Creative Business Wrap – October 2023

Question: how do you know if someone went to SXSW Sydney?
Answer: they’ll tell you.

I think that’s basically the vibe, isn’t it? If you’ve been inundated with content this week from people gushing about the inaugural Sydney edition of the famed Austin-based tech and creative industries festival, apologies in advance. Not that I’m gushing too much – I don’t think you can run a festival with over 1,200 individual events and expect everything to run perfectly, but there was certainly more than enough to keep me interested and provoke some useful thoughts.

Here are a few reflections on some events I went to, and to make this more than a “here’s what I saw on holidays” type affair, a few links which might lead you to follow up on some of the ideas I heard.

Don’t get too attached to your screen

One of the keynotes was from futurist Amy Webb, a stalwart of SXSW events in Austin. She was sharing her predictions for the next 10 years, in a very engaging and entertaining way, which helped take the edge off some of the more alarming things she was saying. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom and one of her phrases that stuck in my mind was “the end of screens”. It sounds almost inconceivable to those of us who have worked on about 6 impossible screens before breakfast.

What does “the end of screens” mean? This blog post by Cal Newport explains it well. It’s about wearables and augmented reality working in tandem to eliminate our need for a screen because everything around you becomes a screen. He sets out a step-by-step scenario that ends with, “within a decade, we find ourselves in a world largely devoid of screens. Computation unfolds in the cloud and is presented to us as digital projections on thin plastic optical wave-guides positioned inches from our eyes.” And if you think that sounds a long way off, well here’s an article about the best smart glasses of 2023. The future’s literally playing out before our eyes.

Streaming has a bumpy history, and its future could be even more turbulent

One panel I really liked featured Bec Smith, Australian filmmaker now working as an agent in LA, and Samantha Lang, director and producer, discussing the history of streaming services. They painted a vivid picture of how the streamers went from being the ugly ducklings of the screen industry, to behemoths that made amazingly popular content – or so we think, because they never actually shared their viewership numbers.

That opaqueness about how many people were watching led to crazy deals for content creators and crazy salaries for streamer execs, many of whom didn’t come from a producing background (so they often gave showrunners enormous creative freedom – pro – but also couldn’t step in if production went awry – con). Not that cast and crew tended to see any of that largesse, hence the writers’ strike now, and more IR problems to come.

Now the streamers are contracting, and in a way which means less risk-taking and less new content. After all, who needs new stuff if you have reservoirs of old classics folks can draw on? Or reinventions of existing IP. If you want a deep dive on this topic, try this lengthy article by Josef Adalian and Lane Brown, which points out the many complexities of the situation the streamers find themselves in, all of which point towards – you guessed it – ads.

Podcasting on difficult topics

I also went to a live recording of Osher Günsberg’s podcast Better than Yesterday. Not something I had sampled before, but it’s a fireside chat-style podcast about mental health and Osher’s an engaging host. (He also went to pains to ensure every seat in the room was filled so that as many people as possible waiting in the much discussed SXSW queue could get in – which was nice. Not every host did that.) His guest was Diane Young, psychotherapist and director of South Pacific Private, a substance abuse treatment centre. 

Diane and Osher were both open about their own struggles with addiction, so that made for a conversation that was raw in some parts, but unexpectedly funny in others. Uncompromising too – Diane made some points about the traps that carers can fall into by denying those suffering from addiction the “dignity of risk”, and the need for family and friends to practice “loving disconnection”. This is one of those sessions you can get a taste of by sampling one of the podcast’s earlier episodes featuring Diane.

But to drag this back to creative industries business, that session also made me think about the continuing elusiveness of a viable business model for podcasts. This article by Simon Baggs is a bit of an advertorial, but it’s very clear on the revenue streams open to podcasters, beyond paid reads and inserted ads. Worth a look if you’re considering broadcasting your thoughts directly into people’s ears.

Music fans are being thrifty and picky

Last month I talked about how ticket purchasing for live events hasn’t recovered since COVID. I got more detail on this topic at a session about how the music industry is navigating this tricky ticketing environment.

Marketing agency Bolster shared some data from a survey of 4,000 music lovers which brought up some interesting trends. People are taking fewer risks with what they see (tending to stick with acts they love). Cost of living pressures are biting, particularly among young attendees, and consumers are taking into account the entire cost of a night out, not just the ticket. Lots of international acts on the market means there are fewer opportunities and more competition for domestic acts. And the ability to tap into existing fandoms to help create a buzz about an act is increasingly important – particularly for acts from places like Asia and India (which are hugely popular but require completely different marketing strategies to the norm).

As one panel member said, “pre-sale is the new ‘on sale'”, and the race to generate a sell-out before social media naysayers jump in is real. 42% of music purchasers are early birds, apparently, and it’s those ones who are the most sought after (you don’t want to be left relying on the 12% “commitmentphobes” or the 8% “strategic latecomers”, who hope for a discounted ticket closer to the gig). There’s more data like this on Bolster’s website, including a report on the preferences of music festival attendees (behind an email paywall).

Meanwhile, video games are everywhere (part 2)

And again following on from last month… gamers were a big part of SXSW, because it was hosting the Intel Extreme Masters esports tournament. That means 9,000 people packed into Aware Super Theatre watching teams of uber-gamers playing Counter-Strike 2. This is not my world (I did actually have a go at one stage, and predictably sucked), but a panel by the organisers about the challenges of bringing this enormous event to Sydney helped me understand that this is A. Big. Deal. (And not that I have any insider info here, but what other SXSW event would have brought in that number of punters? I reckon the creative industries as a whole still haven’t got a handle on just how big esports are. Here’s a taste of what it would have been like inside the arena).

The logistical challenges in setting up an esports tourney are real, from visa wrangling for 18 year old players without jobs, to setting up temperature-controlled warm-up rooms in motels, to ensuring that the servers are going to hold up under the pressure. They are all physical world concerns, and that talk got me thinking about how esports turns digital experiences in real-world ones, such as tournaments. In this TED talk, James Hodge, a data analyst talks about the surprising ways that the rise of esports is turning F1 racing into a hybrid of real and virtual experiences, and how gaming is a tool for accessibility.

Other SXSW snippets:

  1. Nicole Kidman and producing partner Per Saari talked about their production company Blossom Films and the problems experienced in bringing projects to fruition. (Spoiler alert: much the same as any other production company, but with Nicole Kidman).
  2. As you might guess, there was much talk about AI. For online retailers, one aspect of this is hyper-personalised search, which promises to flip the experience from us searching for products, to the products searching for us. Here’s a primer.
  3. A panel of scientists talked about their work using nanotechnology to improve health conditions, and along the way introduced the notion of DNA origami – sculpture in the nanosphere.

See you there next year?