There’s an elephant in Austin and its name is SXSW. In Alan Berg’s documentary “Outside Industry,” one of SXSW’s founders analogized defining SXSW to the Blind men and an elephant parable. Its many blindfolded men groping an elephant, trying to describe what they think it is.
The SXSW festival began when 4 frustrated dudes in Austin, Texas, feeling “trapped in the music business,” decided to do their own thing. In 1987 Louis Black, Nick Barbaro and Roland Swenson of the “Austin Chronicle,” joined booking agent Louis Meyers. Almost in spite of neglect from the coastal powers of the music business, they kicked off a music festival. It has since grown into a behemoth conference of interactive technology, film and music.
The documentary film, “Outside Industry” is award winning director/producer Alan Berg’s attempt to peak from beneath the blindfold at this elephant. He went straight to the source, capturing revealing interviews with SXSW founders. Berg focuses on the dynamic that this festival didn’t exactly know what it wanted to be to begin with. It has since kept evolving and hence avoided being pigeonholed as a predictable industry player.
That goes for film, interactive and music. While music has always been the cornerstone and driving force behind SXSW, industry breakthroughs have come in all colors. Twitter got its momentum during SXSW in 2006 and in 2009 “The Hurt Locker” premiered at SXSW before going on to win the Best Picture Oscar.
SXSW has expanded from an initially overwhelming start of about 700 attendees in 1987 to nearly 12,000 for music alone. With Interactive and Film, SXSW now accommodates nearly 20,000 registrants for each section. It is grown substantially beyond what these 4 founders ever dreamed and seeing them on stage at the “Outside Industry” premiere; they still seem wide-eyed and flabbergasted.
Perhaps, a bit jaded too. The documentary’s interviews are honest and revealing in the discontented struggles some of them have dealt with in taming a monster. Though, they are still excited and optimistic in what SXSW has become and how it may still evolve.
It’s apparent that they’ve adapted to criticism, like printing “SXSW SUX” t-shirts in reaction to the call of hypocrisy endured. That hypocrisy comes in that it was supposed to be a music festival for the rest of us, a way for independent acts to get noticed and evolve themselves. When major record labels started seeing SXSW as a way to break new acts at corporately sponsored showcases, it become something else.
The same dilemma exists with film, as its reputation formed as a way for new directors to breakthrough with emerging visions. Though major studios got in on the action as a way to premiere red carpet films as well. Where tech geeks could break new ideas like Twitter, SXSW soon become a poster board of sponsorships for Aol., Microsoft and Samsung.
Hence the Elephant parable, where all of us are blindfolded grabbing hold of segments that may be interactive, cinematic or musical. Alan Berg did a phenomenal job of painting the ambiguous canvas that SXSW is. He also tapped into something that could be a lesson for the rest of the world grappling between independent tendencies and corporate strongholds. For 9 days, Austin seems to be a place where these seemingly confrontational worlds briefly co-exist in a state of hype and opportunity.