A lot has changed in the three years since the last time Austin was descended upon by tens of thousands of artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, and musicians—not to mention the clout chasers, tech dorks, vibe shifters, and wannabe thought leaders seeking the attention of the former groups. You’re already familiar with a lot of it. But we’re not talking about the not-exactly-over pandemic or escalating international conflict at the moment: rather, we are here to discuss the other nigh-ubiquitous harbinger of a forever-changed world, which is—as any number of dudes with the exact same haircut will tell you—the blockchain. If you’ve heard about blockchain technologies but are also fortunate enough to have just been able to, shall we say, sit this one out, and you’re attending South by Southwest this year, we regret to inform you that the bell tolls for thee. You will need to know at least a little bit about Bitcoin, blockchain, cryptocurrency, DAOs, NFTs, Web3, and other such acronyms and euphemisms in order to navigate a festival at which those things are omnipresent.
There are nearly three dozen official SXSW crypto-themed panels, sessions, activations, and events, each of which will attract hundreds—if not thousands—of both the blockchain-devoted and the crypto-curious. Want to learn how DAOs will influence the future of reality dating shows? Curious about a party at which you’ll “try on” sneaker NFTs? Love the movies you saw at the fest, but don’t have space in your suitcase to pack a physical poster and want to know about a digital collectible you can take home instead? Want to attend a “Blockchain BBQ” with Roman Coppola? (And that’s to say nothing of the unofficial and yet-to-be-announced parties, shows, screenings, meet and greets, et cetera!)
“Not me,” you may be thinking, “I’m going to kick back, maybe wait in line to see Dolly Parton play at ACL Live.” Sorry! Dolly Parton is only in town because a studio called Blockchain Creative Labs is sponsoring the performance to promote “Dollyverse,” which is a “an audience centric Web3 experience” at which one can purchase “official and certified Dolly NFT collectibles.” Dolly Parton is hardly the only entity at SXSW that, this year, is inexorably tied to blockchain stuff—but the fact that even an iconic, 76-year-old country singer from East Tennessee is part of the blockchain business means that us mere attendees should have some background information about what all of this is before the crypto hordes descend upon Austin. But you’ve worked hard to avoid having to figure any of this stuff out! What should you do? Here is our helpful guide.
Do I actually need to know what any of this stuff is or how it works?
“Need” is a strong word, but there is a lot of influence, money, and power wrapped up in “this stuff,” which is the term we will use to refer to anything related to blockchain/crypto/NFTs/Web3/et cetera throughout this explainer. One doesn’t need to understand how energy futures work or have a grasp of the interconnected global economy, but it’s easier to make sense of the world when you do. Crypto stuff is like that—if you have some understanding of it, you’ll have an easier time understanding the forces that are, for better and for worse (and there’s definitely some of both involved), shaping the world we’re going to be living in. And if you’re at SXSW this year, you’re going to hear a lot about this stuff, because it’s everywhere at the festival.
If you just want to be able to know whose free beer you’re drinking at SXSW, or to decide whether or not you’re disappointed in Dolly Parton for getting involved in all of this, you don’t really need to get that deep. If you want to start spending your money on blockchain stuff, you should dive in, otherwise you could join a DAO that doesn’t know what it’s doing, or invest all of your savings in Dogecoin only for the price to crash when Elon Musk bombs on SNL.
Why is crypto stuff all over SXSW 2022?
SXSW is a natural place for these conversations because it’s right in the middle of a bunch of sweet spots. Both crypto and SXSW occupy a Venn diagram that overlaps on advertising, art, business, innovation, money, and technology. Because of that, this isn’t the first time cryptocurrency has played a role in SXSW—the festival made headlines in 2014 when it played host to one of the first Bitcoin ATMs. At the time, a single Bitcoin was worth around $630; today, it’s around $40,000, though that number fluctuates by a disconcerting and hilariously large percentage. The fact that the price has gone up so much is a big part of why crypto has an even bigger presence at SXSW this year—cryptocurrencies have a market cap of well over a trillion dollars, which means that the businesses invested in this stuff (a) have a lot of money to spend and (b) are investing heavily in trying to grow even bigger.
Okay, so—what is it?
There are a lot of good explainers that answer this question in detail, and if you want to be able to walk into a party with a name like “Conquer Crypto” and your wallet primed to receive an AirDropped NFT, we’ll point you in the right direction. To get an understanding of cryptocurrency, we’d recommend starting with Vox’s explainer on Bitcoin, which is a few years old but explains the basics well. To have your questions about NFTs answered, the Verge has a comprehensive, very readable FAQ. If you want to get a sense of how this fits into the world of finance, the New York Times can help. PC Magazine has a good breakdown of what DAOs are.
If you want to skip all of that and just get the absolute basics, here’s what we can give you, with the caveat that there is more complete information right up above this sentence.
Cryptocurrency refers to digital currencies, which are basically imaginary money that people have agreed has value (if you’re like “whoa, isn’t that all money?,” then congratulations, you’re halfway toward being a crypto person). The prices of cryptocurrencies fluctuate based on how much people have decided they’re worth, but they’re increasingly tied to other financial trends, such as what’s going on with the stock market.
NFTs are “non-fungible tokens.” They’re digital objects like cryptocurrencies, but “non-fungible,” which makes them collectibles. Think of it like this: a dollar is fungible, because if you have a dollar and I have a dollar, we can trade those dollars and we each still have a dollar. A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle baseball card is non-fungible, because even if we both have one, yours might be in better condition, or mine might be signed by the Mick. Each one is unique, which is what makes them collectible. Whatever Dolly Parton’s NFTs are, each will be different from the others in some way, which is—theoretically, at least—why they will be valuable.
DAOs are “decentralized autonomous organizations.” Each is kind of like a cross between a flash mob, a Kickstarter campaign, and a corporation. It offers its own cryptocurrency instead of stock, and instead of having a CEO who calls the shots, the investors who own the cryptocurrency vote on what the organization does. One DAO right now is trying to raise $4 billion to buy the Denver Broncos; another last year bought a collectible related to the failed 1970s Dune film in a misguided attempt to make the movie; another tried to buy one of the fourteen original copies of the U.S. Constitution at auction. So far these organizations are proving really good at raising money, but less good at actually accomplishing what they set out to do (the NFL’s ownership structure won’t accept a DAO as an owner, they won’t get to make a new Dune, and they got outbid on the Constitution).
Blockchain is the technology that powers this stuff. It’s an online ledger that ensures you can’t lie about how much cryptocurrency you have, or who actually owns which NFTs, by making a public log of every transaction. The idea is that if everyone can see exactly what is going on with each transaction, then we can all trust what is going on.
Web3 doesn’t have a real definition. It’s a catchall term that people in this world use to describe things that we are referring to as “this stuff,” but it also includes technology like the “metaverse” that Facebook and others are trying to build. The first Web was AOL and email and Internet Explorer; Web 2.0 meant social media and YouTube and basically everything that was on the internet from around 2006 to nowish; Web3 refers to whatever big shifts in how people use the internet are coming next.
Mostly, I just don’t want to get talked at by crypto bros during SXSW (or online, or anywhere else, please).
Crypto people have a reputation for being evangelical about this stuff. Most of them probably believe in it and want you to have access to this thing they find very exciting—also, if you start buying crypto and NFTs, or, Lord forbid, join a DAO, that pumps their investments, so they’ve also got a vested interest in preaching to you. If you find yourself at a crypto-themed event because they paid half a Bitcoin to your favorite band for a forty-minute set, and someone in an “Ask Me About My DAO” T-shirt tries to strike up a conversation after the show, don’t ask many questions, and definitely don’t try to argue with them about any of this stuff.
Why are all of these artists interested in this stuff?
There are a few answers to that question, but the most important one is that the first Web and Web 2.0 haven’t really been great to artists who want to get paid for their work, especially musicians. The first Web ate into the pool of money artists could get paid from through piracy, while Web 2.0 formalized the process of artists getting paid peanuts through streaming services that offer fractions of a penny per listen. Right now, musicians make most of their money from selling T-shirts with their logos on them, or from bar sales at the venues where they play live. You can understand why they’d prefer to see a Web3 emerge in which they can make money selling their music to listeners again. (Visual artists, who are a smaller part of the SXSW crowd, are in a related boat.) Not every artist is looking to get into crypto—but it makes sense that the ones who are will be exploring the (many, many) crypto-themed events that are all over SXSW in 2022.
I’m a crypto skeptic! Does this mean that I should be disappointed in the artists who are doing crypto stuff at SXSW?
There are good reasons to be crypto skeptical—the environmental impact of powering blockchain technologies is real, for one, and there’s a sense that if this stuff really were going to change the world for the better, the loudest evangelists wouldn’t be the same sort of people who spent the Web 2.0 era making things worse. That said, the future of this technology is still being written, and it’s possible ideas that are more sustainable and more equitable will come out of the conversations had at SXSW panels such as “Music NFTs: Finding Post–Gold Rush Sustainability” or “How Do Artists Make Money Now?” At an event like SXSW, where all of the different types of people who are interested in this stuff will be in the same place at the same time, it probably makes sense for them to talk to each other and/or livestream Dolly Parton’s performance via the blockchain.
Wait, how do you livestream something via the blockchain?
Sorry, no idea! But don’t worry—this is on the long, long list of things you don’t need to know anything about right now (unless you want to watch the livestream of the performance from your phone, in which case, sign up for Dollyverse). That’s the flip side to all of this being a still-developing technology: much of what is happening right now is not going to be relevant in a year (or maybe even a few months), and you’re welcome to just show up to a crypto party, drink the free beer, and move on. All you really need to know is that it’s new technology; it could change the world, or not; the world it might change us into could be better or worse than the one we’re in now; and everybody is still trying to figure all of that out. And regardless of all that, Dolly Parton will still be there.