About This Festival
What started as a weekend music festival now sprawls across 10 days, encompassing music, technology and film; this is South by Southwest (SXSW). Some may argue that this Austin, Texas festival has lost its edge, but its massive influx of concerts, parties and conferences still draw tens of thousands of attendees. While SXSW does not favor the unprepared, it does reward the spontaneous. Decide who on the schedule you want to see, but don’t be too attached to your plans—you never know when an invitation to an amazing showcase or surprise concert will come your way.
SXSW Opening Act
SWSX was originally conceived as an independent music showcase, where up-and-coming bands would try to woo prospective labels (the Southwest’s answer to New York’s New Music Seminar). The first was developed in 1987 by Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro (a local writer, an editor and a publisher, respectively), who came up with the name as a play on Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. They expected a couple hundred people; nearly a thousand showed up.
In the last decade or so, the festival has expanded to include film and technology. The film program has become one of the nation’s premier film festivals and runs nearly every day of SXSW (think of it like a domestic version of the Cannes Film Festival). The tech community takes over SXSW for 5 days with Interactive, a series of conference and panels.
Six days of the festival are still devoted to music, though SXSW is no longer merely a showcase for new bands; super stars Justin Timberlake and Usher performed in 2013. Although these high-profile performances tend to steal the spotlight, SXSW is still a great place for young, hungry performers to make an impression. In past years, artists including John Mayer and James Blunt were “discovered” by label reps at SXSW performances.
Instead of one large performance space, SXSW takes over dozens of smaller venues and businesses throughout downtown Austin. Stubb’s, a local BBQ joint, is the unofficial home of the festival. Once a small industry event, SXSW takes over the entire city, and flights and hotels are booked up to a year in advance. The media aims its lens at Austin for weeks building up to, during, and even after the festival. Celebrity sightings are common.
While musical performances are often secret, invite-only affairs held in small venues, Interactive takes over the Austin Convention Center. SXSW has become the spot for launching new technology (Twitter was launched here in 2007) and has hosted its fair share of prominent tech figures. In 2008, tech reporter Sara Lacy notoriously soft-balled Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, prompting the audience to insist on better questions in the future.
Similarly, SXSW’s film portion draws big names in the industry, and the festival has become a platform for major studios to launch films with fringe appeal. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World both benefitted from the enthusiastic response they received at the festival.