By Jillian Oliver
Sometimes the best ideas can be conceived in unexpected ways–like over plates of Tex-Mex in an Austin restaurant. That's where an idea for a music festival was bounced between four writers for The Austin Chronicle–Ronald Swenson, Louis Jay Meyers, Louis Black, and Nick Barbaro in 1986 Austin, Texas.
Flash forward to today and Austin's South by Southwest festival–abbreviated SXSW–is a major platform for discovering talent that rivals even the most famous talent shows; the discovery of John Mayer in 2000 being one of the most notable examples.
It has also hosted a plethora of high profile musicians and keynote speakers from Stevie Nicks to Mark Zuckerberg.
With music, movies, and the newest tech, SXSW is a March extravaganza that appeals to revelers who want full immersion in the newest innovations in entertainment.
SXSW Increased Twitter's popularity
Named after a Hitchcock film from 1959
Founded indie genre
Discovered John Mayer in 2000
1986 was a good year for entertainment. The highest-grossing film was Top Gun, artists like Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Whitney Houston were on the top ten billboard charts, and The Cosby Show was the top show on TV (how times have changed).
In that year of powerful chart-toppers and films that would become classics, The Austin Chronicle was having secretive meetings over the future of music and entertainment in the city.
The key players in this covert operation wanted to create a platform for talented musicians in the city. Their philosophy was that Austin had a well of musical energy, hot and ready to boil over the city limits, only they lacked exposure.
The conception of the program truly occurred in July when the Chamber of Commerce sponsored an Austin booth at the 7th annual New Music Seminar in New York City.
With this exposure, they got to discuss their concept with the organizers of the seminar, and thus what became the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference began to take shape.
It may have seemed like a longshot, but co-creator and editor of The Austin Chronicle, Louis Black, said
I've always been skeptical about phrases like 'Never in your wildest imagination. And the men's imaginations certainly were boundless–if a little bogged down by the
million details that went into creating the conference.
One of the easier details was the name. Black is a film buff–which is a shock to everyone, I'm sure–and he chose a name that was inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock 1959 classic North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
Although envisioned as a smaller, more intimate version of the New Music Seminar, there was no containing its growth. With its inaugural event in 1987 at the Capitol Marriott, SXSW drew in 700 people, rather than the intimate group of 100-200 that they had expected. That's no small margin of error!
But this would prove that SXSW was about to become a major player in the national media scene.
Let the Music Play
At the first event, local bands like The Killer Bees scouted the event for a possible record label and industry professionals were on the lookout for ways to build relationships.
There were no artists turned away from SXSW, no singer too obscure, and this proved to be just what Austin's talent needed to get into the public eye.
On March 10 - 12, Texans and out of towners saw local Jazz, Funk, Rock, and even cover bands take to the stage.
But some debate over their inclusivity came about in 1989 when they received some criticism for not showcasing enough minority bands from the East side of the city.
While the conference was heavily promoted in The Austin Chronicle, the outreach efforts escaped predominantly Black and Hispanic communities.
Since SXSW didn't solicit acts, they were torn on how much responsibility they had for reaching out when they felt the event was already widely known in the music scene.
The issue came up again during the 1992 SXSW when white folk musician, Michelle Shocked, gave a speech that decried how Black contributions to music were erased from history.
Her cred went south when she argued that blackface performers of the past founded modern music. This was met with more than a little disagreement.
But that wouldn't be the last bit of controversy SXSW would see in the coming years.
The 90s saw some big changes to SXSW. They moved their home base to the Austin Convention Center where it is to this day, and film started to feature prominently in their entertainment lineup.
In 1994, the SXSW Film and Media Conference was announced as an offshoot of the Music and Media Conference. This extended the duration of SXSW, causing it to run for eight days instead of three.
Doc's Full Service saw its premiere in that year's festival–a low-budget flick by a Sundance featured director. The plot revolved around a Texas gas station and the sundry people who travel through.
Perhaps it makes sense that Johnny Cash was the keynote speaker that year, given that he lent his voice to the small screen and big screen over the course of his career.
Compared to what would come, though, this was a humble start for the film festival.
Stars like Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Cage, and Joss Whedon would all appear at the conference in support of the film industry and its up and coming talent.
And as this rapid growth took place, they may have even discovered a new film genre–mumblecore.
Mumblecore is a style that involves a more casual, conversational tone than your average Hollywood blockbuster. Characteristic of low-budget, independent films, mumblecore involves more improv and realistic acting and dialogue.
This oddly named genre came about because SXSW screened a number of films in 2005 that were later lumped into this category, including Kissing on the Mouth and The Puffy Chair.
It was a lucky coincidence that so many films that would later be called
mumblecore were curated that year. Innovators in the genre, the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg (who made the above films) were involved in SXSW 2005.
The genre allegedly got its name at a local bar the night of the festival. The sound editor was asked to describe the similarities between several films that were being shown, and he said
mumblecore. Thus a genre was born.
Over the years, their film premieres have gone from featuring smaller, indie films to showing star-studded comedies like Bridesmaids and Knocked Up.
And horror buffs can't forget the 2013 Evil Dead remake–which wasn't quite as groovy as the original . . but I digress.
The grandeur of the festival escalated, bringing in over 100,000 people each year, and in 2013 the number hit 325,000.
These growing crowds raised some concerns about crowd control when in 2014 a drunk driver plowed into a group outside the conference venue, killing two people and injuring 23 others.
Since there was no way to put a cap on the crowd numbers, they implemented transportation measures and lowered the number of other special events that could take place during SXSW.
As this exponential climb up the ladder continued, SXSW saw an opportunity to give tech companies the chance to show off their gadgets, helping to propel the festival into the 21st century.
Tech up Ahead
It was 1995 when SXSW added tech to its repertoire when its multimedia conference was formed.
In keeping with its mission to highlight creative innovations in the world, the tech component started as a way to show off developments in gaming.
They had tables at the Hyatt Regency Hotel where innovators would display the latest software and hardware developments.
By 1999, however, the conference turned its spyglass toward the internet, web design, and user interface. CD-Roms and outdated software went by the wayside, and with their new grounding they became SXSW Interactive instead of multimedia.
SXSW 2007 brought Twitter's popularity sky high, increasing posts by 40,000. But they didn't lose sight of gaming - SIMS franchise creator Will Wright was the keynote speaker that year and promoted his new game Spore to salivating fans.
Over the years, this mega-conference has served some of the most lucrative businesses, helping them create new markets.
But in light of all this it's fair to ask, is SXSW still a platform for the little guy?
Well . . . yes and no.
Is SXSW Still Indie?
With endless big-budget films like Furious 7 and Get Hard, illustrious keynote speakers from Elon Musk to Amy Schumer, and big brands showing their AR and VR, do Austin's talented unknowns stand a chance?
Perhaps, but it ain't easy for them to grab the spotlight.
Small startup companies looking to promote new apps get lost among big names like Uber, Subway, AT&T, and international brands.
What helps is that the startups have their own corner at the conference, keeping them from having to compete directly with advanced marketing ploys like holograms and Subway's brainwave controlled video game (yep, that's a thing).
Despite the intense competition, SXSW still attracts hopefuls who want their next film or new band discovered.
But they also need to sustain those big names since the appeal to tourists is off the charts.
For a brief time, however, it all came to a screeching halt when the 2020 pandemic caused the cancellation of SXSW.
Today, however, the festival and conferences have jettisoned back with more glam, tech, and talent than ever.
The crowd will no doubt be voluminous since everyone's ready to get out and about this year. So if you attend, be sure to grab a drink at one of many bars in downtown Austin, and brave the world of all things new and budding.
Who knows, you may even get a first glimpse at the lightning in a bottle that SXSW is so known for catching!