By Michael O'Connell Posted March 18, 2011, 2:00 PM EDT
For many devotees of South by Southwest, the Fader Fort has become as much of an important part of the music festival as the official programming.
The pop-up venue has returned to Austin, Texas, from this Wednesday to Saturday, hosting tens of thousands for four days of free music, free booze, and face time with dozens of sponsoring brands—which this year include Budweiser, Pepsi, and Converse. But for the first time in event’s nine-year history, it has a new partner. The Fader and former collaborator Levi Strauss parted ways last summer, allowing Fiat to step in on the occasion of the Italian automaker’s U.S. launch.
“Fiat was doing an art exhibit down at Art Basel in Miami,” says Fader publisher and Fort-master Andy Cohn. “They needed a partner to help them curate it and produce the event, so they pulled us in. We turned it around really quick, and it gave us a good education in what they were looking to do.”
At this point (early December 2010), The Fader had been in talks with another car company to work on the Fort, but when their goals more closely aligned with Fiat's art-focused, evergreen American ambitions, the magazine switched gears.
Those familiar with Fiat know that its brand image is awfully different from the steampunk ghost-town vibe the Fort has presented in recent years, so while little has changed in the programming, the consumer-facing image required tweaking.
“The aesthetic of the Fort always had this rustic, Southwestern feel to it,” says Cohn. “What we are doing this year is moving away from that type of interpretation of the Fort. Fiat a little more of an upscale, slightly more modern brand aesthetic, so we’ve been finding that middle ground between a dirty, outdoor/indoor environment and a super-clean Fiat environment.”
To do that, Fader once again turned to San Francisco-based Lacy Maxwell Productions, who helped both companies streamline a lot of the decor to find a happy medium between rusty sheet metal and spartan showcases for the requisite cars.
This rebrand has had no effect on attendance. Within the first hour and a half of opening the guest list online, The Fader received 14,000 R.S.V.P.s, temporarily crashing the Web site. (This for an event that usually has to cap off the list around 25,000.) And as of the second day of the event, the line for admission bracelets still wrapped all the way around the grounds.
So other than slightly fancier digs, what does the future hold for Fader Fort by Fiat? Cohn wants to give the event life beyond South by Southwest, something it really hasn’t been able to do yet. “We want to grow the brand in New York and, of course, Austin, and to really develop a Web property that can live all year long.”
As of the Fort's official 2011 launch, all of those tools are in place. And to drive a new audience to them, all performance sets are are streaming on the new Web site.