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The air in Austin is wet and humid, the city is brimming to capacity, hotels are sold out, vacation rentals are booked. It is early March. This can only mean one thing: South By Southwest is in town.

South By Southwest Festival in Austin Texas, 2012

The phrase “blink and you’ll miss it” is often spoken of South By Southwest (SXSW). But just what is the hoopla all about?

Most people answer this question in three words: “Music in Texas”. It’s true, SXSW Music attracts droves of people to Austin each year. With over 2,000 performers, it is one of the largest music festivals in the United States.

But running through the long list of acts – almost none of which I’ve heard of – I wonder if I could really enjoy SXSW. I’m not the type of music aficionado that follows up-and-coming bands. I’m not sure I’d have the patience to be in an audience of early adopters – eager to discover the next big musical act. So what’s SXSW got for me?

Turns out there’s so much more to do at SXSW than listen to new sounds. In addition to the music, there are other conferences: SXSW Film, SXSW Interactive, SXSWedu, and SXSWeco.

SXSW Film, according to the organizers,

features a dynamic convergence of talent, smart audiences and industry leaders in a uniquely creative environment. A hotbed of discovery and interactivity, the event offers invaluable networking opportunities and immersion into the art and business of independent film. The Film Conference buzzes with world-class speakers, creatives and innovators in a productive social atmosphere…. [The] program celebrates raw innovation and emerging talent, featuring provocative documentaries, comedies, genre standouts and more.

While most of the films do not ascend beyond the indie circuit, some films go on to become hugely successful. The U.S. premiere of The Hurt Locker screened at SXSW in 2010. Although it didn’t take the top prize then, the film went on to beat out Avatar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

SXSW Interactive

features five days of compelling presentations from the brightest minds in emerging technology, scores of exciting networking events hosted by industry leaders and an unbeatable line up of special programs showcasing the best new websites, video games and startup ideas the community has to offer.

SXSW Interactive is watched closely in the tech world. Twitter gained recognition here in 2007, Foursquare launched their application here in 2010, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has attended, as has Craigslist’s Craig Newmark, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook gave the keynote interview in 2008. Last year, Senator Al Franken gave a speech on the importance of Net Neutrality.

SXSWedu “focus[es] on innovations in learning. Leaders in education including policy makers converge to discuss and debate the best practices.” This year, in addition to US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, LeVar Burton, one of my childhood icons – an icon for so many – will be speaking.

LeVar Burton is famous for playing Kunte Kinte in the television miniseries of Alex Haley’s seminal novel Roots, about enslaved Africans forcefully brought to the Americas. Burton went on to play Leitenant Geordi La Forge on the hit sci-fi television series Star Trek. La Forge is a blind nerd who is able to see thanks to a prosthetic visor worn across his eyes. Because of his role as story-teller in the education program Reading Rainbow, where Burton read picture books aloud on camera that was broadcast to millions of children, Burton’s voice has become synonymous with the push for child literacy throughout the nation.

LeVar Burton

LeVar Burton from his Reading Rainbow days

SXSWeco consists of “sessions from experts in the public, private and academic sectors committed to finding solutions for a sustainable world….[it] offer[s] an open and creative space for experienced, passionate and pragmatic professionals to network with a diverse group of influential organizations and individuals.” If life on this planet has any hope for the future, it can be found here.

Huge business interests descend on Austin for the events. Lounges and conference centers are named after soft drink labels, brands of chips, beer, cellular services, and other corporate sponsors. But it isn’t just fortune 500 companies vying for advertising space. Everyone tries to make a buck off of the masses of people who come. Hotels rooms and vacation rentals are all booked. So many locals rent out a mattress or room in their private home in an effort to capitalize off of the demand. For those that have the honor to demonstrate their start-up, screen their film, or perform their music, SXSW represents an enormous opportunity. A lucky few will be selected for distribution deals or find investors to support them.

The event captures the convergence of film and music. “Rockumentaries” are a popular category – and eclectic soundtracks compete for attention. Technology amplifies and broadcasts the happenings far beyond Austin’s city-limits.

Some highlights for this years’ South By Southwest include an interview with the controversial hip-hop duo The Insane Clown Posse. One wonders if, like Marilyn Manson, you sit down with them face-to-face they’re actually soft-spoken and thoughtful. Lionel Richie, the Motown and R&B musician, will be performing, too.

Lionel Ritchie in purple

Lionel Ritchie will perform

The Insane Clown Posse will sit down for an interview

The Insane Clown Posse will sit down for an interview

Everybody and their mother wants to go to SXSW. The more you know, the more you want to go. If for whatever reason you can’t attend, you can still watch a live-stream of SXSW Music via their YouTube channel.

It’s going to be a long week of discovery, learning, and fun (“epic” parties abound).

From music, to film, electronics and technology, for education advocates and the eco friendly, there is something for everyone at SXSW.

SXSW runs from March 9-18

(Photos taken from SXSW.com)

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