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The South By Southwest Effect: How The Festival Affects Austin


I'm Michel Martin coming to you from Austin, Texas. And now it's time for the Barbershop. But because we're in Austin, we were thinking about calling it the Barbecue Shop. I'm sorry. That was terrible. I apologize. Everybody here is like no. So all right. Either way, this is where we invite an interesting group of people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. So we decided to call upon our colleagues here in Austin for their take on the news of the week.

Ben Philpott is a senior editor at member station KUT here in Austin. He covers politics among other things. Nancy Flores covers music and Latino culture at Austin 360 and the Austin American-Statesman. Omar Gallaga covers tech for the Austin American-Statesman. You might remember his All Tech Considered segments for NPR.

And last, but certainly, not least Daisy Wang. She's a freshman at the University of Texas here in Austin. She's been covering South by Southwest for the college paper The Daily Texan. Thanks everybody for being here. We really appreciate it.

BEN PHILPOTT: Thank you.

NANCY FLORES: Thank you.


MARTIN: So Ben Philpott, I'm going to start with you because this whole week people have been partying up and down 6th street. But right at the end of the street, you see the state capitol building, and it kind of reminds you about some of the battles playing out, not just here but across the country. But, you know, Austin is an overwhelmingly liberal progressive city - whatever term you prefer. The state legislature is not.

And there are the stories that the city kind of feels that they're in the crosshairs of the state legislature trying to undo some of the policy positions favored by the city, and that's going to sound familiar to people who have been following politics and in a lot of other places. What are some of the big issues playing out there at the legislature right now?

PHILPOTT: You know, the biggest ones right now for Austin are things like a bill to create a fine for sanctuary cities, also the so-called bathroom bill which would overrule the city's own non-discrimination ordinance for allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. And then also one bill that would change the city's ordinance on ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft. The city had passed - actually voted - the people had created a new ordinance. Uber and Lyft didn't like it, so they left the city. And the state is now trying to to change that.

MARTIN: Did I overstate it or do I have it right that the - sort of the political leadership here kind of feels a little bit under siege? Does that sound right to you?

PHILPOTT: In terms of the city level?

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.

PHILPOTT: You know, I think that Austin - the state legislatures had a long history of not playing nice with Austin, even when Democrats were in charge at the state legislature. So this is just kind of another year for that.

But there have definitely been those three big issues - are things that I think the city of Austin, the majority of the people of Austin are not pleased with what the legislature is doing.

MARTIN: Nancy, you've been covering music here at South by and I take it that this has also - the politics of the moment is very much on the minds of a lot of the artists that you've been covering. Tell us more about that.

FLORES: Definitely. Both the artists and the festival goers we've been seeing, you know - there's been a lot of attention around the travel ban and despite of that, you know, there's been just stellar international music. You know, in spite of everything that's been going on, we've seen on Thursday the Latino Resist concert. We've seen the Contraband concert featuring artists from the countries affected by the travel ban. And tonight, actually, there'll be another performance of Latin musicians called South by Southwest Unidos.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the artist - did the artists kind of get together and say this is the statement we want to make or did it kind of happen organically, if I could use that term?

FLORES: Yeah. I think different artists - I mean, some are definitely more direct. And, you know, definitely speaking their minds on the stage when it comes to the policies of President Trump. And some are more general and are taking more of a approach of, you know, let's feel the love, let's respect each other and let's take care of each other.

MARTIN: Daisy, you were telling us that you were hearing that that side of it a lot - let's just use this as an opportunity to celebrate. But you were also telling us that the prices at this festival put it out of the reach of a lot of your peers, let's say.

DAISY WANG: Yeah. For sure. So I know badgers themselves market for at least 1,500 for the platinum badge and a lot of the shows and stuff - entry is guaranteed on priority access for badge-holders. So a lot of students like people like me who are students who don't have, like, a steady income really, it's hard to kind of find things that can be affordable that are easy to get into. Yeah.

There are a lot of free shows, but I think especially during the nighttime, you know, you spend a lot of your time waiting in lines. And I was talking to someone at a show, and they were telling me, you know, back a couple of years ago, you could wait at an official showcase. And you could get in easily even if you didn't have a badge. But nowadays, it's a lot harder to do that.

MARTIN: And, you know, I have to ask this is it still cool? Is South by still cool?

WANG: Yeah. For sure. South by is still - yeah.

MARTIN: I'm so relieved.


WANG: No, South by for sure is still a place that, like, a lot of students and young people in Austin have an opportunity to get together and kind of celebrate the art here because Austin is such, like, a hub of artistic culture and music. So South by is definitely still cool and relevant.

MARTIN: OK. Thank you. Relieved. Omar, you cover tech, so was the tech community talking politics this year?

GALLAGA: It was, and a lot of the programming was themed to that. We had two days of Tech Under Trump panels that happened Wednesday and Thursday. We had Joe Biden - was probably the biggest name at the entire conference. We had stuff from Cory Booker. We had stuff from Van Jones. There was a lot of political talk, not just on the stages, but also in the hallways. Everybody was kind of freaking out this year a little bit.

MARTIN: Really? We're actually going to hear from one of our colleagues Laura Sydell about this in just a few minutes later this hour. But tell me why. Why are people freaking out?

GALLAGA: There's just a lot of uncertainty. I think not only in Trump's policies of how they're going to affect immigration, HB-1 visas, how they're going to affect the way these start-ups are going to be doing business. So not only in the start-up world, but also in social policy. So there's a lot of South by Southwest that's about where culture meets technology, and you can't really have that conversation without getting into the politics or in the air right now.

MARTIN: Now, same question I asked Daisy - is it still cool?

GALLAGA: You're asking...

MARTIN: You've been coming for a long time. Is it still cool?

GALLAGA: You're asking the 41-year-old dad of two is South by Southwest still cool. I enjoy it. I love it. I like being out. It's my one, like, hall pass of the year to be out every night all night for seven days, so I'm having a blast.

MARTIN: Anything cool - did you see anything that was particularly impressive?

GALLAGA: I - there was a lot of talk last year about VR and AR - augmented reality and virtual reality. And this year, the one that I saw that was kind of interesting was basically a 10-minute commercial for "The Mummy" movie with Tom Cruise, but it actually put people in these swivelling, tilting chairs that were simulating zero gravity.

So you had VR plus zero gravity, plus Tom Cruise running around in zero - you know, twirling in zero G. And, you know, that - you know, it was basically a promo for a movie that's coming out in June - sure, whatever - but it was neat, you know, a neat tweak on VR that I hadn't seen before...

MARTIN: Virtual reality. The experience was kind of amazing.

GALLAGA: It tied into how pop culture is really taking - overtaken South by, how you see these TV activations for "Better Call Saul" and "Twin Peaks." It really is a multimedia conference that ties in all that stuff together.

MARTIN: Nancy, was there something that jumped out to you, a group or an act that we should look out for?

FLORES: Yes. Cuba's La Dame Blanche is a hip-hop artist who just takes command of the stage and struts in with smoking her cigar with a cape and starts spitting her rhymes and then whips out a flute and starts breaking it down on the flute. And she's amazing and a must-see artist.

MARTIN: That sounds amazing. So, Ben, I was giving - I gave you the first one. I'm going to give you the last two.

PHILPOTT: All right.

MARTIN: You told us that South by Southwest represents a lot of things about Austin - some of them good and some of them not so good. You said it's exclusive, expensive and impossible to navigate. You want to tell us a little bit more about that?


MARTIN: Remembering that you have to stay here, and we don't (laughter).

PHILPOTT: You know, as we were hearing earlier, it is just extremely expensive and not all parts of the city, you know, can make it to a festival like this, can afford to come to a festival like this and then can take part in the extra money, the extra people that are coming into town.

You know, you leave the city core and businesses are having trouble kind of even generating people to come by on the weekend because they are all are focused in this one part of town. Driving - I mean, you know, just trying to get to the studio here today Interstate 35 which goes through the middle of the city - it's like being in a real big city like Atlanta or Los Angeles or something. If it's during the day, it's just a parking lot.

MARTIN: But before - but - OK. But having said all that, you were - you didn't clear out of town like a lot of people seem to do. Are you having any fun? And I assume that wasn't just for us, and we certainly do appreciate your staying in town to hang out with us a little bit. But are you having any fun? Is it still fun?

PHILPOTT: Yes. It is kind of still fun. It's almost like being at a, you know, spring break on the coast or something. I mean, people are walking around with this different kind of energy that you don't feel all the time here in Austin, and so it's neat. Even if the energy is coming from people with, you know, $400 badges hanging around their neck.

MARTIN: Or more.

PHILPOTT: Or more.

MARTIN: (Laughter). Daisy, I didn't ask you if you're having any fun. I'm hoping you're having fun.

WANG: No, definitely I'm having a lot of fun. It's an awesome opportunity.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for everybody for having some fun with us. Ben Philpott is a senior editor here at member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Nancy Flores and Omar Gallaga are with the Austin American-Statesman. Nancy covers music and culture. Omar covers tech. And Daisy Wang - do I have it right?

WANG: Yes (laughter).

MARTIN: All right. Our rising star is a freshman at the University of Texas and writes for The Daily Texan. They were all kind enough to join us here at the Texas Standard Studio at KUT. Thank you all so much for being here with us.

PHILPOTT: Thank you.

WANG: Thank you.

FLORES: Thank you.

GALLAGA: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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