Andy Baio is one of Portland's most influential geeks. The former Chief Technology Officer of Kickstarter, he's been writing his hugely influential blog waxy.org for a decade and done a bunch of other stuff you can read about on his Wikipedia page.
This morning, Baio—along with Belfast-based Build festival organizer Andy McMillan—launched one of his most ambitious projects to date: a "disruptive creativity" festival called XOXO, slated to take place in Portland September 13-16 at YU Contemporary.
The festival will be split up into three parts:
1) A conference, with an impressive lineup of speakers, including "the leaders of amazingly creative communities like Etsy, Kickstarter, Canvas and Metafilter, the fiercely independent creators behind World of Goo, MakerBot, Indie Game: The Movie, Star Wars Uncut, Diesel Sweeties and Black Apple, and industry-changing startups like the Atavist, Simple, CASH Music, and VHX.tv."
3) "Fringe" events around the city, including film screening, indie videogames, craft beer and live music.
The catch? He's funding the whole thing through Kickstarter. As of printing, the festival has raised $56,963 of its $125,000 goal, since it launched at 11 am this morning. One hundred and thirty-five people have already bought tickets—at $400 a pop—to the conference portion of the festival.
But can XOXO raise enough to become a reality? We caught up with Baio on the phone earlier today:
WW: Forty-five thousand dollars in a few hours, that's insane
Andy Baio: Just. Crazy. It's $47,280 now, it's nuts. Every time I step away from the computer to go do something else, I come back and it's gone up by thousands of dollars. I ran a Kickstarter project in the early days, I produced an album called Kind of Bloop (a chiptune version of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue), and at the time, my project was considered to be a huge success—I had a $2,000 goal, and it hit the goal in two hours, and that ended up being $8,600. But the scale now, the scale is so big, and the community, and the social features that are on Kickstarter now—before I'd even tweeted it, it had 50 backers.
How many people had you told you were doing this beforehand?
I had told not that many, I pretty much worked on it in secret. Obviously I was working with Andy McMillan, who works in Belfast, he organizes the Build conference there—it's an awesome design conference he does every year. Aside from that, it was me reaching out to speakers and then just a very small handful of close friends. But most people I know did not know I'd been working on this.
So you've got to pay $400 to get the full ticket?
Yeah, as it turns out, organizing conferences on this scale are very expensive. We budgeted it out, and it was us looking at everything we wanted to do, and not compromise on the venue and the way we wanted to do it. We could have done it at the Convention Center, which is how most of these things go, but there's not a lot of character there. But the benefit you get is that all of your comforts are taken care of: you have a stage and audio and video and it's wired for wireless Internet access already and power. [Yu Contemporary] is amazing, but it's a blank canvas. So we're building a stage, doing seating, dropping in wireless via satellite, doing our own audio and video.
Where did the idea come from?
This is something I wanted to do for years. I'm not working at Kickstarter anymore, but the time when I was, when i first met those guys in 2008, the idea for Kickstarter was inspired by an event—the original idea was to do conditional fundraising for events. Perry Chen came up with the idea, he wanted to do a concert in New Orleans in 2001. He thought it was so stupid that you have to front all this risk, pay for everything upfront without knowing if it was going to be a success or not. And if you could just sell the tickets, and if it didn't sell enough, it just backs off and nobody's charged. That was the original seed of the idea for Kickstarter. When I met those guys before they built anything, I thought "My God, what an incredible use for the site."
But where did the idea for what the actual conference would be about come from?
It stemmed from a couple things. One, I've been going to SXSW Interactive for the last couple of years and it's always been incredible—I love this incredible, unique feeling that comes from getting like-minded creative people in the same place at the same time. But what's happened over the last few years is, the interests of SXSW have sort of deviated as it's grown. It's huge, and it seems to me that it's more about the business and marketing of technology than it is about creative people doing creative things with technology. And actually, that is still the core of SXSW Interactive, but there's so many other people doing other things that it drowns that out. The end result is when I go, I can't even find the people I care about—it's a signal to noise ratio issue.
So that's one part. The other part is, we're in this incredible moment right now, there's this Cambrian explosion of creativity that's happening, enabled by the Internet, enabled by technology. And every one of those existing middle men you used to have to go through, it seems like everyone's realizing that you don't need a record label—music was maybe first to realize this, but it's happening across the board now: comic book artists, video game developers... Using something like Kickstarter, it's been absolutely transformative for each one of those communities. And not just Kickstarter, communities like Etsy, where all of a sudden "poof" there's a marketplace where there was previously not a marketplace. People are able to make a living doing what they love.
Julia Nunes, for example, who's going to be speaking and performing at XOXO, she found her audience on YouTube. She was just recording ukulele covers in her dorm room. I remember seeing her cover of Weezer's "Keep Fishin'," and I thought "Oh my God, she's so awesome," and watched all her other videos and so did a lot of other people. And they subscribed, and she built this following that grew so big that Ben Folds saw her cover of one of his songs, she ended up going on tour with Ben Folds. She puts out an album funded through Kickstarter and then she's on Conan O'brien. This is the trajectory now.
And obviously Justin Bieber [was discovered online], but the difference with people like Justin Bieber is they were discovered through YouTube, but then funneled right into the traditional publishing system. And so seeing film makers like the two brilliant people behind Indie Game: The Movie fund that entirely on Kickstarter, then sell it through their website, set up screenings using a sponsorship through Adobe to do screening across the United States, they maintained 100 percent creative control and more importantly, 100 percent ownership over their work. They never had to sacrifice anything. It was more work, but the end result was they are going to be able to capitalize on their own work for the rest of their lives.
To me, that's incredible. We're in this amazing era, and it's something I've been following for a long time. I've been writing about Internet culture on my site for 10 years, I'm friends with a lot of really interesting people that have done this independently. I wanted to do an event that would bring all of them together in one place.
Is it "ex-oh-ex-oh"?
Yeah, I think "ex-oh" for short. A couple of people have asked me about the name, and for me it just makes sense. It's people doing what they love, that love connecting with people that love their work. The whole thing is like a mutual admiration society. So yeah, hugs and kisses.
I thought we had an amazing lineup of speakers, and we do, but seeing the list of attendees? Is blowing my mind. It's exactly what I dreamed about. You could spin off ten conferences just based on the people who are coming to this thing.
The conference is really only one-third of this project. What I wanted to do for everyone ho is coming from out of town—and it sounds like a lot of people are coming from out of town, especially the speakers—is showing them the Portland that I love—bringing them here in September when the weather tends to be best, bringing them to this awesome venue, and bringing the best of the Portland's creative community, that maker culture, bringing them all in and setting them up on the ground floor of the Yu Contemporary to share and sell their stuff, I think is going to be amazing. The Fringe events we're doing the two days before are intended to get people out into the city, exploring the businesses and places we love... showing the best of the city.
So you've picked a pretty festival-heavy time of year to run this thing. It's going to be close or overlap with MusicfestNW and WW's own tech festival Portland Digital eXperience, as well as PICA's Time Based Art festival.
Most everybody is coming in from out of town, so I think it makes everybody's [festival] better. I think they'll be complementary. The Portland Digital eXperience, we've been talking with [the curator], and that's more driven on the local technology scene, much more driven around startups, which is not what XO is about. And hopefully there'll be some people that come in for PDX and just stick around Portland for XOXO. And ultimately, having TBA going at the same time, that's so awesome. If you want to check out something in the evening that's outside the festival programming for XO? Awesome. I love TBA.
Is this a one-off event or will you run another next year?
I certainly hope so. This is the thing about Kickstarter: you never know where it's going to go. Yeah it's going strong now, but maybe it plateaus, maybe we don't make it. But the feeling—we launched it at 11 this morning and we're almost to $50,000—the feeling is that this is something people want, and if it works well, then yeah, I'd love to do it again.