This is my long-form thinking about three weeks in America. I’m on a plane high above Vanuatu. It’s 9am in LA and 3am in Sydney. I’ve watched a movie and had a sleep.

I have only been to the USA once, and it was a family holiday when i was 15. Cathy hasn’t been ever – she says that SXSW is the first thing that’s made her want to go there since she grew out of Disneyland.
So we got to have dozens of conversations of the form:

american: Is this your first time at South By?
us: This is my first time in the whole continent.
american: Well welcome to Texas! (and then, sometimes, they buy you a beer)

We went for South By South West, is a massive digital/film/music conference/festival/party which takes over the city of Austin every year. It’s huge, and I expected it to be overwhelming, and it was. We asked all our friends where else in America should we visit, and of the 100 suggestions we decided to spend a few days each in Seattle and Portland.

busker : hey i’ve never busked in Portland before, where are the good places?
me: i dunno, i’ve only been here a couple of hours.  You’re my first busker
busker [wandering off down the street]: wow, i was somebody’s first something!

Going to America and visiting Austin, Seattle, and Portland is a bit like going to Australia and visiting Newtown, St Kilda, and Brunswick. So we felt very much at home. Sometimes we’d be surprised when our barista had an American accent.

The best things from SXSW

The big speeches at the digital festival were surprisingly excellent. I knew Stephen Wolfram was going to be fantastic:

is it possible that the end result of all the computational advances we have ever made is just to create something which isn’t that different from lots of things which already exist
[Stephen Wolfram dissing the science of artificial intelligence]

And I knew Bruce Sterling would be great, but i didn’t expect him to be so crazy:

The Russians used to want to blow up Stanford. Instead they sent Sergey Brinn

But i didn’t expect to be so enthralled by the guy from The Oatmeal, or the guy from Buzzfeed, or so many of the programmers and musicians and writers who just had good things worth saying.

My favourite Big Idea

Peer-to-peer insurance. A German guy who is reducing the cost of insurance by getting small groups of people who trust each other to self-insure for small claims and buy a group policy for big items. So the insurance company has much fewer small claims and overheads, and each member has lower premiums.

My favourite busker

There were hundreds of buskers. Mostly looking hopeful but being ignored.
Liam Woodworth-Cook
Liam Woodworth-Cook was my actual favourite. “Will type you poeams. Give me a subject. We’ll see how it rolls” – and he wrote me an excellent poem, which he made up while chatting to me and other passers by.

The John Brothers Piano Company busking on the street with their clarinet and... umm... piano.But for traditional music-with-a-hat-out busking, the John Brothers Piano Company were easy winners. They found the piano after they arrived in Austin, dragged it around town all week, and left it behind when they departed.

My favourite party

The party situation was strange.  Lots of big parties with free beer (usually terrible beer), with lots of impossible-to-join guest lists.  The German music industry put on some great food and beers, the closing night of the Interactive festival was amazing, beer o-clock in the trade hall was a revelation…

But the party i most looked forward to, which was everything i hoped for, was the ShareThis party with Big Sam’s Funky Nation. A big loud funky new orleans dance band which was all i ever wanted from american music.

My favourite concert

We went to see Pokey LaFarge, whose old-timey jazz was as authentic, young, and perfect as anything i’ve ever heard.  and i’ve heard a lot.  but a lot of them weren’t from the american mid-west, and a lot of them weren’t great musicians AND great entertainers with great bands and new original music that brung the old styles together in perfect ways.  he and his band were really good.

And he was playing at Esther’s Follies, which was an amazing place – crazy and beautiful and the sound and the stage and the vibe were all right.  Even at midnight, even on 7th avenue, even in the middle of the big week of South By, it was a really enjoyable place to be (i was going to put a link to their website but it doesn’t do the joint justice.  just go there).

And after they had finished bathing us in the sounds of their beautiful voices and instruments, we walked back out to the bar… and saw… out the back window… across the courtyard… over the fence… A MASSIVE THREE STORY HIGH LIVE PROJECTION OF L L Cool J, who was playing in the carpark on the corner.  You couldn’t get in unless you won a ticket from a packet of chips.  but you could see and hear him from blocks away, his massive face leaning down at you from the side of a tower specially build to advertise chips and LL Cool J.

it was one of the many crazy contrasts which hit you every day as you walked around this town full of everybody trying to be everything more than everyone else.

My favourite pub

The BlackHeart on Rainey st.
BlackheartRainey St is a short suburband st on the edge of Austin where all 30 old weatherboard houses have been turned into bars. It’s a crazy idea, but it works. On our first day we found The Blackheart. On our second day cathy wanted to go back there instead of trying another bar, and the bouncer, the bartender, and one of the barflys all greeted us with hugs. So we went there nearly every day for two weeks.

My favourite people in texas

The light in AustinMicha and Birta, from the Cargo record label. Unfortunately I didn’t meet any Texans I liked more than these two Germans. But that’s what SXSW is all about, bringing a massive community of culture professionals together to bump their arty geeky rock and roll heads together and go home cooler, smarter, and more famous.  When Cathy realised how many people were fighting each other to get one of the cool US labels to listen to them, she decided to talk to the europeans instead.  cos europe and australia are a long way away, but meeting in the middle is fun.


A couple of months later :
transcending the content and privileging the culture

The more i tell the story, the more i realise that as South By grew from a small music conference to a nexus of massive conferences about everything, it stopped actually being about the things.  It’s really a conference about culture.  In the digital conference i didn’t learn how to do a single new thing (but i learnt a lot about the history and the future of New Things).  The film conference seemed to be more about the film-makers than the films they made.  The music conference was about the connections and the relationships and the venues and the parties and the people and the strategies – the music was just a platform.  And i think that’s how it’s grown so big – by transcending the content and privileging the culture (see, that’s the sort of sentence you make after south by).