Fear and Black Clothing. One week at SXSW.
5.00pm. After nineteen hours I’ve finally arrived in Austin. The airport is filled with tattooed men with well-groomed beards furiously tapping away at various devices and everything is sponsored by a website I’ve never heard of. As I’m waiting at the baggage carousel (sponsored by esurance.com) there’s a frisson of excitement as apparently Aubrey Plaza was on our plane. I have no idea who the fuck he/she/it is. I might very well have been the person I blanked on the plane.
5.13pm. The queue for the taxi is, by far, the longest I have ever seen. Everyone’s trying to get WiFi to kill time so I create a mobile hotspot and call it ‘WhereAreAllTheCabs’ in the hope that someone will cheerily respond with a hotspot reply and we can get into some sort of geeky conversation. This doesn’t happen.
6.20pm. A man at the hotel stifles a giggle as I refer to SXSW as ‘SexWoo’ rather than ‘SouthBy.’ I’ve been using the letters for years. I’m off to a bad start.
6:30pm. Beelzebub has a devil put aside for whoever decided to wrap their travel plugs with unbreakable plastic. I’ve sliced my finger open trying to open the fucking thing. I manage to slide a tiny slit I’ve made onto the metal door handle and violently kick the packet until it finally splits open.
6.37pm. I can hear the sound of vigorous shaking coming from the room next door. I rather innocently assume it’s someone making a cocktail but it goes on and on. I immediately tweet ‘If the guy next door doesn’t stop masturbating I’ll tweet his room number #SXSW.’ I immediately realise this is a bad idea as there are thousands of geeks here with the ‘skillz’ to pinpoint my location through, you know, metadata or something and name him. Not wanting to start ‘wankgate’ I delete it to the sound of climax.
8:30pm. Looking at a map, it seems that my hotel is very far from SexWoo. I (honestly) wanted to go full Hunter. S Thompson this time and stay in one of those nasty motels that play endless country music and have bikes lined up outside. You know, like in ‘Road House.’ I thought it’d make great material but I now realise that I wouldn’t have made it out alive. The hotel I’m in is quite nice actually. It has botanical shampoo.
8:34am. I’m on the shuttle bus to Austin. Everyone’s all excited and chatty until we reach the convention centre to get our passes. The line here is vastly longer than the taxi queue yesterday. I spot a ‘Press’ entrance where I presume I get my press pass in a special VIP section with cushions and snacks and, you know, live data visualisations or something. I peel off and make a big deal of walking past the huge queue as if one of ‘the chosen few’ and find a bored looking woman who says I have to go to the back of the line and queue with the others. I try not to look at the grinning faces of a thousand UX specialists as I slope to the back.
10:00am. People are lining up for everything, water, free stuff, the toilets, food and especially the seminars. The doors open for Al Gore at 10:00am so I get to the front of the huge line as people start filing in. I hold my pass up to the doorman and say ‘PRESS!’ in a loud voice like the hard-boiled fifties journo I seem to think I now am. Fuck it, it gets me in first which means all of us in the front row get to make selfies as Al Gore talks about the end of the world.
1:30pm. I’m not going to be mean about the people of Austin, or indeed their beautiful city. They’re wonderfully hospitable and will chat to you at the drop of a Stetson. This is in vast contrast to the French in Cannes who I’m convinced pretend not to speak English, preferring instead to do that Gallic shrug when you need something important like directions or your fucking dry cleaning. There’s a sign in my hotel that asks that you kindly ‘unload your gun.’ I guess that could explain the hospitality. They’re all packing.
2:30pm. As I queue for a Taco I see a smart looking businessman weaving through the crowd whilst shouting “I have to get the car out NOW. They’re closing down the fucking city.” I’m not sure what he means until later.
5:30pm. There are tents all over the place with thumping music and even more queues for free beer. I go into one of them for Internet access but can’t get the password to work. I ask a volunteer and she says that the ‘WiFi rage at this party is so intense it’s busted our computers.’ This is an amazing sentence. I’ve noticed that there’s a vast crowd outside Starbucks. I presume they’re raging the WiFi.
7:20pm. I’ve interviewed a few people to try out this Press Pass thing. This basically means asking them questions whilst pretending to scribble notes in a Moleskin journal. A guy from Finland asks to see my notes to check if his name is spelt correctly. I have indeed completely misspelled his name and have written precisely two words. One of them being ‘Finland.’ There’s an awkward moment and I decide to just walk off into the crowd and pretend it never happened.
10:35pm. After a few drinks at the Havas party I realise that the cops have indeed blocked every road in and out of the city centre. The streets are now absolutely heaving with fucked up pass holders and there are parties on every rooftop. People keep running up to me screaming ‘Free drinks! Free drinks!’ It’s like Ibiza. I manage to get a taxi get out of there. Not because I don’t want free drinks, but I’ve remembered that I don’t have any Nurofen Plus. Maybe I’ll get fucked up tomorrow.
8:15am. I’m hungover, but nowhere near as much as the guy who wanders into breakfast this morning barefoot and in shorts. He grabs some juice and donuts and stumbles off to the private hell that is his bedroom. We all smile and raise our eyebrows at each other, even though I know I’ll soon need painkillers of some description.
8:40am. Yesterday’s bus was full. Today’s is nearly empty. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. Last night was geek spring break and fuck me, they can party. Cannes is a rather more sedate affair, with armies of well-heeled men in expensive shirts and cream cardigans around their shoulders drunkenly swaying as they try to pick up Spanish art directors. In Austin, a vast sea of black t-shirts pour from party to party like World War Z until the beer runs out. I’ve no idea what happens after that but the police seem to ring the city centre like Baghdad’s Green Zone.
9:40. I’m in another queue, only this time it’s in the pharmacy. It’s very quiet and everyone’s clutching bottles of water and headache pills. I’m not actually too bad as I ate a huge ‘Wurst’ sausage on the street last night. I had to scrape that bright orange cheese that they pile onto everything off the top just to take a bite.
11:00am. I’m in a coding workshop hosted by a super enthusiastic couple who take us through the history of the Internet. Apparently the world’s first e-commerce site was by Pizza Hut. You could order a pizza online by giving them your name, address and phone number. Then they’d call you back, making the process about five minutes longer than if you’d just called them first yourself. Bless. For a supposed tech expert, one of them has absolutely no idea how to use his lapel microphone. When he thinks it’s off he mutters, “I hate technology.”
1:43pm. I ask directions from one of the rickshaw cyclists who hang out outside the Hilton. As she points towards the nearest toilet I can’t stop staring at her ear. She obviously used to have one of those heavy, hollow tribal earrings and at some stage decided to have it removed. This has left a gigantic hole the size of a fifty-cent piece. She looks like she’s been shot.
2:04pm. Nowhere to eat. Again. Vast queues snake around the block for Chipotle and the food trucks are rammed. There are a few wanky places around but I can’t be bothered, nor will I be going through a door that just says ‘Rowdy’s.’ I’m just not.
4:40pm. I have no idea what a ‘networking session’ is but I’m in one. A young woman walks over and introduces herself with the uber confidence only Americans seem to have. She takes one look at my press pass and actually says “Oh, for fuck’s sake” and just walks off. I’m beginning to realise that to the SXSW faithful, the press are outsiders and ‘unclean.’ There’s absolutely nothing they think I can offer them in the way of a job or sage advice about, you know, the fucking future.
5:10pm. HBO have created a ‘Game of Thrones’ exhibit in an old garage but forgot to install air conditioning. I have my picture taken on the throne and watch a bunch of beards violently swinging swords at giant screens. On my way out I get into an altercation with a delegate by a vending machine that dispenses little branded HBO boxes if you tweet promotional messages. He’s convinced he tweeted ‘#Iwantmythrone’ or whatever the hell it was first. He gets more and more angry as the machine dispenses my/his box. I toss it at him angrily and he rips it open like Gollum. Inside is a plastic HBO iPhone case. His mate says “Ooooh” and that’s when I decide to get out of there.
6:40. R/GA are hosting a party in what seems to be one of the best bars in Austin. People are chatting about the future and vaping. I see a famous beret through the crowd. It’s Bob Greenberg. He’s surrounded by an admiring horde of what look like young, attractive female Asian hackers. I briefly toy with the idea of wearing a beret but he makes it look good and I’d, well, I’d look like a fucking knob. I make a mental note to attempt to chat to him later, but this idea is crushed not ten minutes later when I look up and catch him watching me taking pictures of the cheese table.
1:35am. I’ve necked two of my new headache pills for preventative reasons. There are two hundred in the bottle. Cool.
4:08am. I awoke to the smell of blood, that coppery, thick aroma that permeates a room like a murderous soup. I edged my way to the end of the bed. I knew what lay upon the carpet but I think part of me refused to believe it. The waiter had been dead four, maybe five hours. He was pale, so the eyes were immediately drawn to the two vivid bite marks on his neck. The room service order was on the table where he’d left it. He was my first kill in Austin. He would not be my last. Yes. It’s my fourth, and last, SXSW diary. I’m not sure if anyone’s reading it as Adfest and SXSW have coincided, resulting in a veritable feast of diarists so you’ve got to do your best to, you know, stand out in a crowded market. If you’ve somehow made it this far we’ve got gamers to rip into today. Oh, and I’m now in London (don’t ask,) but trust me, the memories (and the copious notes I made in my notebook) are still strong.
8:08am. My last breakfast at the tiny hotel buffet. Every morning we get these odd Turkey burgers with a dollop of salsa and melted cheese. I’ve ignored them all week as they look weird but I’ve just realised they’re amazing so I’ve had two with my ‘coffee.’ The hotel claims to serve Starbucks coffee, but the milk they use is called ‘2%.’ I have no idea what the 2% stands for (fat? actual milk?) but it leaves a plastic foam that you can’t get rid of unless you use your fingers and sort of shake it off.
10.47am. There’s a huge crowd for Julia Louis-Dreyfus so Esther Clerehan and I are lucky to snare third row seats. A woman in the row behind us keeps loudly banging on about the ‘lack of celebrities’ at SXSW this year. She doesn’t have the hacker/geek/futurist/planner look and refuses to shut the fuck up so we’re curious as to her occupation. Esther uses the app to look her badge up. She’s apparently a ‘Consultant.’ A quick check on LinkedIn shows that she’s actually an accountant in Austin, so she’s basically fucking crashed SXSW. Julia Louis-Dreyfus walks in and the woman starts whooping loudly, (as indeed she will throughout the entire sodding thing.)The session is funny, smart and Dreyfus is every bit as quick and sexy as she is on ‘Veep.’ In the last fifteen minutes the audience are allowed to ask a few questions. After the usual Seinfeld guff a guy with piercings takes the microphone. There’s a long pause. He asks what it’s like to ‘part of the bleak cynicism of Armando Iannucci’s fevered nightmare.’ There’s a ripple of concern and, to be absolutely honest, part of me thinks these are the kind of insane words that precede a shotgun being pulled out. I’m not sure if the guy was dragged out but everyone on stage has a nervous laugh.
12:45pm. I make my way to the ‘gaming pavilion.’ The people in here are different. They’re a bit, well, wider for a start and they wear ironic t-shirts with company names from games like ‘Assassin’s Creed.’ My press-pass annoyingly works like magic in here. I’m followed around the vast hall by a smelly trail of reps and salesmen who all seem to think I’m there to give their independent titles exposure. I manage to lose them in the crowd and find myself pushed into a sort of ‘arena’ where grown men are shouting at each other. They’re playing a variety of fantasy card games that, from the brief snippets I caught before I got the fuck out of there, involve wizards, ‘mana’ and, you know axes and goblins ‘n stuff.
1:10pm You shouldn’t have to see ‘Master Chief’ from ‘Halo’ without his helmet having a cheeky fag out the back but I just did.
1:24pm. My first slice of pizza in Austin and it’s every bit as artery clogging as I thought it would be.
4:45pm. The camera pans up as a yellow cab passes underneath. We cut to a man inside. He looks deep in thought. The last rays of the Texan sun are reflected on the window. We notice a red tomato stain on the man’s shirt. He’s obviously tried to dab it off but just made the stain much larger.
4:46pm. I guess this is where I’m supposed to reflect upon the last few days. Being half-pissed and in London makes that rather difficult but here goes. SouthBy (or SexWoo, however you want to call it,) is spectacularly important if you want to keep your job in the next five years. The sheer variety of geniuses speaking and the literally hundreds of seminars, workshops and keynotes allow you to essentially custom make an itinerary that fits your specific interests, be it data, coding, drones, VR or fucking Grumpy Cat (he made a guest appearance at the ‘International House of Bacon’ with queues around the block.) Sure, Cannes is fun, especially if you love getting off your face, but this is where we’re going rather than where we’ve been (thanks Esther.) I highly recommend making the pilgrimage, especially if you’re also keen on free alcohol, beards and cheese.
System.exit(0); as they say in Austin.
This article originally appeared in Adnews
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