Ritual declaration of self interest: I attended this festival on a press pass. That means I paid nothing. Some of the speakers were also acquaintances of mine. So you probably shouldn't trust a damn word I write.
"This is SO much better than South by Southwest!"
"This is like the first year of South by Southwest!"
I must have heard these phrases dozens and dozens of times through XOXO, the new "disruptive creativity" arts and culture festival held in Portland on the weekend.
As SXSW Interactive has grown from a smallish conference of 2,500 in 1995 to the 25,000-person behemoth it is today, many conference veterans have complained about how it has become increasingly commercial and impersonal.
I can see why a 400-person, $400 tech conference in little Portland, Oregon, might look like an uncorrupted SXSW to those who had grown tired of the homeless hotspots and corporate-sponsored grilled cheese eating competitions in Austin.
But I think that description really undervalues how different and how good XOXO really was.
For those who just tuned in, some backstory: In May this year, local technologist Andy Baio announced that he (along with Andy McMillan, the organizer of Ireland's Build festival) was curating a new festival in Portland that he was funding entirely through Kickstarter. It was, he admitted at the time, a bit of a gamble, but the tickets to the main event—a two-day conference which at the time had a roughly sketched out speaker lineup—sold out in days. Baio is a well-known and well respected name in tech circles, and essentially people were investing in his ability to pull together something really good. He did.
So what was it?
"Disruptive creativity" originally sounded like a vague, slightly confusing theme for a festival, but in fact, XOXO had a very specific focus: people using the Internet and technology to bypass the established, big business ways of doing things and pursue their creative passions.
The first day of the conference focussed on the people who are actually doing this stuff: like Portlander Emily Winfield Martin who makes her entire living selling art through Etsy; filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, who funded their excellent film Indie Game: The Movie through Kickstarter, then turned down offers from networks and film distributors to instead release their film independently online; video game creator Ron Carmel from indie company 2D Boy, whose game World of Goo has sold over a million copies; and even keynote speaker Dan Harmon, best known as the now ousted showrunner on cult TV comedy Community, whose production company just crowd-funded over $400k to produce a stop-motion animation film free from Hollywood studios.
Unlike SXSW, which is now lousy with wanna-be startup founders looking to create some piece of software, any piece of software, and sell it to the first company that offers them a squillion dollars, the speakers at XOXO were focussed on almost the exact opposite: doing only what they love, and working out how to do it in such a way that they can make a living without selling their souls. "Money is the least interesting problem," said Matt Haughey, who has made a living through his website Metafilter for over a decade, and—last we spoke—has no plans to sell or expand in any significant way. It was a sentiment echoed by several other speakers over the following two days.
You can pick faults: yes, of course, we only heard from people who had made the digital artisan economy work for them and not those who hadn't. The audience and was overwhelmingly white, male, middle class and educated. $400 a ticket is cheap by tech conference standards, but out of reach of the average Portlander (in fact, according to the organisers, only 25 percent of the audience was local).
But that should not detract from what XOXO did do really well: capturing, articulating and celebrating a signifiant cultural shift that is only just starting to take shape in the digital and creative spheres. To elaborate a little on what I wrote in last week's Headout: the Internet is allowing filmmakers, musicians, artists, game developers, small businesses and all sorts of other creatives to connect directly with fans and audiences, share with or sell them good stuff without any bullshit, and retain (almost) all their profits and creative control. That's fairly amazing. It's easy to dismiss sites like Kickstarter and Etsy as precious little places where people sell cross-stitch and raise money to start macrobiotic food carts, but in the words of my 5th grade math teacher: you're only cheating yourself.
Other messages that seemed to be recurring themes: money is not the problem, but greed is; online companies can actually be built for the long-term success, rather than a quick sale; and contrary to popular belief, people actually will pay for music, video games, films and other easily pirate-able content when they have a direct relationship with the creator.
Even at its smallest, I doubt SXSW ever had such a singular, socially-minded ethos, or had any particular commitment to independence or art, or was celebrating such a specific vision for the future of commerce and the Internet.
XOXO was something new and something, almost everyone at the conference seemed to agree, pretty special.
Philosophy aside, the festival was an unmitigated success. Check out the #xoxofest hashtag for an almost universal stream of praise—not just for the festival, but for Portland as a city. Many visiting attendees told me they couldn't imagine a festival so dedicated to the DIY ethos taking place anywhere but here. The organizers did an excellent job of creating an idyllic little summer camp away from even the local tech scene—eschewing the Oregon Convention Center in favor of the Yale Union Contemporary arts space, with a stage and decor they built themselves, food provided by local carts, and free public events highlighting independent video games, independent films and independent musicians. There wasn't a single sponsor logo in sight, no exclusive VIP parties (or none I heard about, anyway. Wait a second…), no PR stunts, tweetups, or branded lanyards. At the end of the week, the audience gave Baio and McMillan a standing ovation as the two men wiped tears from their eyes.
The challenge for them now is to grow XOXO, while keeping its independent spirit strong and keeping dickheads out. This could grow into one of Portland's signature cultural events. I, for one, hope it never becomes to new SXSW.