Up North tries to make noise at South by Southwest -Detroit Free Press
By Tom Walsh, Detroit Free Press Columnist
Austin, Texas, is the buzz capital of the nation this week during the 2015 South by Southwest music, film and interactive technology festivals – but plenty of Michigan companies, artists and products are on hand at SXSW, trying to make a splash of their own.
Monday night in Austin, a Michigan crew threw a house party for 125 people, featuring three Detroit music acts, plus Michigan products ranging from Founders and Atwater beers to Faygo pop, Good People popcorn and Detroit City Distillery spirits.
Sponsors of the first Creative Many Michigan House, a three-bedroom rental about a mile from the SXSW festivals at the Austin Convention Center, include ArtPrize and Meijer from west Michigan, along with Dan Gilbert’s Opportunity Detroit branding effort.
“It’s really an experiment for us to test the waters here,” said Lisa Dancsok, vice president of Gilbert’s Rock Ventures. The aim is to see how much attention cutting-edge acts and innovators from Michigan can get amid the massive SXSW phenomenon that began as a small regional music festival in 1986, added film and multimedia in the mid-1990s and morphed into a 10-day extravaganza drawing more than 50,000 people a year.
Monday’s party was the kickoff of four days of panel discussions, mixers and performances at the house, with its curated collection of Michigan goods serving as a hub for Michigan’s SXSW attendees and a billboard for its artists and designers. Creative Many Michigan, formerly called ArtServe Michigan, is a nonprofit advocacy group.
Aside from the Creative Many Michigan house, Michigan has been part of the SXSW action on a number of fronts:
— Doner, the Southfield-based advertising agency with clients ranging from Chrysler to J.C. Penney, led a Retail Innovation panel discussion at the SXSW Interactive conference Friday.
— Bizdom and Coolhouse Labs, entrepreneurial start-up accelerators from Detroit and Harbor Springs, respectively, were pitching their programs at the Global Accelerator Network matchmaking event Monday at SXSW.
— Actor Ryan Gosling was on hand Friday talking about his Detroit-made movie “Lost River,” making its U.S. debut at SXSW before its limited release in theaters in April.
— Mophie, a Michigan-bred maker of battery charging packs and other mobile devices with 125 employees in Kalamazoo, got some major notice by patrolling downtown Austin with a St. Bernard to help out SXSW attendees whose phones were running low on battery power.
–The University of Michigan had a strong presence, led by the School of Information, with faculty and technology transfer officials on panels and students manning exhibits at the trade show.
–And Jared Stasik, a Detroit Venture Partners vice president, was among the judges at the SXSW Hatch Pitch competition that concluded Monday.
David DeMuth, president and co-CEO of Doner, said his agency has been sending staffers for years to SXSW “as it grew to be the intersection of creativity and technology and business.”
“This year,” he added, “we wanted to have a greater presence to share the Doner story of growth, momentum and expansion of our digital practice.” So Doner, which has grown from 600 employees to 750 worldwide since MDC Partners took a 30% stake in the firm three years ago, partnered with marketing research firm PSFK on a “Future of Retailing” study and a SXSW panel pegged to the findings.
Jeanette Pierce, executive director of the nonprofit Detroit Experience Factory and one of the ringleaders of the Creative Many Michigan House, said Tuesday that the kickoff event Monday went very well.
Indie-pop band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. was the best-known of the three bands and seemed to enjoy playing in an intimate house-party settings. The other two acts, singer-songwriter Charity and alternative rock bank MPV, both of whom are recording with Detroit Institute of Music Education, whose cofounder Kevin Nixon is participate in a panel at the Creative Many Michigan House this week.
A brief rain shower Monday night, Pierce said, didn’t spoil the vibe created from all the Michigan food and beverages, along with furniture curated by Middle West, a creator of pop-up environments of made up of Michigan-made products.
“It felt like a nice summer evening at an Up North yard party,” said Steve Dorsey, a former Free Press editor who is now vice president, innovation and planning for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper. “Great food, friendly people, music from Michigan locals.”
Pierce, echoing Dancsok of Rock Ventures, said this year’s inaugural attempt to coordinate the various Michigan players and activities at SXSW, “is sort of a first toe in the water,” to explore whether a more expansive – and expensive – effort might pay dividends in the future.