for everyone," the 29-year-old says. "Seriously, we're buying like $15,000 worth of beer. We take big cups to the clubs and we come over the bullhorn and say, 'Hey, we're Campusvibe.com we're buying a round of beer.' "Then we walk out and go to the next club. It's fun, because everyone thinks you're cool for buying them alcohol."
And cool, at SXSW 2000, means business -- money, big bills and small, all of it streaming and steaming and nearly stumbling into your pockets, big bucks yes! because this is something new!
Professor Wolfe, wouldn't you agree?
Splashy premiere of 'Desert Blue' heats up SXSW
South By Southwest 2000
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