My, SXSW, How You've Changed

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Before there was ever Twitter, FourSquare or Siri, there was the WayOuts, the Dash Rip Rock and the Reverend Horton Heat. Never heard of them? They were among the first bands showcased in Austin, Texas, during the debut of the South by Southwest Music festival back in 1987—well before a new Interactive event would be formed to help tech startups become household names.

“When we started Interactive they had just introduced Web browsers, and the World Wide Web was brand new,” says Roland Swenson, SXSW’s managing director. “It wasn’t until Web 2.0 and social media that the Interactive side of things really took off, outgrew the music event and became our biggest component.”

So how, exactly, has the festival evolved over the years, and what have its biggest influences been?

Exponential Explosion. While SXSW originally aimed to develop the careers of musicians and share their ideas with possible partner companies, it has since grown to encompass filmmakers and entrepreneurs behind interactive technologies. Around 16,000 people now register for SXSW Music every March, up from just 700 in 1987. Meanwhile, SXSW Film and SXSW Interactive, both of which premiered in 1994, now attract around 32,000 registrants combined annually.

More recently, festival organizers launched SXSWedu, to highlight leading issues within the education sector, as well as SXSW Eco which is slated for October and will examine “critical challenges of our times through a kaleidoscopic lens of design innovation, policy tipping points [and] technological breakthroughs.” There’s even an event called SXSW V2V Las Vegas, which is set for July and emphasizes the creative spark that pushes entrepreneurial innovation. “It’s not like our goal in life is to do an event every month or anything like that, but the event has grown pretty organically over the last 28 years,” says Swenson.

Growing Pains. Yet the impact on conference attendees has also been changing—and not always for the better. For the music industry, “the earlier days were just magical and many more local bands were able to showcase their music,” says Wayne Gathright, who used to own an Austin-based recording studio in the 1980s and is now president of Tenant File, a property-management software firm. “Ticket prices are beyond what the gigging Austin musician can afford these days.”

For entrepreneurs, the SXSW Interactive Accelerator pitch competition has become a global platform to showcase new innovations across a variety of tech sectors, including big data, entertainment, health, social media and wearable devices. But smaller bootstrapped start-ups are getting “drowned in the noise of VC-funded mega parties and expensive swag giveaways,” warns Wade Floyd, founder of the Austin-based digital marketplace NeedTo. “I kinda feel sorry for these bootstrapped guys with a dream of all the buzz they will get and spending thousands getting down to Austin and for their badge, [only] to realize they can't compete with Silicon Valley PR—no matter how cool their start-up is.”

Others from Austin’s tech scene agree. “Personally, I think that SXSW has gotten too big over the last seven years or so, and it’s getting hard to find a lot of meaning in the conference these days with so many competing sessions and speakers,” says Todd Ross Nienkerk, managing partner of the Austin-based web design and development consultancy firm Four Kitchens.

Yet Swenson says the festival’s growth is naturally limited, by the number of available plane seats to Austin and hotel rooms within the city. And, he adds, he’s been hearing about the “how big is too big” issue since at least 1991. “People have always looked back and said, ‘I liked it when it was smaller,’” he says. “So did we. But time marches on and either events continue to grow or they start to shrink and usually end—so we don’t really have a choice but to keep growing.”

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