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25 years of sxsw

March 16, 2011

The following is an article I wrote for the Austin events website Launch787. It’s geared for an Austin-based audience but I thought y’all might find it interesting as well. I’ll be working at SXSW this year and plan to post a recap of my experience (like last year’s) as soon as I have caught up on sleep – so probably sometime around June. . . Stay tuned.


SXSW LogoThe very first SXSW featured 172 acts. This year, as it turns 25, the music festival will showcase nearly 2,000 bands. That’s in addition to the Film and Interactive portions boasting their fair share of films, speakers, and events.

When I tell my out-of-town friends that SX consists of almost 2,000 bands, performing in basically four days, I get an unanimously stunned reaction. How is that humanly possible? How is it logistically possible? How does downtown Austin not just tip and slide into the river? How is all that noise not heard from space? All of these are valid questions. And I was among the incredulous masses until I survived my first SX last year, and now I can say (with confidence) that somehow it can be done.

But how has it gotten here? How has it grown from just 172 acts getting together in the middle of Texas to one of the major international music events of the year?

In 1987, the four Austinites who founded the conference were all too aware of both their city’s thriving music scene and its almost complete isolation from the centers of the industry. What they hoped to achieve with this venture was the creation of a vehicle that could put Austin on the national music map – highlighting not only the deep reserves of local talent, but also drawing attention to a wide variety of national and eventually international bands, offering a chance for industry professionals and breaking artists to mingle in a mutually beneficial setting.

SXSW quickly earned a reputation for doing just that. At first, it faced competition from the New Music Seminar, which had been held annually in New York City since 1980 and featured a similar industry-geared format of panels, exhibits, and band showcases in bars around the city. But when NMS closed down in 1995, SXSW secured its position as the conference to be at.

As it grew exponentially in stature, bigger and bigger names were attracted to the event. Over the past 25 years, such elder statesmen as Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Ray Davies, Robbie Robertson, Little Richard, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, and Smokey Robinson have delivered the annual keynote address. And they don’t just drop in for the speech. While Johnny Cash was on hand to keynote the ’94 festival, he famously played his unannounced acoustic gig at Emo’s, which has since entered the pantheon of local legends.


An aerial shot of last year's crowd on Auditorium Shores. Courtesy of Sky High Photography.

There have been far too many memorable performances to list off here. Some brilliant, like The Man in Black’s, some bizarre, like Wayne Coyne’s 1997 “Parking Lot Symphony,” and some memorable booking missteps like sticking a right-on-the-cusp-of-blowing-out-the-Grammys Norah Jones in the banquet room at The Clay Pit… Although, from what I gather, she was very gracious and gave an incredible performance.

But, every year, the most anticipated and speculated-about aspect of the festival are the “Buzz Bands.” Buzz bands can be those major rising stars that you can’t believe are here, playing in a 6th Street club. Or, they can be a band that no one’s heard of, who plays a killer set and ends up landing a major record deal. Past breakout ”Buzz Bands” have included The White Stripes, The Polyphonic Spree, Feist, Amy Winehouse, and local heroes Spoon.

SX was the brainchild of Louis Black, Nick Barbaro, and Roland Swenson, all from the city’s well-loved alternative weekly paper The Austin Chronicle, along with booking agent Louis Myers. Myers has since left Austin and the festival, but the three Chronicle-ites remain among the core organizers. Working with a full time year-round staff and satellite offices in Ireland, Germany, Australia and Japan, SX is now an industry in itself – a far cry from its humble beginnings. In 1994, the Film and Interactive components were added, further expanding its influence and attracting thousands of participants.

For those interested in learning more about the history of SXSW, the Austin History Center is running their 5X5Y exhibit, commemorating 25 years of SX with a collection of documents, photos, posters, and audio/video on display for free through July 31st. Also making its debut this week is Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, a feature–length documentary exploring the conference’s sometimes controversial history. Screenings of the film are being held today and Saturday at the Paramount Theater. You can watch the full Outside Industry trailer on the website.

But of course the best way to experience SXSW is to just get out there in the thick of it. And you don’t need a badge or a wristband to partake in the general craziness that overruns our fair city this week. Check out Unofficial SXSW for a list of parties and shows that are open to the public. And, of course, head to to view the full schedule of official events. There’s a band for every taste in town this week, so take advantage!

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