For those unfamiliar with the brand, South by Southwest is an arts and media conference set in Austin, Texas. What started as a simple festival grew to become a collection of SXSW events covering music, film, comedy, technology, education, start-ups and more. Quite simply, there is so much going on, it would be impossible for someone to partake in everything the gathering has to offer.
Its roots go back to 1986, when Ronald Swenson of The Austin Chronicle and New York City’s New Music Seminar wanted to do a Southwest version in Austin, which back then was much more under-the-radar as a city. Though it never got organized, Swenson went ahead and put together a local music festival, whose name was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. He teamed up with Chronicle editor Louis Black and publisher Nick Barbaro, who are still key members of SXSW. Expecting around 150 attendees for their 1987 inauguration, the organizers were surprised to see a crowd of 700 show up for what they advertised as a regional event, with Black remarking “it was national almost immediately.”
Since then, SXSW has grown in both scope and ambition. Their film festival has hosted more than 50 world premiers, including the Academy Award-winning Hurt Locker. SXSW Interactive, which has been called a start-up accelerator, has showcased notable speakers from Mark Zuckerberg to Edward Snowden and Julien Assange. It also saw the launch of Foursquare and helped get some early traction for Twitter before hitting the mainstream.
At its heart, SXSW is still a music conference, with so many performances across the city no two people are going to have the same experience. In addition to tech start-ups, the festival has been known to serve as a launching pad for up-and-coming acts. John Mayer, The Polyphonic Spree and James Blunt were able to crossover into the mainstream thanks to performances there, though critics are starting to admonish the growing emphasis on mainstream entertainment. 2013’s gathering was marked by a high corporate presence in SXSW Interactive, with detractors like NPR’s Andrea Swensson saying the festival has, “strayed far away from its original premise as a grassroots gathering for new, undiscovered talent and increasingly feels like a big ol’ Times Square billboard-sized commercial.”
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