The great SXSW switcheroo: Geeks out, rockers in

Each year at South by Southwest, there's a sudden cultural shift as Interactive ends and Music begins. But for one 24 hour period, the two communities overlap.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
In the waning hours of the Interactive side of South by Southwest, two attendees look up something on an iPhone. Daniel Terdiman/CNET
On Tuesday night, as SXSW Interactive winds down, the rockers in town for SXSW Music begin to patrol the streets. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--Looking out the window of my hotel this afternoon, just across from the convention center here where thousands of South by Southwest attendees have been swarming like ants for days, I saw something altogether new.

Very thin people in with long hair and tight black pants carrying musical instruments were, if not everywhere, then all over the place.

Welcome to the annual population changeover as SXSW Interactive ends and SXSW Music begins.

Technically, those two sides of the festival (there's also SXSW Film, which lasts for ten full days) don't overlap, as Interactive ends today and Music starts tomorrow. But you wouldn't know it from the medley of personality types that was out on the streets of Austin today.

As someone who's been coming to SXSW since 2006, and has almost always stayed until at least the first day of Music, this changeover is something I'm quite used to--and love to watch in action. For years, I stayed at the Hilton during SXSW, and it was always a kick watching the general demographic in the elevator change overnight once the music folks started arriving.

Science fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling put a point on it today in his traditional Interactive closing rant--excuse me, speech. The musicians, Sterling said, tend to "dress up" like "Brooklyn hipsters [with] torn shirts, a beard, ragged cutoffs, and Converses without socks." By comparison, the Interactive folks "look very well put together...more like Web design people, and they've all got iPhones."

Of course, the geeks are all clutching "fondle slabs" (iPads) in Sterling's vision and occasionally stop to catch their reflections in windows, only to see that "the device looks great and I look like hammered hell."

Clearly, there's more than way for any SXSW attendee to look, and I hate to stereotype, but sometimes stereotypes exist for a reason. And by that measure, it's often not at all hard to tell, at a glance, which color someone's conference badge is going to be--orange for Interactive, or green for Music--without actually looking at it.

On the other hand, it's not just the people that are changing as SXSW sheds its Interactive skin. Some of the buildings around here are also going through a metamorphosis.

Take Max's Wine Dive, for example. The Austin restaurant about two blocks from the convention center has been home for the last two SXSW Interactives to the CNN Grill, a hot spot for gatherings, panels, and free food and drink. But only during Interactive. Today, walking by, (almost) all the CNN signage was gone, and Max's was once again Max's.

The CNN Grill at SXSW 2011. It looked almost exactly the same this year. Scott Beale/Laughing Squid

Like so much in Austin, signs of SXSW Interactive--in this case, the CNN Grill--disappear literally overnight. Daniel Terdiman/CNET
And walking by the convention center this evening, it had very much the feel of a just-ended conference, what with crews rapidly tearing down big booths and lots of discarded marketing material. Except instead of the space being empty tomorrow, it'll be packed with hordes of rockers and rocker wannabes plus lots of music execs.

Still, there's more crossover between the programming of the Interactive and Music sides of SXSW than ever before. If you took a quick look at the Music panel schedule, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had inadvertently included some Interactive sessions. For example: "Beethoven + Social Media = Crowdfunding Patronage;" "Getting your Music/Tech Startup Funded;" and "Digital Musicologists: Online Music's Tastemakers."

And that's just what's scheduled for 11 a.m. on Wednesday.

Maybe that similarity is because the Interactive world is slowly but surely subsuming all other forms of media and entertainment, even if it hasn't totally completed the job. As Sterling put it, those in the Interactive industry shouldn't get a big head because they're "not [yet] in the same league as the film people [who] could wipe the floor with you [because] you haven't yet eaten their industry totally, the way you did with music some time ago."

But then again, maybe there's something else that a lot of the folks attending both Interactive and Music have in common. And it was said best by Twitter user @lionelrecruits: "The cool, somewhat-employed people in startups are being replaced by the cool, somewhat-employed people in bands."