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SXSW Mike Snow | ©Gerald Rich/Flickr
SXSW Mike Snow | ©Gerald Rich/Flickr

A Brief History Of South By Southwest (SXSW)

Picture of Aubrey Cofield
Aubrey Cofield
Updated: 8 September 2016
During the 2016 SXSW festival, Austin welcomed President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama; speakers the South By Southwest founders might’ve never imagined. The festival has come a long way since its first debut in 1987. Now, the city seems to turn upside down during the long festivities and people from all over come to experience the creative platform that is now the largest music festival of its kind.

The SXSW conferences and festivals provide creative workshops, entertainment, exhibitions, and film screenings. It’s a way for creative individuals to find inspiration, make connections, and reach their dreams.

SXSW was originally inspired by the want for non-locals to witness Austin’s talented music scene. The directors of the New York City music festival originally petitioned Ronald Swenson of The Austin Chronicle for a similar music festival in the Southwest. Although plans fell through with New York City this sparked an idea, and Swenson, along with fellow Chronicle co-workers, started to brainstorm music festival possibilities and came up with what we know today as SXSW.

In 1987, when the festival first launched, they only expected about 150 attendees but instead attracted nearly 700 on opening day. The festival was a surprising hit and its popularity grew almost instantly.

At the opening festival 177 artists were showcased and in 1991 the numbers jumped to 512 artists, featuring keynote speaker Rosanne Cash (a popular country singer). 23 years later, in 2014, SXSW showcased a total of 2,371 artists and the keynote speaker was Lady Gaga, with notable speakers including Blondie and Neil Young. That same year the film festival portion showed the world premiere of Neighbors, Veronica Mars, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and Grand Budapest Hotel.

Over the years SXSW continues to stand as a platform for fairly unknown artists, often turning them into world-renowned performers. In the late 1990s John Mayer was at the very early stages of his career but, after performing at SXSW in 2000, it lead to his first record label deal and I suspect you know what followed almost immediately after – continued and continued success.

Other artists whose success followed SXSW include James Blunt, Hanson, Katy Perry, The White Stripes, Feist, and Amy Winehouse.

Now the festival brings in a little over 51,000 attendees a year. It’s a truly one-of-a-kind experience and the chance to witness the beginnings of future talent. The prices have gone up significantly since its first inception, however several free events take place throughout the festival for everyone to enjoy.

Traffic, crowds, and crime unfortunately have followed along with the growth of the festival, something that is continuously discussed and addressed. Overall, SXSW offers locals and visitors a means to create and enjoy art in its many forms.