President’s Appearance at SXSW Marks Growing Influence of Festival

Photo Courtesy of Michael Williams, Wikipedia

While some college students spent their spring break on the beaches of the Virgin Islands, others joined thousands of fellow festival-goers in visiting South by Southwest, or SXSW, in Austin, Texas. The largest event of its kind, the over-one-week-long festival combines the likes of exhibitions, interactive new media, film screenings and music showcases, generating exposure for new businesses and artists and emerging technologies.

Ramapo alumni Sean Ritchie, who attended the event to represent his own start-up company, enjoyed the festival immensely:

"SXSW is a wonderful convergence of music, film, intellect and innovation, set in a city that is ideal for the desired fun-filled atmosphere. It really brings the city alive, with both locals and people flying in from all over the world networking throughout the entire conference,” he said.

As far as networking goes, if there was any one keynote speaker to connect with, it was President Barack Obama, who kicked off the first day of the interactive part of SXSW at the Keynote Conversation and reappeared later in the week as the opening keynote speaker at SXSW Music.

At the Conversation, Obama sat with Evan Smith, editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, and addressed issues of civic engagement in the 21st century. He encouraged the technology-savvy to share their talents with the world, in an effort to modernize the government. Obama’s appearances represented the first time in 30 years a sitting president has participated at SXSW and his presence highlighted the festival’s ever-growing influence on the music industry and the world.

The change and innovation Obama spoke of was on display on the trade-show floor. It was a hub of interactive demonstrations: at the NASA table, HTC Vive headsets gave a virtual reality tour of the International Space Station. Nearby, the Flash Drives for Freedom project showcased flash drives loaded with e-books and other media. The Human Rights Foundation plans to smuggle the devices into North Korea. Across the way, far-from-home Burlington, Massachusetts, startup Uvero used tiny balloons in people's ears to map the contours of them digitally in order to make custom-fitted earphones.

The SXSW Music portion serves to introduce artists to new fans and record labels, in an attempt to kick-start their careers. Popular artists like The Strokes, Sia, Alabama Shakes, Haim and J. Cole were all discovered at SXSW events. Standout performers this year included La Luz, White Lung – a Vancouver-based pop-punk group – and Lapsley, a British powerhouse predicted to be a great new addition to the music scene at large.

Among the up-and-coming acts were more established artists as well. This year, big-name southern rappers including 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne performed, as did Young Thug, who paraded down the streets of Austin promoting a new mixtape. Atlanta-based rapper Future made an appearance, rapping his hit song with Drake,“Jumpman,” and his featured chorus on Ace Hood’s “Bugatti.”

The most surprising performance of all was delivered by Drake, who appeared unannounced at The Fader Port – traditionally the SXSW’s largest party – to deliver a six-song set and announce a new album and tour.

The convention was an explosion of creativity, invention and entertainment, according to Ritchie.

“Whether you're going as a college student, entrepreneur, start-up focused or with an established business, SXSW really has everything you need to land a dream job, network and grow a career and a business,” he said.