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SXSW

Every year in March, around 30 000 people descend upon the city of Austin – that bastion of cool in the sea that is the state of Texas. The mega-event brings together music, film and tech enthusiasts, and it’s been known to launch careers of bands like the Grammy-nominated Alabama Shakes, and kick off buzz for movies like the critically-acclaimed indie Short Term 12 (a must-see if you haven’t yet). It’s biggest impact is within the tech world, where Southby (as it’s affectionately known) has been the launching pad for Twitter and Foursquare. Disturbingly, this year’s event was marred by a car crash in which a drunken performer who was speeding away from police, rammed his car into a crowd outside one of the venues, killing 2 people and injuring dozens. It left a sombre mood over what is usually a festival occasion for celebrating new ideas. But, in the spirit of that celebration, the 5 trends  that stuck out most for me from this year’s event…

Your next favourite chef may not be a person…

IBM created a lot of buzz for its food truck that was giving out samples to show off Watson, the computing system best known for winning Jeopardy three years ago. It’s able to create food items no human chef could think up. Kenyan Brussels sprouts with sweet potato puree, ginger and almonds, anyone? How about a creamy Czech pork belly moussaka with peas, parsley root, cottage cheese and dill? With Watson, you input a region, a main ingredient or two and a type of food, such as soup or pie, and it analyzes thousands of recipes and matches chemical flavor compounds that are most likely to surprise people and also taste good. IBM says Watson is not meant to replace chefs, but it does show what cognitive computing is capable of. Like organizing my cupboard, perhaps?

* Hey Mr DJ, no need to put a record on…

A new start-up, called Lightwave, has created technology that pretty much makes asking for song requests unnecessary – because the DJ will be able to ‘feel’ what you want to hear. A-Trak played a party held inside a giant plastic igloo, where about 150 people wore special bracelets that measured their movement, body temperature and excitement level. The DJ had an iPad in front of him that showed the crowd’s excitement in real-time, and he could adjust it according to the dancers’ mood. Waitresses also served bottles of water when temperatures started rising too much from all the dancing. Lightwave believes the technology is useful not just for bands at concerts, but also for movies, sporting events and political rallies.

Make space in your wallet for Bitcoin…

An ATM installed on the floor of the SXSW Trade Show that allowed people to buy bitcoins using cash, together with the various panels dedicated to the subject, show just seriously we should be taking the headline-making currency, which was launched in 2008. Pundits like the fact that the virtual currency is a network that lets people transfer ownership, and is an alternative to buying services and products online via a public ledger. More bitcoin ATMs are due to be installed in Asia and Europe, and even rapper Nas, whose friend venture capitalist Ben Horowitz has invested about $50 million in Bitcoin-related start-ups, is a fan.

* You may finally be able to keep some secrets…

Security and privacy online were major themes at Southby this year, what with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden both beaming into virtual conversations. Both called for the public to be more conscious of the information shared online, and, elsewhere at the fest, Tor, the free software that prevents people from learning your location or browsing habits, was lauded. As was an app called Secret launched a month ago. It lets people share their deepest and darkest thoughts with the people they know, without their names attached. So kinda like Facebook, without the faces.

Get used to seeing everyone wearing glasses…

And not just the cool hipster kind. All throughout Austin, people could be spotted wearing Google Glass, giving rise to Instagram hashtags of the word ‘Glassholes’. The term entered the popular lexicon to ridicule early adopters of the technology that allows you to record things and surf the web through a glass panel you wear over your eyes. But, as pretentious as the wearers may seem, experts seem to agree that we are only at the beginning of the technology acceptance cycle, and there is much more to come from the potential Google Glass has to offer. Given the number of sessions devoted to it at Southby, it won’t be long before we’re all dealing with laws about where one can and can’t wear the glasses.

Somewhere along the time and space continuum, it became March 2014 already. So here we are, on the eve of another SXSW adventure. For that really is the only way to describe the next 10 days of tech, film and music events. This year’s line-up spans the serious – virtual discussions with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange about the issues of privacy and freedom of information – to the super fun – Bill Cosby performing to a room of 300 people (try getting into that venue!) and Lena Dunham talking about how one creates an Emmy-nominated  hit TV show that’s spawned many an Internet essay.

This will be my 3rd time covering the event – all 3 of the portions:  Interactive, Film and Music. I’ll be looking to see and do as much as my enthusiasm will allow (which, as many know, is a lot). There are highlights I’ve already put down in a schedule, but I also have taken heed of the golden rule of SXSW (and any good festival, really) to be ready to go with the flow too.

Some of the highlights I’m looking forward to include seeing Austin Kleon, author of one of my favourite books on being creative, Steal Like an Artist, who’ll be talking about his new one, Show Your Work, hearing Robert Duvall talk about his long and fruitful career, seeing an extended Q-and-A with Wes Anderson following a screening of his latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel, trying to get into that Bill Cosby show, experiencing Damon Albarn‘s first solo album, Everyday Robots, in concert, trying to track down as many of the bands on the NPR Austin 100 list, and, and, and…I’ve barely scratched the surface.  There really is so much to factor in – including the spontaneity that usually goes along with a SXSW adventure. You can bet I’ll do my best – with a breakfast taco or two along the way!

* The Arctic Monkeys won 2 prizes at this year’s Brit Awards, which were, for the first time, streamed live online. The Sheffield rockers performed at the ceremony, along with the likes of Beyonce, Katy Perry and Bruno Mars. 

* Sir Elton John, Jack White, Kanye West and Lionel Ritchie are headlining this year’s Bonnaroo festival, making the festival sound like it’s going to be an eclectic mix of an experience.

* Staying with music, Apple announced its iTunes Festival will be setting up at this year’s SXSW – Coldplay will open the music portion of the conference/festival. We’re still waiting on the announcement about who the Keynote music speaker will be…Any chance we’ll get Bono or Sir Paul McCartney??

* The cast of the new Fantastic Four reboot has yet to be confirmed, but it looks as though Miles Teller (who had an excellent year at Sundance earlier), Kate Mara (currently shining in House of Cards), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station‘s breakout star) and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) will be the ones playing the Marvel superheroes.

* Tori Amos is preparing to release her 13th studio album, which has the very Amos-esqe title of Unrepentant Geraldines. It’s due out in May, and the cover art shows off her appreciation for visual arts too.

[Pic: Brit Awards]

SXSW
I can feel the inspiration coursing through my veins – the visceral, tingling feeling of being driven to action that comes from listening to someone passionate about their life and their living. I’ve been getting small doses of it here at SXSW, but this morning, it came in one big shot, courtesy of Dave Grohl.

Donning spectacles that he got “from a pharmacy”, the Scream/Nirvana/Foo Fighters musician took to the stage of Ballroom D in the Austin Convention Centre to school those gathered in the room (and listening online) about the importance of finding one’s voice and putting the musician first. Whether or not you’re a musician, Dave’s words had relevance and meaning. And aside from that, he’s a compelling storyteller (even when not singing or playing instruments) with a killer sense of humour. (Witness the laughter at his telling us about entering a battle of the bands with a group called Nameless – “you think it’s easy coming up with a band name? It’s the hardest f***ing part. Foo Fighters is a dumb f***ing name!” he roared.)

I still have some of Bruce Springsteen’s words from last year’s keynote written on a piece of paper pinned to my fridge door. The lesson I took away from that stirring speech was “have ironclad confidence but know that you suck!” – a healthy balance of self-belief and humility useful to any profession.

From Mr Grohl, who called delivering today’s keynote “his musical life’s greatest honour,” I took away a few more insights into what makes him one of the industry’s most loved and respected artists, starting with the beginning of his musical fire. How first hearing Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein made him want to make his own music, even if at first, it was “only about [his] parents, [his] dog and friends down the street.” How listening to his cousin Tracy’s punk rock collection was the “first day of the rest of [his] life.” How he wanted to “incite a riot, or a revolution, or save someone’s life, or inspire them” – just as he’d seen happen around him with the music scene of the Regan-era. But most importantly, how he found his independence, his space and place in the world, by “being left alone to find [his] voice.”

“Am I the best drummer in the world? No, he chuckled. “Am I the best singer? Not even in this room!” he bellowed. But I have a voice.” The self-confessed Gangnam Style fan proposed: “Whose to say what’s a good voice and what’s not a good voice? The Voice??, he answered himself, incredulously, before asking us to imagine the scenario of Christina Aguilera adjudicating Bob Dylan.

“As a proud father,” Dave said of his two children, “I pray they’re left to their devices to find their own voices.”

There’s no doubt Grohl’s words today – just like his music – will certainly inspire the very aim he’s wanted his whole life. At the very least, he’s made this fan-turned-student-for-a-day, who feels a little like she’s lost her voice, feel thrill of determined passion once again.

SXSW

SXSW
This past weekend was filled with epic moments of the SXSW-kind – from hearing Elon Musk talk about how he wants to see travel to Mars happen in his lifetime, to getting drenched in a downpour after dancing to DJ Spooky in an underground wine cellar. We’re constantly hearing that this event is all about serendipity, and being open to moments as they happen; to have a plan but be ready to scrap it at a moment’s notice, and that is a great way to approach SXSW.

Except for when it comes to Elon Musk. This was one talk I – or anyone else for that matter – was not going to scrap for anything. The South African-born space explorer gave insight into his life as the head of three multi-billion dollar, game-changing companies – SpaceX, Tesla Motors and Solar City – at Day 2 of SXSW. Here is a great (w)rap up of it from Saul Paul. The organizers had him sum up the keystones of Musk’s interview with author Chris Anderson:

I also wrote about it for Memeburn, so you can read that here. But it was interesting to hear someone like him say that his biggest mistake has been to put more emphasis on someone’s talent over their personality. Musk said he thinks it’s important to have a good heart, and that should be even more important than skill level and accomplishment. A killer combination of all that would be the ultimate though – so no harm in continuing to pursue the best!

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More great and inspiring words came from Newark mayor Cory Booker, who told SXSWers that he is going to run for Senate. The man should run for the President in a few years time, he’s got the right kind of attitude needed for higher office. As mayor, he’s used Twitter to really engage with his constituents and I’ve seen how he replies to such a large number of people that it’s no wonder he’s the poster-man for coffee.

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As for the film portion of my SXSW adventure, I managed to see Some Girl(s), which was originally a play by Neil LeBute and stars Adam Brody, and Before Midnight, the third and final piece in Richard Linklater’s love letter to life and human connection. Neil, who adapted the script for the Some Girl(s) wasn’t in town for the premiere, due to weather-affected travel delays, but Adam was, and he sat in front of me, squirming a little in his seat during the film’s more intimate moments.

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An absolute highlight though was seeing how Jesse and Celine face the cold hard truth of life at 40 in Linklater’s Before Midnight. He was there to introduce the film, telling us stories about being at the first incarnation of SXSW Film 20 years ago. The movie is set in Greece this time and it will leave you applauding the filmmaker with even more respect and admiration than he already commands.

For the second year in a row, I’m at South by Southwest, or as it’s commonly referred to by those who head to Austin every year, “South By.” I like to think I’m prepared for the onslaught of music, film and interactive knowledge that will be spread during these next few days, but I know better. Last year was fantastic, but it was tiring and exhausting too – all that mental stimulation can be overwhelming.

But then I remember that I heard Bruce Springsteen talk about his childhood steeped in music, saw Jay-Z perform Empire State of Mind at Austin City Limit and listened to Al Gore converse with Sean Parker about the future of social media’s impact on society. There were so many other magical moments of interaction that have me hooked on this annual shindig. So, here I am, back for all that and more.

Day One was spent familiarizing myself with all the important details that help make a festival run smoother – ie where one can find the nearest source of decent coffee and, for a more acceptable time of day, the best dispenser of sweet tea vodka.

Highlight from Day One was heading to the Paramount Theatre for the premiere of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, starring Steve Carrell, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde. It was a fun way to start the film part of the fest at one of my favourite venues here in Austin.

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And then today, listening to the infectiously-enthusiastic Danny Boyle was inspiring, even for those non-filmmakers of us who were in the audience. The Oscar-winning director, who originally set out to be a priest, didn’t make his first feature Shallow Graveuntil he was 38. It was so interesting to hear how he goes about directing actors and working with music collaborators, particularly Rick Smith, one half of Underworld (who can resist getting lost in Born Trippy?). Rick has worked with Danny again now on his new movie, Trance, and we got to see a sneak preview of it. And it looks like another Boyle-inspired thrill ride!

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The highlight of this SXSW Festival was announced a few months ago, and it’s the reason I’ve been looking forward to coming to Austin for the event: Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address. It was everything I hoped for and more. The line to get into it was snaking around the convention center 2 hours before he was due to speak, but it was well-worth getting into the auditorium earlier, especially since there was a tribute to the influential singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie who died in the 60s, highlighting the incredible power of his lasting legacy.

From Austin’s own Eliza Gilkyson to Jimmy LaFave and Spanish heart-throb Juanes (who sang at Mandela Day in New York in 2009), the set was a beautiful and moving testament to the man whose music is archived in the Library of Congress and the whole auditorium sang along to This Land is Your Land. Truly amazing. It was only fitting that the Guthrie tribute took place before Springsteen spoke – the singer was deeply influenced by the folk musician.

When Springsteen took to the stage, he was self-deprecating, humorous and sincere. Surprisingly, I also found him to look younger than I thought he would. He had the crowd spell-bound, listening to the evolution of his music career – how it all began and the way the various influences shaped and shifted him. And, grabbing a guitar from off stage, Springsteen illustrated the highlights along the way.

Pic: SXSW/Brian Brazer

I tried to tweet as much as I could because it truly was something worth sharing. Springsteen started by saying that when he first picked up a guitar there were only 10 years of rock history to draw on and that it was amazing to see what was happening in Austin now. He proceeded to list all the various genres and sub-genres (like black death metal) that are on display here now. It had the audience in stitches!

Some of my favourite quotes from Springsteen on his influences:

- on Elvis: “Inspired by the passion in Elvis’ pants, I wrapped my 6 year old fingers around my 1st guitar.”

- on Roy Orbison: “The coolest uncool guy you’d ever seen…sticking his knife deep into the belly of your teenage fears.”

- on Phil Spector: “If Roy Orbison was opera, Phil Spector was symphonies. He taught me sound, sound, sound is its own language.

- on The Beatles: “Looking at their album cover was like seeing the silent gods of Olympus; they were so cool. They had me thinking I’m never going to get there.”

- on The Animals: “They struck me deep as the first class-conscious album I’d ever heard.”

- on his admiration for R&B: “I went from being in awe of Sex Pistols punk to Motown soul music – adult music, sung by adults, not teenagers.”

- on James Brown: “Underrated, even still today.”

- on Bob Dylan: “He gave us the words to understand our hearts; he is the father of my musical country.”

- on country music: “The working man’s blues; full of the small+big things that allow you to put one foot in front of another.”

- on Woody Guthrie: I wanted an answer to Hank Williams’ question: why does my bucket have a hole in it…and I found Woody Guthrie, the ghost in the machine, and his fatalism was tempered with practical idealism.”

And then, The Boss’ words of wisdom for new artists – and the rest of us too:

New bands, learn how to bring it live and then do it night after night. Your audience will remember you. That was my meal ticket…

Rumble young musicians, rumble.

Open your ears, and open your hearts.

Don’t take yourself too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron-clad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and, you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two have the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your heart and head at all times…if it doesn’t drive you crazy it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive.

And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have. Then remember that it’s only rock & roll.

If you’re a fan, you’ll want to watch this in its entirety:

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So, about being ready for it all…

The rain was quite a damper on the first day, making it extra challenging to find my way around an already unfamiliar landscape. Although the majority of the panels take place in the Austin Convention Center, there are a whole bunch of other places, at hotels and the like, where other talks take place. While trying to find my way around, I missed two panels because I was also trying to find rain-boots and an umbrella. The forecast seems to be predicting that this weather is going to be hanging around so I wanted to make sure I was sorted for the rest of my 9 days here. Unlike New York, or even Cannes, those mysterious men who pop up selling umbrellas at the first sound of a rain drop are not here, and the stores here were not quite prepared for the downpour, having all run out of umbrellas by early afternoon. I didn’t find rain-boots, but I did find a pair of cheap Vans, and, it seems, my inner skater girl.

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Still, Day 1 was fun, and interesting, and overwhelming, and cool and…scary. The premiere of the much-anticipated The Cabin in the Woods was a highlight of the day. The queue of dedicated fans (and journalists) snaked around the beautiful Paramount Theatre in the rain. True to the film’s tagline, it certainly isn’t the story you think you know. Although, if you know Joss Whedon, you’ll know a bit of what to expect. He and director Drew Goddard were on hand, together with some of the film’s cast, to answer a few questions after the movie. One person in the audience called it “the last horror movie ever made”, and Joss said it was really happy to finally see the movie being screened to an audience, after it had been on the shelf because MGM studio going bankrupt in 2010.

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As for the Interactive side of things, I managed to get my bearings and figure out the Austin Convention Center. It is a giant hub of techies, tech enthusiasts, tech entrepreneurs, start-up gurus, brand ambassadors, brand developers, gamers, gaming enthusiasts, and more sub-categories related to this digital world we live in.

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Most people recommend making a schedule and being prepared to drop it at any given moment. Have done that already!