Rocking and Printing at SXSW

The biggest printed-merchandise event shy of the Olympics.

“You are one lucky guy to get to go to Austin. I wish I could join you again. Someday, I will go again and pull prints with you. I never thought I would be screen printing in a bar with excellent music playing right in front of me. Pure joy.” (Daniel Gilsdorf, product development manager for Sefar USA.)

Pure joy and luck – Dan sums it up well. There are conventions, and then there is South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. The festival started small over 25 years ago and has expanded into a multi-week event each March comprising music, film, interactive technology, and much more. It engulfs the Austin Convention Center and spreads all over the town. It’s on the rooftops and in the alleyways, parks, community halls, and bars.

What does any of that have to do with screen and specialty printing? Plenty.

I would bet that more display signage, t-shirts, car and building wraps, specialty advertising items, and, of course, rock posters are printed for SXSW than any event except the Olympics. I doubt that even the Super Bowl approaches the sheer volume of material produced. SXSW is to the specialty printing industry as Christmas season is to retailers.

A number of my friends work in textile operations in the Austin area, and they report their shops are swamped for weeks leading up to SXSW. Almost every major brand in the world catering to the young/hip/connected crowd is represented in some way. Swag is king, and with lots of digitally produced stickers, the shops with print-and-cut devices run flat out. Jonathan Rebolloso, the master printer at Coronado Studio and my sidekick for the week, had four of his art prints turned into stickers and a t-shirt, as well, thanks to DTG technology.

One place where screen printing is still dominant is the Flatstock 48 Rock Poster Exhibit. Recognized by the organizers as one of the most popular events at SXSW, Flatstock draws hundreds of the top poster artists from around the world who exhibit their work. Fans and collectors line up to be first through the doors of the convention center, as many of the artists bring hard-to-find pieces. One of the things that makes it special is the booths are all staffed by the artists, so unlike visiting a gallery, Flatstock is a chance to interact with and meet the people who make the product.

Flatstock exhibitions, organized by the American Poster Institute, spread the art of the rock poster around the US and Europe at major music festivals in Austin, Chicago, Seattle, Barcelona, and Hamburg. My contribution is to provide live printing demonstrations. We print 10 different poster designs by a selection of the visiting artists. Every time we start printing, we draw a crowd. One of the most gratifying parts of participating is to meet people who tell us how they started their own screen-printing studios after attending a Flatstock show and getting inspired.

Live printing at events in Austin has also become big. Dan Gilsdorf dropped in one night a few years ago when we had been contracted by HGTV to produce a souvenir poster onsite at a venue. We cranked out 400 posters featuring the six bands that performed. We did it four nights in a row, each night producing a new design made by a different artist.

Another Austin printer, Billy Bishop of Obsolete Industries, booked live printing appearances for 14 different venues. Other printers around the world are telling me that this has become a cool thing to do at parties and events. Whether it’s a shirt, a poster, or a bag, it’s valuable swag. Bishop once said, after he had run nearly 1000 posters by hand at an event, “There was litter everywhere, mostly consisting of handouts – but you didn’t see one poster in the garbage.” Event marketers know the value of having brand and product promotions on someone’s wall in the form of a souvenir poster for years after the event. Something to look into as a way to expand your reach in your community (bring business cards!) and also to promote screen printing.

Special events and specialty printing go together like bass and drums or beer and BBQ. So, if you get a chance to contribute to a special event in your town, do it. Who knows how big it will grow? Remember, SXSW was some crazy idea dreamed up by a bunch of music nuts 25 years ago who decided to sell a $10 multi-day pass to a collection of bars hosting some bands. Now it attracts upwards of 100,000 people including the top musicians, film makers, and leaders in digital communications. Those $10 passes now go for $300-1000 or more, and give the holder access to over 2200 registered acts and hundreds more performing at venues spread all over the city. It is the biggest tourist event of the year in Austin, and a boon to local printers.

Plus, live rock-’n-roll and screen printing: Does it get any better than that?
 

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