Registration for tickets to this year's XOXO Festival will close tomorrow, Friday, at noon PST. The fest's registration opened last Tuesday with the intention of only remaining available for ten days. Line-up for the festival includes a keynote by Cameron Esposito, and talks by writers like Ijeoma Olu, and Hari Kondabolu, cartoonist Matt Furie, rapper Jean Grae, and Adam Conover of Adam Ruins Everything. There's an evening of storytelling with podcasters like Anita Sarkeesian, Judge Hodgeman and Criminal's Phoebe Judge. There's also an arcade of indie creator-focused video games, and a room devoted to table top and RPG projects (often still in prototype) where you can test them out and talk to the designers. The fest is expected to sell out. It sells out every year.
The Mercury almost never writes about XOXO, though it is a popular Portland festival with a lot of cool shit at it and now in its sixth year. We don't usually write about it because a weekend pass runs a cool $500. However, in recent years, XOXO changed its ticketing in such a way that could make it potentially affordable to readers again.
The short of it is: that XOXO has, for the past two fests (They took 2017 off. Well, they still did a ton of shit but they didn't do a fest.), offered subsidized or free passes to a number of attendees, and—as they're moving the weekend of conferences and events to Veterans Memorial Coliseum—they're hoping to grow the festival, and offer more subsidized passes than ever before.
The long of it is: that this is the latest in a series of moves XOXO has tried to create a more inclusive element to their festival that, without registration and subsidized passes, could easily become a tech bro event full of marketing people hocking tequila brands. Not that there's anything wrong with that (well, the tequila anyway) but that vision isn't the festival that Andy Baio and Andy McMillan founded and work so hard to keep focused on community, art, and technology.
In 2012, XOXO's first year, the Mercury's Alison Hallett wrote that certain aspects of the festival were open to the public: the food cart pod, the arcade, film screenings etc. as long as spots weren't occupied by pass holders. But that proved too difficult for subsequent years so XOXO tried on a couple different approaches, aimed at diversifying its body of attendees. It's a technology and art festival, after all, and artists are often pretty broke.
They tried a two-tier system of passes. They tried $50 subsidized tickets. In 2016, XOXO dropped that subsidized ticket fee to nothing, and around 10 percent of the attendees paid no ticket price to attend the fest.
This year, XOXO is looking to grow their festival and move it under one roof, to the aforementioned Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The reason they're doing it is, in part to try to make even more free passes available. "It was something we really couldn't do at Revolution Hall." Andy Baio explains. "We needed to grow it to make the subsidization possible."
"$500, if you're in indie comics, is very expensive," he says. "If you are coming from a tech background, though, it's, like, cheap. Every year, we hear from people that pay full price, and it ends up being a value for them."
In response to my question about whether XOXO is a networking festival, Baio bristles. "People make friends," he says. He explains that the primary reason for registration in the first place is to try to keep the fest a meeting place for makers across the country. "After [marketers] saw all the people that showed up, we had a lot of people e-mailing us to exploit that attention. So the following year we started doing this survey / registration as a very light screen. It's a very light screen, but the end result is that everyone who is at XOXO is making stuff."
"It's three questions. 1) What do you do? 2) What's something you made that you're proud of? 3) What's something that you're working on right now? In our experience, that's a hard thing to bluff."
If you're really going to attend everything at XOXO, $500 probably isn't that bad a bill, and people who are going to attend everything are precisely the sort the organizers want at the festival. They're trying to create a community feeling.
Although it's not a networking thing, XOXO seems like it could just be an important annual event for a certain artistic, collaborative crowd, and the $500 seems like it could be a worthwhile investment toward meeting people interested in the same stuff, especially from all over the country. Baio says attendance in 2016 was 80 percent non-Oregonians.
"XOXO gets miscatagorized as a technology event," Baio says. "But if you look at the line-up this year, more than any other years, I think it's going to end up speaking to issues around balancing your work that you need to do to get paid with activism and social justice work. A lot of it is, like, how do you continue to make a game or write a comic while the world feels like it's falling apart?"