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Image: Tina Tiller
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Pop CultureApril 3, 2024

Can Auckland be a (little) bit more like Austin? 10 takeaways from a week at SXSW

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

A trip to the world’s most famous culture-tech festival leaves Duncan Greive reflecting on what Auckland could learn from the liberal city in the heart of Texas.

Auckland and Austin are similar enough, and not similar at all. The population isn’t miles apart (the metropolitan area of Auckland is about 1.7m; Austin is 2.4m). Each has had a migration boom and consequent house price surge. There is something of Joel MacManus’ new city / old town in the way the influx of tech workers has disturbed the “keep Austin weird” culture. Auckland’s equivalent is more prosaic: the need to build up (and probably out too) to meet the needs of its new citizens, versus a desire to retain its low-rise and leafy character.

Of course, the differences are vast. Austin is historically the liberal-artsy outlier in the vast Republican oil plains of Texas, shaded by far bigger cities in Dallas and Houston. It both feeds on and resists the broader culture of its surrounds. Austin is vibrant and wealthy, and despite a recent influx of tech bros (Elon Musk and Joe Rogan now call it home), the city still has whole streets of dive bars and barbecue spots which have decades of rich history. 

A wall mural in downtown Austin (Photo: George Rose/Getty Images)

Auckland is easily this country’s largest urban area, but beyond the narrow and fading “city of sails” sloganeering it has little sense of itself beyond “we’re the biggest one”. It does have a tension with the rest of the country, but that’s born more from economic mutual resentment than anything truly cultural. Most telling is its sense of what’s historically important and in need of preservation. Auckland fights for its endless streets of villas, while having little interest in the long-term viability and integrity of its live venues and hospitality outlets.

Still, when you spend a week in a new city, especially one as vibrant as Austin, it’s hard to avoid reflecting on what works there that doesn’t in your hometown. With that as a (potentially tenuous) basis, here are 10 things which leapt out from a hectic week in Austin during South by Southwest (SWSW), the enormous music-film-tech festival that has become a huge part of its identity and economy. The first five observations are about how it felt on the ground; the second five about how that might apply back home.

1. Beautiful things happen when a whole city commits to the bit

SXSW was founded as a music festival in the ‘80s, and has grown steadily and fairly organically to the point where it dominates Austin for a couple of weeks each March. Beyond the festival itself, a huge bundle of events piggyback off it – during my visit, they included a pair of NBA games, many unsanctioned side shows, and a 50th anniversary celebration of a local thrift store – all of which contributes to an irresistible gravity drawing 300,000 people in.

This generous embrace manifests in everything from the elastic growth of sharing economy services (Airbnbs spike during the festival and Uber drivers head in from miles around) to the way anything downtown which could be a venue became a venue for the duration of the festival. And what those makeshift venues turn over in hire fees subsidises their existence for the rest of the year, making it worth putting up with the chaos for those who live there. By contrast, in Auckland, it can feel like half of the city exists to resist anything the other half wants to do for fun.

2. You can feel the way technology has beaten down culture

As attendance has swollen from hundreds to hundreds of thousands, organisers have bolted new wings onto the festival. It retains its cultural DNA of music, film and comedy. But as the financial dividends of creation have been devoured by the technology which distributes them, so tech itself has become a bigger part of the festival, and its funding. 

At the vast conference centre which is the festival’s hub, you could make terrible AI music (the startup I tried will undoubtedly be swamped by the astounding Suno) then hear Public Enemy’s Chuck D talk about his “TikTok for culture” app, Bring the Noise. Or pick up a CIA stubby holder at their recruiting stand, where they told my daughter and me that while the spy agency isn’t open to foreigners, we could still help because New Zealand is part of Five Eyes. That was right next to a US Army stall, largely there to check out the other tech and sell the military dream.

Metal machine (really bad) music (Photo: Duncan Greive)

3. These scenes are largely incompatible – and one is eating the other

That incongruity is clearly wearing on the festival. Despite the invasion of tech companies, Austin is still undeniably weird. Walking home one day we saw a large weed and drug paraphernalia shop which appeared to be staffed by a small dog. The tension between the part of the festival they do for money and the part they do for love is becoming overwhelming. Two New Zealand artists were among dozens who withdrew from the festival due to pressure from an Instagram account protesting the Army’s presence. 

It seems harsh to make structurally impoverished musicians wear the moral cost of a sponsorship deal, a microcosm of the way tech has broken the economic basis of culture for its own benefit. As an observer, the tech elements seem like they could be broken apart from the cultural ones with almost no cost to what seem like largely separate audiences.

4. Scale allows for true serendipity

One afternoon we left the convention centre and chanced on a venue converted to be a little Sao Paulo for the day. A four piece band started playing on a low stage to the right. The voice stopped me in my tracks – deep, mournful, apparently scarred by unhealed emotional trauma. My view was obstructed, but it was clearly coming out of a man who’d lived for well over a half century. Then the crowd parted, and Luiza Martins, barely 30 and a country singer from the southern Brazilian city of Belo Horizante, revealed herself. It was one of the most striking, shocking moments of live music I encountered.

That happened persistently. Another highlight was walking around a corner in East Austin and stumbling into two neighbouring venues with incredible artists playing to tiny crowds all afternoon. The endless scale of it made planning a schedule redundant, and has clear lessons for New Zealand’s patchwork of festivals which can often feel in competition with one another (more on that shortly).

6th in Austin during SXSW. (Photo: Gary Miller/FilmMagic)

5. The economic impact of SXSW plays out in strange, almost magical ways

Those venues that participate in SXSW can often get tens of thousands of dollars a day in rent, which allows them to run at breakeven (or worse) for the other 50 weeks of the year. It’s a half-billion dollar annual super-dividend to the city, and must be an enormous pain to manage, but while you’re here it really does feel like everything in Austin is flipped to focus on making this one huge event thrive. Russell Coutts might come off as a petulant dolphin-hater, but he’s hardly alone in complaining that restrictive laws and can’t-do attitudes make it difficult to get anything ambitious done in this country. 

6. The Convention Centre has a chance to change Auckland

Somewhat lost to the collective memory in the chaos of Covid is the huge fire at Auckland’s near-completed convention centre in 2019 which set the project back five years and counting. The disaster was big enough to still be part of the financial chaos at Fletcher Building earlier this year, but my visit to Austin was a reminder of the centre’s role in elevating what’s possible in Auckland. The NZ International Convention Centre is already booking events for 2026 (dairy farmers and school principals will be among the first to land), and has a chance to provide a fulcrum around which the city can bid for and generate bigger and more complex events than we can imagine today.

7. … And so will the CRL

Austin is a city of roads that works pretty well for bikes and really well for walking. Hilly, rainy Auckland is (presently) a driving city that can feel semi-hostile to bikers and walkers. The fact that the City Rail Link and convention centre will open within months of each other should provide a surge of people, energy, money and opportunity which fast-revitalises the city north of Queen Street in short order. Downtown is starting to revive already – I recently spoke to services and retail business owners, each of whom reported dramatically improved trade this year – but is still too boarded off, and too hard to navigate. Thankfully that change is now almost close enough to touch.

Very private transport, in Austin (Photo: Duncan Greive)

8. New Zealand shows up, but maybe needs a zhuzh up

On a Wednesday afternoon in Austin, at a venue called the 13th Floor (previously and brilliantly known as Beerland), a clutch of New Zealand artists played a showcase. Ashy was fun as a kind of girl group of one, SWIDT brought late night energy to the mid afternoon and Chaii’s audacious peaks were breathtaking. So: great venue, great music – but there was little which told the grazing crowd what tied these artists together. Other country or city-specific shows hauled in film or podcasts or startups or fashion – something which might have made our little toehold stand out more.

9. Auckland’s permanent state of stadia-confusion is really holding us back

It’s not exactly fair to compare a rich city with a deep musical history to a poorer one which was smushed together out of a bunch of different overgrown ‘burbs. Still, attending bigger shows at three gleaming new venues, you could see how each played a crucial role in making the city work for anything you could want to put on. 

There was the 2750 capacity Austin City Limits, where Teezo Touchdown scorched through his strange Def Leppard-meets-Rick James set. Moody Amphitheatre, a 5,000 seat outdoor stage which hosted a rare PartyNextDoor performance. And the Moody Centre, where a record crowd of almost 17,000 watched the present and future of NBA big men as the Nuggets toyed with the Spurs. At the opposite end, I saw my last show early on a Saturday morning, blasting noise rock at Hole in the Wall, a grimy but vital venue where Townes Van Zandt played 50-odd years ago.

Auckland’s patchwork of oddly-sized and placed stadia remains a famously unresolved mess, but a few days in Austin made it clear that it’s not just sports grounds that need some vision in this city.

10. Auckland has a once in a generation chance to shake the etch-a-sketch in 2025

I’m aware this has been an example of that awful journalistic endeavour in which a writer goes somewhere nice, experiences the best bits of it, then comes home and has a whinge. Guilty as charged. But I do live here in Auckland, and wouldn’t be anywhere else. What is frustrating about Auckland is not its raw materials – it’s about what we do with them, and how connected they feel.

Because we do have more than enough great places to eat, and venues like Whammy and the Basement and the Powerstation would be beloved in any city. When the comedy and writers festivals are on at the same time next month there will be an embarrassment of on-stage riches every night of the week. Still, the fact that the festivals feel in conflict, rather than supporting one another, is part of the issue (Sam Brooks has good thoughts on that in Dramatic Pause). Yet what is really grindy about the city’s combination of hard and soft infrastructure is how it’s tied together – and how ambitious any part of it feels. 

But next year that changes – or has a chance to. If things stay on schedule, the City Rail Link will start rolling, around the same time that SkyCity’s convention centre finally opens, a blank space upon which expansive ideas can be projected. In Austin, in a small fourth floor conference room, I heard someone explain the strategy which propelled Afrobeats to its current ubiquity, and I imagined what people working to make Māori music go global might have made of it. None of that is sketched yet – but having fit-for-purpose rapid transit, along with something to draw people in, should be the biggest change to the city in a generation. 

Auckland often feels like it lacks a true sense of itself, and is persistently just getting by. As we stare down a double dip recession and a new austerity, it can feel like that’s baked in as the story of the decade. But those two events hold the promise of a new era, which can make us a little more like Austin (maybe!) – if only we can grasp the opportunity.

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