It can be tricky deciding how to spend a weekend or even a week at South By Southwest.
The annual event in Austin, Texas, which starts today, brings hundreds of speakers and tens of thousands of attendees to talk about the present and future of technology and culture. This year, 25 tracks will help attendees navigate discussions on the future of everything from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to more traditional topics like advertising and music.
SXSW 2019 also has some newcomers, namely two new tracks to come later next week: one for blockchain technology and another about the business of cannabis. Other focuses this year are more sobering, such as list of Democratic presidential candidates and plenty of talks about the dangers of social media and data privacy.
“The best-case scenario is that the sessions don’t just reflect [the current state of tech], but also offer some solutions going forward with systems that more people trust,” said SXSW chief programming officer Hugh Forrest.
Politics plays a bigger role
While past SXSW speakers have included big-name political leaders like then-President Barack Obama, this year’s field of Democratic speakers offers a lens into next year’s presidential race. However, it might also be a preview of how some politicians are planning to regulate big tech.
“I think it reflects where we are in 2019 that politics are much more front and center in people’s minds,” Forrest said. “We’re always trying to focus two or three years ahead and 2020 falls squarely into that bucket.”
The focus is largely on Democrats this year, but it’s not because SXSW doesn’t want Republicans to join in the conversation about the future of tech or the future of the nation. A few GOP leaders will be in town this week, including former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, but it’s been historically hard to get Republicans to the conference. Forrest said he would like to see more bipartisan and nonpartisan participation next year.
“If you’re having conversions about future issues and future policies, they’re not as complete as they should be if it’s just one side of the table having these conversations,” he said.
Leigh Christie, director of Isobar’s NowLab, said the Democratic primaries will sway conversations about the future of innovation. Candidates are talking increasingly about data regulation, AI and other topics and how they affect every American. It also helps tech companies understand how the narratives are shifting.
“The radicalization of politics has led many many tech entrepreneurs start to think more about the relationships between tech and politics, or technopolitics,” he said.
Blockchain is more central
Spring is just around the corner, and some say it’s possible the blockchain industry might be soon seeing the end of the “crypto winter”—a season of cryptocurrency value declines and overall period of pessimism about decentralization.
This year, SXSW is hosting a three-day blockchain track from March 14-16 that will including discussions ranging from the regulation of cryptocurrencies to how it can improve everything from voting to food supplies.
“Blockchain is becoming more and more of a backbone of our connected society so it makes sense to have that at SXSW,” Forrest said.
Tonight, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, known for their early involvement with Facebooks, will deliver a keynote on behalf of their company Gemini on why cryptocurrencies should be regulated.
The cannabis hype grows
Another evolving nationwide trend is the business of cannabis, which is getting its own three-day track about how brands can think about the emerging industry, what it means for criminal justice reform and how it affects users’ health.
According to Forrest, there were only six sessions about cannabis a year ago, but this year, there will be about 60. He said the goal is to include more communities and microcommunities that might be interested in the industry to help diversity and enhance discussions.
“The industry is changing so quickly and so rapidly in so many ways,” Forrest said, “and these are the kind of changes that entrepreneurs love or dream about or want to be in front of.”
While some agencies say their clients aren’t ready to think about cannabis, others say the heightened profile of the industry helps “credentialize” it.
“I remember a few years ago that the couple of panels about cannabis … it was the tiniest room,” said Mike Dossett, director of digital strategy at RPA. “And now, we’re seeing that business in particular is the representation of a lot of cultural, technical and financial trends that support it to be a viable business.”
Music plays a slightly smaller role
With dozens of bands and solo artists playing showcases and secret shows around Austin, there will no doubt be plenty of music at SXSW, as there always is. However, the biggest music-streaming services are scaling back. Spotify and Pandora have both opted out of hosting events or stages this year. However, Visible, the cheaper, online-only wireless provider owned by Verizon, will be sponsoring the main stage during SXSW Music next weekend.
Phillip Lee, digital strategy director at the Dallas-based agency The Richards Group, said it might be a sign of the times.
“By some estimations, it’s a little based on the wisdom of the crowd,” he said. “So it’s often a reflection of what’s exciting in business and tech and culture and also a reflection of the anxieties of what’s happening in business and tech and culture.”
However, music brands will still have activations of their own. Next week, Shure, the audio equipment company, will host a two-day event it’s calling “Shure Bedroom Sessions” as a tribute to all the musicians who started off recording songs in their bedrooms. The event on March 15 and 16 will showcase more than a dozen artists playing live shows at Antone’s Nightclub as well as a place for musicians to relax in between festival gigs.
Brands, brands and more brands
Of course, there will be plenty of brands, media companies and tech companies across downtown Austin hosting immersive experiences or simply providing phone charging or free beer.
Dani Calogera, group account director at 360i, said it seems brands are thinking less about being splashy and more about how they can provide consumers with something useful. For example, she mentioned the dating app Bumble is giving dating tips and taking photos of them for their profiles.
“When I look at what’s on the docket this year, you see a lot of brands are focusing on their core value proposition,” she said.
Dossett said he’s been going to SXSW for the past six or seven years and that the past few have seemed to like “a renaissance.” However, he said, it would be nice to see more of SXSW focused on what’s still working when it comes to traditional agency roles.
“It would be valuable to say many of the folks who are espousing some of this common sense aren’t putting their heads in the sand,” he said. “But don’t forget about how the world looks today.”