South by Free Stuff

Apu makes an appearance at SXSW.
Apu makes an appearance at SXSW.
Image: Grace Dobush
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AUSTIN, Texas—South By Southwest veterans know one thing: If you pay for food or drinks, you’re doing it wrong.

Paying for convention center sandwiches is a total rookie move, as is drinking at the official beer tent, sponsored by Miller this year, across Fourth Street. Every tract of downtown Austin is rented out for these two weeks, and avoiding the unofficial parties seems willfully ignorant. Roving street teams hand you Italian wafer crackers, novel juices and nut bars, just for walking down the street. Brands’ parties are the good stuff (and the invite-only parties are the best stuff).

In 2014, SXSW was responsible for more than $200 million of expenditures in Austin—a huge chunk of that is the parties with grub and booze and swag given so freely to engage influencers and activate brands. In my five days at SXSW Interactive this year, I spent exactly $24.50 (not counting tips given for free drinks), thanks to obsessive research and RSVPs and the generosity of the Austin Technology Council, RealMassive, Ridescout, Huge, Fast Company, Gevalia, Canon, the Knight Foundation, New York Times Magazine, Kind Snacks, Dailymotion, the Simpsons, McDonalds, Gannett, Animal Planet, Fallon, Mashable, Consumer Electronics Association and WeDC.

The very nature of being a badge holder at SXSW indicates, at minimum, middle-class problems. No one being given a promotional T-shirt needs another promotional T-shirt. Every VIP at Mashable’s MashBash on Sunday received a selfie stick upon arrival—as if anyone needed the encouragement—and before midnight dozens of large cheese pizzas surfaced in the crowd. (We stacked them in a pile on a bar table with an ice pit down the middle; there were so many pizzas that we reserved one to potentially barter for a pedicab ride home; no one noticed or cared.)

The length of the non-VIP line at MashBash was baffling, and at some other parties even the queue of very important people ran nearly as long as the line for non-specials. If everyone is important, no one is important; if everything is free, nothing is free. As I went from event lounge to immersive experience to brand activation, it became clear exactly how we pay for all this free stuff at SXSW:


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