The greatest minds of the country all meet at one mega event: South by Southwest (SXSW). Comprised of music, interactive and film festivals and conferences in the trendy city of Austin, Texas, SXSW is a force to be reckoned with. But how exactly did this convergence of artistry and tech come to fruition?
SXSW dates back to 1987, when the inaugural festival, held in the city of Austin that it is still known for, was billed as “An opportunity for people in the music business and alternative media in this [Austin] region and nationally to meet and share ideas about mutual interests.“
Despite not even cracking the Top 20 markets in the United States at the time, Austin was chosen as the host city for SXSW due in large part to the eclectic music scene and vibrant nightlight the city had to offer.
The organizers expected roughly 150 attendees that first year, but to their surprise some 700 music lovers showed up to take part in the new Austin festival.
SXSW started as a way for the thriving music scene in Austin to show itself off to the world, opening many doors and opportunities for Austin musicians who might otherwise feel detached from the national and international music business.
As the years went on, SXSW kept growing in size and drawing interest from the top music professionals around the world. This once isolated Central Texas city made its way into the mainstream, earning Austin the title “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Like many other annual events, various history-making moments have helped catapult SXSW to the fore, giving it the opportunity to evolve into an international gathering that celebrates music, technology, art, and film. From Johnny Cash’s keynote address in 1994 to the Flaming Lips’ “parking lot experiment” in 1997, SXSW became the place you had to be.
Every March thousands of attendees are attracted to the three major components of the event, making the city of Austin a mecca for innovation and art. It’s estimated that SXSW 2014 brought over $300 million to the Austin economy.
● The idea for SXSW is conceived when friends Roland Swenson and Louis Jay Meyers approach Louis Black and Nick Barbaro, founders of the alt weekly Austin Chronicle, about starting a music festival
● The first “South by Southwest” festival (and conference) is held in Austin, Texas. 150 attendees are expected, but more than 700 show up. According to Black, the event went “national almost immediately”
● Still overshadowed by New York’s New Music Seminar, SXSW gets its first backlash when local act Ed Hall prints “SXSW SUX” T-shirts. Next year, they play
● More than 200 bands from around the country play 15 locations, while the conference itself is based out of the downtown Marriott
● Many elements of today’s SXSW are not present, but one already is: the closing softball tournament and barbecue
● More than 1,500 bands apply for the festival, though only about 420 play 23 venues during the event’s four nights
● First mention of “SXSW” as the conference’s nickname in a major U.S. publication (well done, LA Times)
● It seems like SXSW has almost always had big name sponsors: This year included Pepsi and BMI, although most were still from local print, TV and radio
● The number of panels triples, to 60, up from 20 in 1990, and the number of bands rises to 500
● Willie Nelson delivers a welcome speech instead of a keynote. But he is upstaged by singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked, who shocks the crowd with a controversial speech about race
● 125 fewer bands play than the year before. But the festival selects larger venues to forestall overcrowding issues. A wise decision, because attendance rose to a then-record 3,300
● Taking a safer route after Michelle Shocked’s controversial address, the keynote speaker is Texas Gov. Ann Richards
● SXSW’s first year in the Austin Convention Center, moving over from the Hyatt Regency
● Johnny Cash, The Man in Black himself, delivers the SXSW keynote
● Teenage Oklahoma brothers Hanson get signed after crooning for agents at the annual softball tournament
● A new SXSW conference track is added: “Multimedia and Film”
● One year after their introduction “Multimedia” and “Film” conferences split into separate tracks, creating the three SXSW conferences we know today.
● Conference co-founder Louis Jay Meyers moves on to lead other music festivals in Louisiana, Amsterdam… and Austin too
● Newspaper critics pan former Nirvana bassist and keynote speaker Krist Novoselic’s “well-meaning” but “rambling” speech encouraging youths to get politically engaged
● This is the first year for SXSW’s annual Japan Nite, featuring the island nation’s best pop punk
● Over 2,000 attend one of Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne’s “Parking Lot Experiments,” where he plays 30 synchronized car stereos in a parking garage at Seventh and Brazos
● The SXSW Interactive Web Awards is created to honor the best new websites and innovators showcased at the festival
● Following a set at Steamboat, constables serve local band Breedlove with a summons for breach of contract. At least they waited until after the show
● SXSW Multimedia is renamed SXSW Interactive
● Tom Waits’ promoter is severely beaten by bouncers at La Zona Rosa. Waits vows never to play in Texas again (but later, he does)
● Internet rock star Lawrence Lessig speaks at the Interactive festival, while actual rock star Steve Earle keynotes the Music festival
● So many Swedish bands play at SXSW they call themselves the “new Viking invasion”
● Earning its reputation for screening films gone wild, SXSW Film screens Iñárritu-directed “hyperlink cinema” epic “Amores Perros” and cocaine saga “Blow” starring Johnny Depp
● Pete Yorn refuses to leave the La Zona Rosa stage after his allotted time, even after the houselights go up. The band following him doesn’t get onstage until 2 am
● An interview with Courtney Love—billed as “one on none”—draws the biggest crowd ever for a non-keynote
● Alexandria Pelosi’s documentary about her time covering Texas Gov. George W. Bush on the 2000 campaign trail, “Journeys with George,” debuts at the festival
● Just days before the invasion of Iraq, SXSW competes with anti-war protesters (as many as 7,000 show up) outside the State Capitol a few blocks away
● SXSW Music keynoter Daniel Lanois isn’t a household name but he should be. He produced such albums as U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” Peter Gabriel’s “So” and Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind”
● Austin police arrest two members of the Latin rock band Ozomatli when a conga line on Sixth Street leads to a “skirmish”
● Little Richard is interviewed at the Music Keynote, where he declared he was no longer interested in recording music. Added Richard: “I’m alive tonight!”
● Sound editor Eric Masunaga coins the term “mumblecore” during SXSW Film to define the American independent film movement popular in the early 2000s
● Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant delivers the Music keynote speech and is reunited with “ubergoupie” Pamela Des Barres after 15 years apart
● For the first time, the SXSW PanelPicker lets the public help decide what panels are chosen
● Interactive keynote speakers include founders from two of the Internet’s most disruptive websites: Craig Newmark of Craigslist and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia
● A plucky little messaging service makes a big splash at SXSW: Twitter
● Music and Interactive collide as onetime Sex Pistol Steve Jones interviews Tom “from MySpace” Anderson
● Journalist Sarah Lacy’s widely panned keynote interview with Mark Zuckerberg turns into one of the first Twitter “riots”
● More than a decade after SXSW organizer Louis Black called Lou Reed “disrespectful” for playing a competing show in 1996, Reed keynotes
● 1,987 bands play at this year’s festival—it’s the current record
● Future Academy Award Best Picture-winner “The Hurt Locker” has its U.S. premiere
● Three years after Twitter’s debut at SXSW, geolocation has its turn “in the ring”; foursquare wins the round, but Gowalla shows heart
● Bill Murray bartends at Shangri La on East Sixth Street. Because he can