30 years later, SXSW a global phenomenon

What began as a regional showcase of musical talent is now a globally renowned event during which tech professionals, recording artists and filmmakers converge for more than a week in downtown Austin.

Thirty years ago, in March 1987, the first South by Southwest Music Festival was held. The first iteration of the event featured a lineup of 177 performers, 15 venues and stages as well as 15 panels, workshops and sessions. It was a contingent of musicians and luminaries largely from the Southwestern U.S.

As the name implies, SXSW began as an exhibition of talent from the broader region, and the intent was always to generate global interest, said Roland Swenson, the co-founder of the event and SXSW’s managing director.

“We thought it could be a large and influential event, but at that point we didn’t have the web, email or even fax machines,” Swenson said. “There was really no way we could predict how it would turn out in the 21st century.”

He said the then-exclusively-music festival began to gain more attention when it added the film and interactive portions of the event in 1994—just before the commercialization of the internet. It has since become known as South by Southwest Conference & Festivals, and 1 in 4 attendees every year is from outside the U.S.

SXSW’s relationship with the city began from the get-go with the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau handing the festival a grant, but Swenson said the first 10 years of the event mostly flew under the radar of city leaders. In recent years, the festival has tightened its partnership with the city of Austin, he said.

“SXSW is perhaps the best example of how Austin changes in a way that reflects the best of who we are as a community,” said Jason Stanford, a spokesman for Mayor Steve Adler.

Despite the evolution of the event, SXSW maintains its focus on helping provide a launchpad for innovative ideas—whether it is in music, film or technology, Swenson said.

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SXSW Featured Events

SXSWedu Expo
Education professionals converge for the exhibition, which features student performances and opportunities for professional and personal development. March 6 (registrants only) and 7 (free and open to the public). Austin Convention Center

SXSW Create
The makerspace allows vendors to display hands-on exhibits and new technologies. March 10-12. Location TBD. Requires SXSW Guest Pass.

SXSW Trade Show
The exhibition highlights SXSW’s converging industries and includes a Pitch Stage for exhibitors to present new products and services and Startup Central for new businesses. March 12-15. Austin Convention Center. Badge holders only.

SXSW Gaming
The expo offers a convergence of developers, manufacturers and fans. Austin-based Emerald Tavern Games & Cafe hosts the Tabletop Experience where attendees can check out the latest games. March 16-18. Austin Convention Center. Requires gaming wristband: $49 (three days), $20 (one day)

SXSW Marketplace
The inaugural exhibit allows attendees to browse items from Austin boutiques and select national and global brands. March 16-18. Austin Convention Center. Free and open to the public.

This list is not comprehensive.