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SXSW Interactive Festival

Intellectual Property, Résumé Building, Wearable Computers, and Other Tales From the …

By Roger Gathman, March 23, 2001, Screens

Business Track: Collectively Sardonic, Surprisingly Fashionable

"He was the only person over 35 at the party."

"Really?"

"He didn't care, though."

I pondered that snippet of dialogue, dropped between a dyed-blond twentysomething with the de rigueur Versace knock-off butterfly glasses and a guy she was trying to pick up or get a job with, as I attended the business panels at this year's SXSW Interactive. I was over 35, and did I care? Last year, with arrogant amounts of money floating around, there were all too many over-35s at the dot-com party. They are going now. Revisionism is in the air.

The first panel I attended was titled "Internet Industry Trends 2001: Is Anybody Making Money?" The room was collectively sardonic. My Webster's says that sardonic comes from a Greek word, to "grin like a dog, or from a certain plant of Sardinia, which was said to screw up the face of the eater." In modern business parlance, the phrase is "to drink the Kool-Aid," meaning to swallow conditions forced upon you by an investor, which causes a shit-eating rictus to spread across the face. One of the panel members, Mike Rosenfeldt, formerly of NotHarvard.com (now Powered.com) energetically bashed the VC mindset. His candidness set the tone of the panel.

Danni Ashe, the adult site proprietor of Danni's Hard Drive, drew the gawkers. I missed Ashe last year and haven't yet checked out her site (I'm strictly a Busty-Amateurs man myself). So I was a little surprised at how scrubbed and Doris Day she seemed up there, not at all like the type of woman you see ... well, in advertisements at the back of this newspaper. In retrospect, I was making the typical mook's error of mistaking fantasy for reality. Ashe made some shrewd comments about micro-billing problems on the Web. She claimed that it was a lack of investor backing that made her profitable, since you can't throw away money you don't have.

"Starting a Web Business From Scratch" was not only ill-attended, but most of the attendees clustered in the back, as though they had stumbled into an adult theatre and were planning on making for the exit unseen. The moderator, Eric Hellweg of Business 2.0, commented that last year the same panel attracted a standing-room-only crowd. The aggregated age of the four panelists probably didn't reach 100. Burn-rate stories were exchanged. Meg Hourihan of Pyra, the company that developed the weblog tool Blogger (which has a cultish following) announced she'd burned through $550,000 before she resigned from the company in January. Lane Becker burned through $120,000 at Deepleap. Janice Fraser has been through four start-ups. Fraser (another mop-topped blonde with the designer glasses) spoke in a deep biz jargon as enigmatic as gang graffiti on a railroad bridge abutment; her story, if my translation is right, is that she started the Poplar Group, which produced a health food portal which was sold to Gaiam, a health food provider, who rolled it to Whole Foods, who screwed the pooch after throwing the usual vulgar amounts of money at it.

The last biz panel was titled "Post-Napster: The Future of Entertainment Distribution." This panel was by far the most diverse, i.e. there was one black guy on it, Mark Hardie, CEO of ETC Music. (Jim Crow still rules in the Net biz, alas.) The room was crowded for this one. Some silver-haired old music guys heckled Tim Quirk, editor at Listen.com and frontman for the band Too Much Joy, who laid down the Courtney Love line about the evil labels. Curt Marvis, CEO at CinemaNow, broadcast a moderate version of the establishment spin. Everybody on this panel articulated in a slightly outsized way, as though they were all in a movie. It was cool to watch. I wondered how much Curt Marvis' clothes cost. And his haircut.

This panel went over the time limit, which was unique in my biz panel 2001 experience. The passion generated by the Napster session gave me that spooky anticipatory feel that culture content, i.e. art, is being changed by the Net. As the VCs retreat to their crypts and coffins, maybe the lack of undead money will bring about something beyond a rigged speculative opportunity.

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