Founded in 1987, the South by Southwest Music Conference initially was introduced as a series of events highlighting both the unique location and year-round music scene of Austin, Texas. Austin claims more nightclubs per capita than any other city in the world, and SXSW has mirrored Austin’s economic growth in the last forty years. Today, businesses of all kinds thrive alongside an emerging finance and technology sector, and this has contributed immensely to the festival’s international success.
Austin musicians were disconnected from the rest of the entertainment world, and the original idea of SXSW was to create a platform for a wide range of artists and industry intermediaries to collaborate and further develop their careers. Back in 1987 the festival’s planners expected to draw around 150 people. They ended up bringing together over 700 and, according to founder Louis Black, “[SXSW became] national almost immediately.”1 Now, SXSW has gone a step further, with people from all over the world coming to network and share ideas with rising artists, trendsetters, and industry leaders.
Today, receiving an invitation to perform at SXSW is the equivalent of winning a Willy Wonka golden ticket. SXSW built a reputation of being the premier event for music discovery, and the list of artists whose careers skyrocketed after SXSW performance is long: Hanson, The Strokes, Janelle Monae, John Mayer, and Katy Perry, who performed at SXSW shortly before the release of her breakout single “I Kissed A Girl”.2 Discovery at SXSW Music has not been limited to musicians either. Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen made his comedy debut at SXSW Music in 1998 with the film Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and SXSW, in which he posed as a journalist at the festival.3
SXSW Music today
SXSW Music is a far cry from what it was in 1987. Attendance has grown to 28,000 in 2014. The 2014 festival also saw performances from 2,371 different artists from more than 50 countries. All of these performances took place across 111 stages located all around the city, though most, including all the major ones, are located within a roughly one mile radius of the Austin Convention Center.4 A few of the stages are located within the convention center, which serves as the epicenter of SXSW and hosts the entirety of the conference portion of SXSW Music. The conference is comprised of several hundred events, including panels, networking meetups, and one-on-one mentor sessions, that cover music industry issues ranging from data collection and usage to copyright law. The events at the conference feature presenters and panelists from a wide variety of backgrounds, including BandPage founder and CEO J Sider, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman, and rapper and keynote speaker Snoop Dogg.
While the plethora of available activities makes SXSW Music an attractive event, it can also make it quite a daunting one to attend. Official SXSW events run from 9 am to around 2 am every day, with the ending time extending to 4 am or 5 am if you include the many unofficial events that take place. There are almost always at least four or five events at any given time, and often times the number of overlapping events can reach a couple dozen. When it comes to performances, particularly those of some of the more popular acts, attendance generally well exceeds the venue’s capacity, resulting in lines that more than fill the rope mazes outside the venue and move at a one out one in rate.
Press passes are usually of little help with these lines, and even the available express passes, called SXXpress, aren’t guaranteed to get the owner into a crowded venue. All of this isn’t meant to dissuade someone from attending SXSW Music, but rather to suggest that any attendee should approach each day with a plan, and, if they want to realize the full value of their badge, which can cost up to $1,745, they should plan on getting very little sleep. Perhaps the best advice for an attendee when it comes to performances at night is to plan around a venue rather than just choosing all the artists to see, as hopping from venue to venue over the course of the night will be nearly impossible.
Among the most significant features of SXSW, and one that has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years, is the prevalence of branding. In what is by all accounts a major change from the early days of the festival, and even a departure from what it was during the first decade of the millennium, most, if not all of the performances at SXSW Music are sponsored by one or more brands. The branding of these showcases works in a few different ways. In some cases, such as with the Berklee showcase, the brand rents out either a venue or temporary SXSW stage for the duration of their events, with another brand moving into the same space later that day or the next day. Others, like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube rent out a venue for the entire week, hosting showcases and parties every day of the week. The pinnacle of branding at SXSW comes in the form of the small village built by The Fader and Converse, appropriately called the Fader Fort. In addition to being full of advertising for Converse and The Fader, the fort, which holds one of the festival’s largest stages, features Jack Daniels sponsored bars, Vitaminwater sponsorship for soft drinks, several food sponsors, and even Kia cars.
Branding at SXSW goes far beyond what is inside the venues. Representatives from companies fill the streets surrounding the convention center handing out everything from energy drinks and headphones to smoking paraphernalia and cigarettes. Charmin toilet paper, a sponsor, used the hashtag #tweetfromtheseat to get the attention of your correspondents. While some perks of brand sponsorships, such as free food and drink, are appreciated, the level of branding at SXSW can be quite overwhelming and easily distract from actual performances.
Introduced in 1994, SXSW Interactive Festival has grown to become one of the most important technology conferences in the world. The event, which originated as a spinoff of the music conference, includes networking sessions, keynote speakers, trade exhibitions, pitch competitions, and a highly competitive startup accelerator program. This year marked the 22nd annual Interactive conference – bringing together in total over 33,000 participants across a diverse range of new media industries. While daytime programming continues to focus on exploring innovation, inspiration, and creativity through hardware demonstrations and new product launches, sponsored evening showcases have become increasingly more popular for those seeking interactive, immersive live experiences.
Historically, the Interactive conference has been widely recognized for its ability to ideate, create, and launch influential technology companies. Over the past two decades, the conference has been instrumental in writing the history of our current digital culture, as well as in adapting and debating the ideas of the future. SXSW Interactive was the first conference ever to connect some of the earliest web denizens and hackers in a common place. The 2007 Interactive conference helped to grow the then fledgling social media startup Twitter, ultimately helping reshape the way we see social media today. Startups started paying attention, and in 2009, local search and discovery application FourSquare launched as part of a new product series.
In addition to notable product launches, SXSW Interactive is famous for bringing together the world’s brightest minds to deliver historic keynotes, some of which have been widely criticized due to their controversial topics and audience interactions. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s 2008 keynote interview with journalist Sarah Lacy was arguably one of the most notorious. Audience members described the interview as “a train wreck” due to Zuckerberg’s failure to address Facebook’s privacy concerns and data portability questions.5 Subsequent years have featured keynotes from major tech figures including Twitter founder Evan Williams, Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd, and Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek. This year, transhumanist Martine Rothblatt, who gained notoriety as the inventor of Sirius XM radio, delivered an impassioned keynote on the future of artificial intelligence and the ability to transfer human consciousness to machines.
SXSW Interactive week introduced a variety of new themes this year, including fashion and wearable technology, health & MedTech systems, global impact of and policy surrounding technology, and Art, Science, and Inspiration exhibitions. When not attending a panel or live event, registered participants can mingle in the Startup Village, explore the robotic petting zoo, or attend mentorship sessions around the city. Despite some of the heated controversies, the unparalleled wealth of knowledge introduced and inventive ideas discussed at the SXSW Interactive Festival are what keep the conference on the forefront of digital creativity and make it an international destination for innovation.
Discovery at SXSW
Traditionally, SXSW has been categorized as an entertainment attraction for a broad group of creatives to collaborate, share ideas, and build companies and artists. In recent years, the festival has become saturated by the professionalization of big brands and large companies with major spending budgets. “Increasingly, on the front end of the event, it has more and more facets of a traditional business conference,” says Hugh Forrest, director of South by Southwest Interactive. “Business is getting done. Startups are meeting VCs or angels or investors and brand people are talking to brand people”6
Today, technology is where much of the interest in SXSW lies, resulting in SXSW Interactive becoming a major hub for investors and startups to connect. The expansion of the festival into a more business-oriented conference this year has predominantly benefited the startup and entrepreneurship community. The organizers of SXSW have nearly doubled the infrastructure available for early stage companies, and even introduced a SXSW Accelerator program aimed at giving startups an opportunity to pitch their ideas to major venture capital firms. Since the program launched in 2009, featured companies have received over $600M in funding.7
However, as SXSW has become a major destination for startup growth and investment, the festival’s role in music discovery, which was its initial purpose, has changed dramatically. There has been much discussion in recent days about the value of a SXSW showcase for small bands and artists. Though most performers receive some sort of compensation for playing at SXSW, for small acts from outside the Austin area it is nowhere near enough money to cover the expenses they incur due to travel, accommodations, and food, meaning the value for them is, and has pretty much always been in the amount of exposure they can gain. Unfortunately for these small acts, gaining the attention of fans and industry insiders is incredibly difficult given that they are competing with several thousand other acts, at least five or six of whom are playing at the exact same time as them. Additionally, most SXSW attendees are not deciding which new band they want to check out, but rather are waiting in line to see one of the many major acts, including Tove Lo, The Weeknd, and Chance the Rapper, who all perform on the festival’s biggest stages. With all of this in mind, it is probably best for small acts that are looking for the most cost efficient way to build their fan base to forgo a SXSW appearance in favor of a regional tour, or a performance at a smaller, discovery oriented festival like CMJ Music Marathon.
By Griffin Davis and William Kiendl
1. “SXSW History.” SXSW.com. Web. 6 Apr. 2015. <http://sxsw.com/about/sxsw-history>.
2. Perkins, Tavon. “15 Artists You Didn’t Know Got Discovered At SXSW.” RantHollywood. 6 Mar. 2015. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://www.ranthollywood.com/2015/03/06/15-artists-you-didnt-know-got-discovered-at-sxsw/>.
3. “Fred Armisen – Co-creator, Co-writer, Co-star.” Www.ifc.com. Web. 5 Apr. 2015. <http://www.ifc.com/shows/portlandia/cast-and-crew/fred-armisen-co-creator-co-writer-co-star>.
4. “SXSW Demographics.” SXSW.com. 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2015. <http://sxsw.com/sites/default/files/attachments/SXSW-Demographics.pdf>.
5. Wallace, Lewis. “SXSW: Zuckerberg Keynote Descends Into Chaos as Audience Takes Over.”Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 9 Mar. 2008. Web. 6 Apr. 2015. <http://www.wired.com/2008/03/sxsw-mark-zucke/>.
6. Morris, Chris. “SXSW Is Becoming More like a Traditional Business conference.” Fortune. Time Inc., 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 6 Apr. 2015. <http://fortune.com/2015/03/12/sxsw-interactive-2015/>.