One week ago, I left for my first, and possibly last, XOXO festival. If you’re not familiar with XOXO, you can read about it here, but I think it’s hard to really understand what it’s all about without attending. It’s defined on the website as an “experimental festival,” which I suppose is true. Every year, XOXO founders Andy Baio and Andy McMillan (who will be referred to as “the Andys” from here on in) make changes to the structure and content of the festival based on the previous year. I don’t know of any other conference that includes free drinks (including creative non-alcoholic cocktails, thank you so much, sincerely, an underage college student), dedicates larges amounts of time and space to socializing with other attendees, and curates an incredible lineup of not just speakers but games (both of the video and tabletop variety), films, and live shows.
The main focus on this blog post is going to be the talks and social experience of XOXO, but I need to take a moment for the food, because oh my god. I’m used to going to conventions where no matter how great the programming is, the food is terrible and overpriced. XOXO had a rotating lineup of specially curated food trucks that all served delicious, interesting, and reasonably priced food. Although it was all phenomenal, I have to give a special shout-out to Perierra Creparie from which I had three crepes in three days, and to Pip’s Doughnuts that were so delicious I am dreaming about them still.
Anyway! The conference started in the most XOXO way possible, which was a friend from Twitter picking me up from the airport and driving me to Revolution Hall. Shout out to Kathy Campbell for saving me the cost of a taxi and also not axe-murdering me and/or stealing all of my possessions.
From that moment until the very end, XOXO was spectacular. The talks were honestly more than I ever imagined. Listening to genuine, heartfelt talks until 5:00pm left me feeling emotionally drained at the end of each day in a way I hadn’t expected. I could write pages upon pages about each talk, but I wanted to focus on the main theme I noticed running through most of them: valuing yourself.
Several talks this year focused explicitly on making money as an independent creator. Gaby Dunn spoke about reading contracts and getting good deals as an artist, without giving away your work or ideas. David Rees broke down all the money he’s made in the past fifteen years and where it all came from. Lucy Bellwood, in one of my favorite talks of the weekend, confessed that amid all her fantastic creative success, her biggest achievement of the year was getting off food stamps.
Even more than the dollar amounts, however, these talks were about valuing yourself as a person and as a creator. What does it mean to be successful as an artist? Does it mean supporting yourself entirely from independent work? Does it mean getting rich off of your art? Does it mean being a “starving artist” and never “selling out?”
No speaker offered clear answers or solutions. Instead, they left me with the sense that it was okay to not know. It's okay to struggle or to make money, it's okay to accept money for art that you make, it's okay to need help. Independence is lonely. We can all help each other.
While the talks alone were excellent, what really made XOXO stand out above and beyond were the social components. The Andys maintain a Slack channel year-round with all past and present XOXO attendees who wish to take part. What this channel meant was that before I even arrived in Portland, there were people I wanted to connect with and meetups I wanted to attend. Over the course of XOXO, I met so many interesting people who, somehow, were all incredibly kind.
I also got to chance to properly talk to a lot of people whose work I followed for a long time. For example, take Myke Hurley. Over the course of XOXO, Myke went from someone I knew on Twitter whose work I admired to the person who I KNEW was the goddamn werewolf but noooo they chose to kill me instead so we all lost instead come ON
How can I sum up what XOXO was? It was about independent creators. It was about financial, emotional, and mental insecurity. It was community and connections. It was recognizing how much our fears are alike. It was missing the entire film and animation lineup because I was too busy laughing my ass off, playing card games with new friends. It was feeling so emotional after the talks that I took a mile walk with a friend and only stopped when we found an amazing hill to roll down. It was being inspired and encouraged not in the typical “just follow your dreams!” way, but in the “I’m just a person. You’re just a person. We can do this and do it together” way.
XOXO isn't coming back next year. It might not come back at all. I know that whatever the Andys do in their lives, it'll be unique and wonderful, but I also can't help but to wish that XOXO will return someday.
Even if it never does, I’ll never forget the fundamental lesson of XOXO, the one that the Andys left us with on Sunday: we are not alone.