When Dorothy Gale wakes up from her epic dream at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she’s confused because of her dream’s realness.
“It wasn’t a dream – it was a place! And you and you and you were there,” she says.
After attending a few events at SXSW 2014, I woke up feeling like Dorothy, confused yet conscious after the tornado. My tornado, however, is self-inflicted and I’ve been religiously attending for eight or nine years.
On Wednesday, March 12, I had left downtown Austin and was on Twitter when the news broke on social media of the horrific incident that took place. Three people have died after an intoxicated driver, Rashad Charjuan Owens, plowed through a crowded sidewalk. The collision sent 23 people to local hospitals with injuries that night.
It could have been any of us on that sidewalk. That could have been me. That could have been my brother who was at Mohawk earlier in the day. Tyler, the Creator was scheduled to perform and that could have been my cousins on their way to see the show. If my friends and I ever had a routine hangout spot in Austin, it might have been Mohawk. I coincidentally didn’t return.
Andy Langer of 99.3 KSGR and music editor at Esquire spoke his mind in a blog post, later republished by Forbes, about the commercialism Doritos came to symbolize at SXSW via an extensive sponsorship/campaign. Their over-the-top presence with the world’s largest vending machine was a stark contrast to the young Austin crowd’s underlying mission to buy local and stay alternative – “Keep Austin Weird,” right? Langer does not condemn their practices entirely – he cites the economic benefits, $218.2 million in 2013, Austin enjoys from the week of concerts and conferences.
Other music festivals around the country like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo bring in millions of dollars to local economies, $120 million and $50 million respectively in 2012. According to a study by the Convention Industry Council, “1.83 million corporate and business meetings, trade shows, conventions, congresses, incentive events and other meetings” took place in 2012 resulting in $280 billion in direct spending and nearly two millions jobs.
Cities want to host the Superbowl and the Olympics. Cities compete to host political conventions like the RNC and DNC.
Comic-Con, the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3), MIDEM are all conferences with various focus that get national attention. TED is a popular lecture series where speakers present their expertise and provide their fascinating perspectives. These annual events bring individuals from all over the world to participate. Some conventions are held in a single venue, while some are take place in various locations spread throughout a city, like CMJ Music Marathon.
San Antonio is a convention town. The city has specifically invested in conference space and the tourism and hospitality industries. We’re built to host visitors and keep them entertained. The Henry B Gonzalez Convention Center has over 440,000 square feet of exhibit space. We have the Alamodome, arenas, amphitheaters, hundreds of hotels with meeting space. San Antonio is also home to any number community activities in the arts and entertainment. Soon, we’ll have the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts to showcase it all.
As it is now, these events happen randomly throughout the year, but San Antonio could start strategically rescheduling them to overlap or be hosted in an effective sequence to develop one of these mega-conventions. For example, hold TEDxSA during Restaurant Week when Luminaria also takes place and hosts a series of concerts. this may provide a more concentrated opportunity to put San Antonio’s best under one, national spotlight.
San Antonio’s new growth is accompanied with a refreshed identity. We are in a unique position to steer our city’s rise towards a conscience direction. Before our eyes turn green for other cities’ festivals like SXSW, we should ask ourselves if San Antonio wants a cultural interpretation of ourselves mass marketed to us? Do we want outsiders to come into our city and say “This is who I think you are. Here’s some energy drink.”
Gentrification is now the one of biggest “four-letter” words and the caution exercised in developing older neighborhoods can be applied elsewhere like in our arts and entertainment industries. As our neighbors’s events reach a national audience and corporate interests develop, we run the risk of “SXSWizing.” Something that was once “real and authentic” is now “buy this and drink this.”
The documentary “Gringo Trails” explores the idea that world travel has an adverse effect on cultures and the environment. The various things we travel the world to experience are becoming homogenized and depleted.
There is a grit and a rawness that SA maintains that will get lost in a mass produced adaption of ourselves. An Animal Planet “showcase” and a seven story tall Doritos vending machine parodies the purest intentions of SXSW, an event directly tied to the identity and economic success of the Live Music Capital of the World.
The creation of Hemisfair wasn’t without controversy, yet the World’s Fair in 1968 brought San Antonio into national awareness and arguably helped usher San Antonio into the modern era. By taking a page out of many events, not just SXSW, San Antonio could develop a conference that includes the best of many fields and that doesn’t mutate into a corporate advertising frenzy. We could host a convention that’s big on ideas, yet stays true to our core intentions and values.
*Featured/top image: The infamous 6th Street during the first day of music at SXSW 2014. Photo by Mile Terracina.