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'Pizza Fairy,' Queer Rap and Teen Audiences: How Tumblr Throws a Party at SXSW

A Yahoo brand tries to stay relevant.


How do you throw a good party at SXSW Interactive?

It’s not easy. The Austin tech, music and film festival has been completely overrun with events thrown by everyone from McDonald’s to Gibson Guitar to Vox Media (they own us). Brands everywhere are thirsting for attention, and they’re willing to ply attendees with cheap (or free) drinks and loud music to attract throngs of techie, media and advertising people in town for the festivities.

According to Danielle Strle, director of culture and trends at Yahoo-owned Tumblr, here’s how to stand out: Book musicians that teens like, invite teens to your party and give the teens pizza.

“We have this tradition called ‘pizza fairy,'” Strle said. “Because kids are waiting in line from, like, three o’clock in the afternoon, we go to Hoboken Pizza, order 20 pies and we take it to them. We open up the boxes and everyone grabs.”

Tumblr has been throwing a party at SXSW for five years now. Their Saturday night party this year was called “U Up?,” and unlike seemingly every other SXSW event, it was an all-ages affair. Held at the Mohawk, a mostly outdoor bar with several terraces (including a VIP section), the party began at 7 pm and closed out around 2 am.

Tumblr is considerably smaller than rivals Facebook or Twitter, as both a community and a business. It never took off the way Yahoo (and outsiders) expected as a business, and its value is still declining.

Still, the blogging service remains popular with teens and a blowout party at SXSW is a good way to remind people that Tumblr is still alive and kicking. A recent New Republic feature story observed that while Tumblr teens are likely not sitting with the cool kids in the cafeteria, they have an “advanced emotional intelligence” that sets the community apart.

 Grouplove performing at the Tumblr "U Up?" party
Grouplove performing at the Tumblr “U Up?” party

For Strle, Tumblr events chief Amandalyn Ferri and “music evangelist” Nate Auerbach, putting the party together is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, they have to satisfy what Auerbach described as the “FOMO-fueled” atmosphere of SXSW, and on the other, find a way to reflect the fundamental weirdness of the teen-heavy Tumblr community.

“It is important to us that we had two-thirds general admission, one-third VIPs here and all ages admission” Ferri said. “And we have to get what’s hot in the community; it can’t be anything played out … this is for Tumblr [users] first, and all the artists we work with know that.”

In practice, this means that Tumblr books artists like the queer rapper Le1f, or the trippy singer Kelela (her recent EP is literally called “Hallucinogen”). But the supreme adolescent-conscious booking move was getting the band Grouplove, who had a song in the Tumblr-teen adored blockbuster movie, “The Fault in Our Stars,” to perform their first show in almost two years. The lead singer of Grouplove, which played a lengthy set that lasted for more than an hour, also hinted that there was a new album coming very soon.

One girl, wearing patent leather gold shoes and a onesie of indeterminate material and color, burst into tears and hugged another girl next to her. They both said that this was “literally the best thing that could have happened.”

Times are tough at Tumblr’s parent company, which might explain why there was a cash bar, but frankly there wasn’t a harsh vibe to be felt during the whole party.

Or as one teenager put it, standing by the exit shortly after Grouplove finished its set: “That was dope. Who wants to get pizza?”

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