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South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, draws the best in music, film and technology one week a year. Writer Elizabeth Trovall describes its humble start.
Text: Elizabeth Trovall
Country: USA

the designation “live music capital of the world,” Austin, Texas, offers music ranging from the mainstream to the obscure—you can hear almost any genre of music any time of the year. Especially known as a hub for blues, rock and Spanish-language acts in the south, Austin has attracted musicians and their fans for decades. It’s deeply rooted in Austin’s identity as a city, which has claimed it offers more venues per capita than anywhere else in the United States.

Although the city is great for live music year-round, once a year Austin becomes the center of the musical universe with the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. Then the city opens its doors to musicians, critics, artists and thousands of fans for one of the most significant festivals in the world.

But SXSW didn’t start that way. Once a low-key, do-it-yourself local festival, South by Southwest has exploded into nine days of celebrity and musician-filled insanity. And now the festival offers more than just incredible live music. In 1994, the festival expanded to include multimedia and film. SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive were established shortly after, offering film screenings and forums on innovation and technology that join actors, directors and critics from all over the world.

Humble Beginnings

In the 1980s in the offices of Austin’s alternative newsweekly The Austin Chronicle, a group of Austinites put their minds together to solve a problem. There was all this wonderful musical talent in Austin, but musicians weren’t getting the exposure or attention they needed. They decided to create a music festival that could raise the profile of the local music scene. They envisioned the world coming to Austin and soon announced the first SXSW festival, which took place in March 1987. The name was inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock movie “North by Northwest.” Some 700 people came to the first iteration of the festival. Hippies, music fans, students, journalists and musicians jammed out to local acts. Most musicians were from Austin or around Texas, making it a truly local event, together with keynote speakers that were part of Austin’s blossoming music scene.

South by Southwest’s profile grew incrementally, each year drawing more musicians and attendees. In ’88 Billy Ray Cyrus took the stage, along with Austin legend Robert Earl Keen. In ’89 the festival started to bring in international acts. Then, in 1994, South by Southwest featured its first keynote of international fame: country music legend Johnny Cash. Cash’s presence at the festival brought SXSW to another level of notoriety. At the event, Cash told the press he always wanted to go to SXSW saying, “It’s a great thing, three-day thing, of music and sharing, you know. (It’s) very stimulating to an artist and a songwriter to be in a place like Austin with what’s going on right now.”

SXSW Celebrities

Since Cash’s keynote speech, the festival has brought in numerous other world-famous speakers who continue to make headlines. In 2008, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a keynote speech at SXSW Interactive. Coincidentally, the hospitality service Airbnb also launched at SXSW that year. Later in 2012, audiences got to hear Bruce Springsteen’s keynote speech—and a live performance. Other notable acts that year included Lionel Richie, Norah Jones and Santigold.

Another year, Lady Gaga famously performed at Austin’s beloved barbecue joint and music venue Stubbs. Her provocative and grotesque performance, imitating a pig on a spit, made headlines and proved that at SXSW, anything can happen.

Then in 2016, the festival invited honored guests from The White House—President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Both gave speeches, with Michelle delivering the keynote where she said, “The young people in this country keep me inspired because I see myself in them—in you all. I see that little girl on the South Side who is told she couldn’t. I see the scared kid, I see the kid with doubts and I just know that if I can do this, and be here and have gone to great colleges, and had all these experiences, you can do it, too.”

SXSW Today

Nowadays, SXSW has grown into so much more than a music festival. It’s divided into four separate festivals (Music, Interactive, Film and Education), which feature a variety of events including documentary screenings, breakout sessions for teachers, startup pitch contests and speeches by leaders in different fields.

From 700 participants in 1987 to nearly 100,000 in 2018, SXSW is now the single most profitable event for the hospitality industry in Austin. Drawing in the best of the best in tech, film and music, people from all over the country shell out thousands of dollars on their tickets, food and accommodations to be part of the action. But who can really blame them? There are few opportunities globally that bring together big music acts, the latest technology and the world’s brightest creative minds all in one place, for one special week.




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City becomes center of musical universe


Austin, Texas is known as the "live music capital of the world". You can hear almost any genre of music any time of the year. Austin has attracted musicians and their fans for decades and offers more venues per capita than anywhere else in the United States.

Although the city is great for live music year-round, once a year Austin becomes the center of the musical universe with the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival.

SXSW started out as a low-key, do-it-yourself local festival. In the 1980s a group of locals decided to create a music festival that could raise the profile of the local music scene. And soon announced the first SXSW festival, which took place in March 1987. The name was inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock movie 'North by Northwest.'

Around 700 people came to the first festival. Hippies, music fans, students, journalists and musicians jammed out to local acts. Most musicians were from Austin or around Texas, making it a truly local event, together with keynote speakers that were part of Austin's blossoming music scene.

However, it soon grew and has now exploded into nine days of celebrity and musician-filled insanity. Some of its famous keynote speakers include Johnny Cash and Michelle Obama.

And now the festival offers more than just incredible live music. In 1994, the festival expanded to include multimedia and film and is now divided into four separate festivals: Music, Interactive, Film and Education. Each year it draws more musicians and attendees. And with nearly 100,000 attendees in 2018, SXSW is now the single most profitable event for the hospitality industry in Austin.

 

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