Now in its 28th year, the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is currently underway. The nearly two-week-long festival takes place every spring in Austin, Texas and is a dynamic convergence of music performances, film screenings and interactive (i.e., technology) conferences. Year after year, the festival serves as a launching pad for emerging technologies, independent films and original music. The festival grows with every passing year and has gone on to become the largest event of its kind in the world. Here, we take a closer look at the festival and its impact on Austin, Texas.
Influenced by the city’s Mexican, German and colonial heritage, Austin’s thriving music scene is eclectic and encompasses a wide range of genres including blues, rock, folk, jazz and country. In the late 80s, the problem facing Austin’s musicians was that the city was incredibly isolated, being located in the middle of Texas. To allow Austin’s musicians to reach a greater audience, a group of the city’s music enthusiasts came together and formed the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival in 1987. For the first year, the organizers considered this a regional event and expected around 150 attendees; but over 700 came. The fledgling music festival would become an annual opportunity for musicians, audiences and music executives from a wide geographic background to come together to enjoy music – and possibly launch careers in the process. Before they became better known, Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend are just a few of the bands that gained a considerable amount of traction after strong SXSW debut performances.
The greater music industry quickly embraced the mission of South by Southwest and, in time, the conference expanded to include film and technology. Within these two industries, the event is a platform for both industry veterans and emerging innovators to participate in panel discussions, give talks and screen films. In 2009, The Hurt Locker premiered at the festival and later went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture the following year. And on the technology front, although Twitter did not launch at SXSW Interactive, it gained a substantial amount of buzz at the festival in 2007. Now the service hosts over 200 million users (including Ledbury) and is valued at more than $15 billion.
Despite its overwhelming success, in recent years, SXSW has faced some backlash from several of its musical performers and attendees. As the festival grows larger, record-breaking attendance occurs every year, but unfortunately, the event becomes a little more commercialized. This means more expensive prices for festival passes, longer lines at venues, greater difficulty for undiscovered bands to get recognized, and sadly, more gimmicks — ranging from Doritos’ 62-foot tall, tweet powered concert stage to internet hotspots attached to homeless people. Front man Zachary Cole Smith of breakout surf-rock outfit DIIV made a not-so-subtle statement of his unsatisfactory experience at last year’s festival:
“Here, the music comes last. 5 minute set-up, no sound check, 15 minute set. The ‘music’ element is all a front, it’s the first thing to be compromised.” Read the rest of his statement [here].
The growing pains at SXSW have been unfortunate; however, SXSW still has the capability to catapult careers. Up to 75% of the music industry is in Austin during the week of SXSW and this has lead to a handful of major discoveries. Prominent recent examples of this include the Alabama Shakes and The Lumineers.
Although smaller than its Music and Film counterparts, South by Southwest Interactive is one of the fastest growing parts of the SXSW festival, and has become one of the leading events of its caliber on the planet. Attendance numbers have tripled over the last four years with an estimated 30,000 guests attending this year’s festival. A few of the keynote speakers at this year’s festival include astrophysicist Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, Adam Savage of MythBusters fame, and artist, writer and creative Austin Kleon. Of the hundreds of panels, conversations and interviews that have already taken place at this year’s festival, perhaps the most profiled was of NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, who addressed a crowd of thousands via teleconference from Russia on Monday. The interactive portion of SXSW will soon be coming to an end (today is the last day), the film portion will conclude on the 15th, and music the following day. Mashable.com has been doing a phenomenal job of keeping up with all of the festival’s major events. Recap on this year’s festival (so far), here.
Because this year’s numbers are still coming in, we took a look at a few statistics from last year’s festival to help us wrap our heads around SXSW’s impact:
9: Number of days of industry conferences
6: Number of nights of music festival
400: Number of movie screenings
2,200+: Bands that played at the festival
170: Number of full time and seasonal workers at the festival
$1,450: Price for a Platinum SXSW badge
155,500: Number of people who attended at least one SXSW official event
49%: Percentage of guests aged 21-34
46%: Percentage of guests aged 35-54
59%: Percentage of male guests
96%: Percentage of attendees that use social media
46%: Percentage of people who attended for the first time
30%: Percentage of guests who make more than $150k per year
15%: Percentage of guests who make less than $50k
Top 5 Reasons Guests Attended SXSW
64%: Attendees seeking new business opportunities
37%: Attendees intending to connect with existing clients
19%: Attendees seeking to hire talented people
14%: Attendees planning on launching a new product or service
14%: Attendees seeking employment
13,000: Number of hotel reservations booked during SXSW
$255: Average nightly hotel rate for a room
155,000: Total number of SXSW Conference and Festival participants
$218.2+ Million: Total amount of money SXSW added to the local economy
Austin is an incredible city that has emerged as a cultural capital, largely in part to SXSW taking place there. The city’s artistic and emerging entrepreneurial spirit serves as the perfect backdrop for such an event to occur. For more information on SXSW, visit the festival’s website here.