SXSW at 30: Austin's biggest event broadened city's horizons

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SXSW at 30

Austin’s biggest event has broadened the city’s horizons

Imagine this: It’s 2016, and South by Southwest has never happened.

What does the city of Austin look like?

From his downtown office, SXSW co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson ponders this thought as his staff prepares to present the 30th annual SXSW starting Friday.

Roland Swenson, co-founder and managing director of SXSW. Photo by Jay Janner.

Roland Swenson, co-founder and managing director of SXSW. Photo by Jay Janner.

In three decades, Swenson has overseen the expansion of what was initially a regional event dubbed the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference into a world-renowned convention/festival/expo hybrid that spans a still-expanding roster of topics and industries.

The recent announcement that Friday’s opening keynote conversation will feature President Barack Obama discussing civic engagement signifies how far SXSW has come. It’s also further evidence, along with First Lady Michelle Obama’s music keynote on her “Let Girls Learn” initiative and using music to promote ideas, that SXSW’s future involves a continued push toward broader perspectives.

Pedestrians and traffic make their way towards downtown for SXSW. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez.

Pedestrians and traffic make their way towards downtown for SXSW. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez.

Determining whether SXSW’s success spurred Austin’s rapid growth, or whether that growth was responsible for SXSW’s success, is a chicken-and-egg paradox. But Swenson remembers a crystallizing moment of realization about what his event had come to mean to the city’s identity.

“About 10 years ago, I spoke at an event in Sydney, Australia, and I took my wife and kid with me,” he says. “We were going to a museum and there was this little concession stand, and I was wearing my South by Southwest jacket. And the girl working went, ‘Oh, South by Southwest, I love that, I know all about it!’”

Swenson is chronically skeptical about assigning too much credit, or blame, to his venture for Austin’s status as one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. “I think South by Southwest is kind of woven into the world’s perception of Austin, and vice-versa,” he says. “South by Southwest couldn’t have grown if the city didn’t build a convention center and build a new airport and all of these new hotels downtown hadn’t come into existence. We’d just be a much smaller event than we are.”

In terms of residents, Austin has roughly doubled since its mid-’80s size of about 450,000 people. But the influence of SXSW on the city’s character is more intriguing when viewed through a wider lens than just population statistics. Thirty years ago, Austin already had a reputation as a musical hotbed. But as SXSW has expanded to include movies, technology, gaming, medicine, sports, comedy, education, ecology and more, Austin’s own social, cultural and entrepreneurial horizons have diversified considerably.

Up times in downtown

Look no further than the city center for evidence. Indeed, a case can be made that SXSW created today’s downtown Austin.

The event took a virtually hollowed-out urban core and filled it with interesting, inquisitive people every spring. SXSW showed what it would be like if people lived, worked, shopped and played in one district. This encouraged the “Great Streets” program, a city initiative to improve streetscape standards that significantly improved the lives of pedestrians and bicyclists year-round.

SXSW also opened up old social, entertainment and retail districts along South Congress, West Sixth and Far East Sixth streets. Thirty years ago, these were semi-abandoned zones as well. And unlike the parades, foot races, rallies, concerts, street fairs and other attractions that traditionally were meant to draw people back to Central Austin, SXSW fully engaged the sidewalks, streets and storefronts day and night.

“I think South by Southwest is kind of woven into the world’s perception of Austin, and vice-versa.”

Roland Swenson, SXSW co-founder

That engagement is perhaps most intensely focused on Red River Street, where the heart of the music festival shifted over the past 15 years from its initial Sixth Street hub. It’s a symbiotic relationship, says Cody Cowan, general manager of the Mohawk, which anchors one end of the Red River stretch that includes official SXSW venues such as Stubb’s, Cheer Up Charlie’s, Elysium, Empire, Sidewinder, Swan Dive and Barracuda.

“The function and credibility of the festival, from my point of view, is inextricably tied to the overall health of the Red River Cultural District,” Cowan says. “Similarly, the economic viability of the district is tied to the success of the festival.”

In the case of Empire, which opened in 2013, the impact was even more significant. “In a very direct way, Empire would not have even happened if it was not for SXSW,” says co-owner Stephen Sternschein. He and his partners first came to SXSW for music and tech events in 2009 and 2010, and they bought the space at 606 E. Seventh St. after presenting events there in 2011 and 2012.

“We fell in love with Austin because we were coming down for a few weeks every year to find venues and stuff,” Sternschein says. “We felt like we could make a difference here in a way that was not possible back East, so we took all the dough we had made from SXSW events and put it into renovating Empire and hiring a team of folks to help us run it.”

Both Cowan and Sternschein cite the business that SXSW attracts as a major factor in operating budgets. Cowan says that many venues “make 30 percent or more of their annual income from that 10 days.” Sternschein says Empire’s revenue increases at least threefold in March, which “allows us to stay open and book shows throughout the slow summer months.”

Swenson hears this from venues across the board. “All of them say it helps them pay off their bills and have some money to coast on in the summer when everything slows down,” he says.

Reaching back to the beginning, Swenson notes that this was part of the impetus for the event. In the mid-1980s, when Swenson hatched SXSW with co-founders Louis Black and Nick Barbaro of the Austin Chronicle and music booker Louis Meyers, “the original idea was to give Chronicle advertisers a shot in the arm so they’d pay their bills,” he says.

“When you talk about what might be different about Austin (without SXSW) — when I was a kid, it seemed like clubs had a shelf-life of maybe four or five years, and then they were gone,” he says. “I think clubs last longer now.”

It’s not just the club landscape that has been transformed. Restaurants and bars have taken advantage of the brands, labels and media outlets that throw around big money for parties and events during the festival. Many take in tens of thousands of dollars, significantly supporting their bottom lines.

These businesses also benefit from the influx of musicians, filmmakers, venture capitalists, chefs, journalists and tastemakers. With the advent of social media (and let us not forget Twitter broke out at SXSW), when a celebrity or highly visible individual praises a restaurant or bar on social media or via word-of-mouth, it helps raise the business’s profile and creates trickle-down benefits.

Growing up

In almost every measurable way, SXSW is larger now than it was when it hit the 25-year mark. The greatest growth sector continues to be SXSW Interactive, which had 33,825 registrants last year compared with 14,251 in 2010, an increase of 137 percent.

“The big growth spurt for Interactive started in 2010, and it grew a lot between then and now,” Swenson says. “It’s still growing, but not at as fast a rate.”

People arrive for the Interactive and Film festivals at the Austin Convention Center. Photo by Deborah Cannon.

People arrive for the Interactive and Film festivals at the Austin Convention Center. Photo by Deborah Cannon.

SXSW Film has had a similar increase in that time span, with last year’s 20,252 registrants more than doubling the 2010 figure of slightly under 10,000. This year’s festival will screen 253 movies culled from 7,248 submissions. Those numbers hew pretty close to last year’s totals of 256 movies culled from 7,361 submissions.

Even with fierce competition from the likes of Sundance and Toronto, and in the wake of specialty festivals such as True/False (the all-documentary fest started in 2004), SXSW Film director Janet Pierson says the festival remains unique in the fest ecosystem.

“There’s still nothing else like it,” Pierson says. “The festival’s mix with the music and interactive world is singular.”

The attendance trend for SXSW Music is less clear, in part because last year’s number of 30,308 registrants included all artists’ wristbands, which were not rolled into the festival’s previous registrant totals. But as the music industry continues to face major transformations in the digital age, some decline seems inevitable.

“What I would like for SXSW to become in the future is a way to bring this spirit and community to other parts of the world.”

Ruben Cantu, CORE Media Strategies CEO

The number of performing acts has dipped slightly, from an all-time high of 2,371 in 2014 to last year’s 2,266. This year’s total is shaping up to be about 2,100, according to SXSW publicist Elizabeth Derczo.

Part of the decrease has been a realization that the number of venues had reached a tipping point. “When we got to 100 stages, we kind of thought that’s about as much as we could do. And then we went to 113” in 2013, Swenson notes. This year’s music festival features 103 stages, down from 107 last year.

A guitarist warms up backstage for a gig at a SXSW day party. Photo by Jay Janner.

A guitarist warms up backstage for a gig at a SXSW day party. Photo by Jay Janner.

But supply still far outstrips the demand for showcases among musical acts who apply to play SXSW. This year’s total of 8,521 applicants is up from 8,013 last year. Those numbers peaked above 10,000 eight years ago, but the current submission levels still mean that only 25 percent of bands who want to play SXSW are accepted. “As long as young kids are buying turntables or guitars or whatever,” Swenson says, “there’s always going to be more bands.”



Growing out

Discussion of SXSW’s size perhaps too often focuses on the countable numbers. “For us, there’s more ways to measure growth than just bodies,” Swenson says. “At this point, I feel like our growth is more horizontal — spreading out into new areas. It’s different people with different activities that are finding a place in what we do.”

Sometimes that has meant the addition of entirely new tracks, such as SXSW Edu, an education-focused event that runs Monday through Thursday of this week before Interactive begins on Friday. And 2011 marked the debut of SXSW Eco, which aims to “advance solutions that drive social, economic and environmental change”; its next event is scheduled for Oct. 10-12 at the convention center.

SXSW festival attendees at the SXSWedu Conference and Festival at the Austin Convention Center. Photo by Ralph Barrera.

SXSW festival attendees at the SXSWedu Conference and Festival at the Austin Convention Center. Photo by Ralph Barrera.

Attempts to diversify in other cities, however, repeatedly have not panned out. A three-year run for the SXSW V2V event for innovators and entrepreneurs in Las Vegas ended last July. In the 1990s, music-related expansions in St. Louis (Mississippi River Music Festival) and Portland, Ore. (North by Northwest) were shortlived.

SXSW continues to fare better when its expansion focuses on tapping fresh markets within its existing Austin events. A prime example is last year’s introduction of a health and medical technology track, which was held at the new JW Marriott hotel during last year’s Interactive festival. It’s in sync with the city’s rising profile in health care as the University of Texas launches its Dell Medical School this year.

A badge-holder poses with a member of Ghostbusters of ATX during SXSW Gaming. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez.

A badge-holder poses with a member of Ghostbusters of ATX during SXSW Gaming. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzalez.

“A lot of these new things that we’re doing came from us looking at the people who were signing up for Interactive,” Swenson explains. “We noticed that a lot of people from the health industry were signing up. We started doing more programming for them, and then that attracted more people. So then we decided to do this thing at the Marriott.”

Austin police officers stand in a circle formation in the middle of Sixth Street at SXSW in 2014. Photo by Jay Janner.

Tech, and the future

Indeed, it’s the Interactive event that draws the most interest and business to SXSW these days. Swenson estimates that roughly half of the company’s revenue now comes from the tech event, compared to about 35 percent from Music and around 15 percent from Film.

“Everyone looking for opportunities and that next step to get ahead in the world of tech, film and music needs to be in attendance,” says Ruben Cantu, CEO of CORE Media Strategies and executive director of Austin+SocialGood. “It has always been the crossroads of creativity, innovation and the future.”

Cantu’s comments also underscore the increasing trend toward convergence between SXSW’s three main pillars. This year’s Interactive runs March 11-15, with Music following from March 15-20; Film arches over both from March 11-19. The Tuesday transition between Interactive and Music has become known as convergence day, with panels and events geared toward the common ground.

"When we started Film and Interactive (in 1995), we always thought they were going to begin to overlap more and more, and that has certainly happened,” Swenson said. He added that the arrival of several new downtown hotels in recent years (with more to come) has made it more feasible for Interactive and Music registrants to be in town at the same time.

Beyond convergence, Cantu envisions the event’s future as increasingly global in scope. “What I would like for SXSW to become in the future is a way to bring this spirit and community to other parts of the world,” he says.

International participation has long been a hallmark of the event, especially in Music, where Swenson estimates that one out of every five participants is from another country. But there’s room for more expansion and involvement beyond the U.S. on the Interactive side.

“There’s still nothing else like it. The festival’s mix with the music and interactive world is singular.”

Janet Pierson, SXSW film director

That’s assuming SXSW still has a long future ahead. Swenson doesn’t take anything for granted. “There have been events that have been around for a long time that went belly-up in a couple years. And that could happen here,” he says.

It’s worth noting that Sundance Film Festival creator Robert Redford expressed uncertainty about continuing his event in a February interview with Closer Weekly. “I don’t know if there will be a festival,” Redford said. “It’s gotten so big, how long can it continue to expand without convulsing?”

Swenson thinks he knows where Redford is coming from, as both Sundance and SXSW have faced challenges in recent years from branded satellite events that sometimes overshadow the official programming.

“When Redford looks at what is going on in Park City, it’s like, ‘This isn’t what I had in mind.’ And to a certain extent, I feel that way at times,” Swenson says. “A lot of the companies that are doing guerrilla marketing here started at Sundance. But would Robert Redford shutter Sundance? Maybe.

“For us, an awful lot of people make their living here,” he continues, noting that SXSW currently employs 238 people in its peak season. “It would be hard for us to say, ‘We’ve had enough of this; this is too hard’ — whether or not you think that South by Southwest is an important part of the Austin economy and is a good thing. Not everybody believes that, but I do.”


SXSW 2016 Highlights
• President Barack Obama will be interviewed by Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune for a keynote conversation to kick off SXSW Interactive on Friday. First Lady Michelle Obama will give the SXSW Music opening keynote on March 15.

• Other keynotes include David Bowie producer Tony Visconti (music), “Terminator” trilogy producer Gale Anne Hurd (film) and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank (interactive).

• Interactive presenters include Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and CNN host Anthony Bourdain. The creator and stars of the USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” also will appear, and the network will sponsor a 10-story ferris wheel downtown.

• Film premieres include Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some” and the local debut of Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special,” with presenters including director J.J. Abrams and Oscar winner Geena Davis.

• Music performers include Iggy Pop, Loretta Lynn, Santigold, Charli XCX, Lucius, Fantastic Negrito, Coheed and Cambria, and The Head and the Heart.


More previews and news at austin360.com/sxsw.

Michael Barnes, Omar L. Gallaga, Joe Gross, Matthew Odam and Deborah Sengupta Stith contributed to this report.
Photos in "Up times in downtown" section by Jay Janner in 2014 and 2012.

A band on the move on the corner of Sixth Street at SXSW in 2013. Photo by Jay Janner.