SXSW Turns 25 And A Look Back At South Bys Past

It’s mid-march. Most of us in the US are starting to enjoy the first glimpses of Spring after maybe the most B.S. winter in years (especially for those of us in the Midwest, New England, the Mid-Atlantic… really everywhere but California and Florida. Hope you guys are enjoying your constant sunshine and beaches! Jerks). However, if you’re in Austin, TX, then your probably wading through the city and witnessing how downtown is knee deep with every indie band, promoter and A&R guy on the planet. Yes friends, it’s SXSW”that magical time of the year when the rest of us in the country wish they could keep it as weird as these residents of the Lone Star state. The nine day (!) event has grown since its ’87 birth from a relatively humble gathering of music enthusiasts into the single largest revenue generating event in the entire city per annum. It’s the one place where a tiny Brooklyn basement band can play the rowdiest set of their live and suddenly be a (blog) household name. And believe it or not, SXSW has turned 25 this year! So how did SXSW grow to be the entertainment behemoth that it is today?

SXSW started out as the collective twinkle in the eyes of four men; Louis Black (co-founder of the Austin Weekly), Nick Barbaro (publisher at the Austin Chronicle), Roland Swenson (writer at the Chronicle) and booking agent Louis Meyers. The event was meant to have regional appeal since Austin is and has always been a musical mecca but is separated geographically from other music hubs. There had been moves in the previous year to expand NYC New Music Conference out to Austin but those plans fell through. However, Black, Barbaro, Swenson and Meyers were inspired by the idea and pressed on with their own vision for an Austin“based music conference. Still, it was a surprise to all involved when the expected 150 attendants of the first South By turned out to be an estimate short by about 55o people. It was no small shindig though. One hundred and seventy-two bands turned out, with big sets from Dash Rip Rock and the Reverend Horton Heat.

Since then, the fest has been steadily growing in size and in profile year in and year out. The early ’90s seem to have been a wild time for the rambunctious festival. Still hosting 400+ bands nearly every year but flying under the mainstream radar for the most part, the event experienced some growing pains. 1991 turned out especially nasty due to an influx of spring break college kids”this resulted in crackdowns from the fire marshall which in turn led to a number of cancelled shows and hastily rescheduled gigs in hotel conference rooms. In 1993, another memorable year, Bushwick Bill of rap group The Geto Boys was verbally and almost physically assaulted by attendants at the hip hop panel.

This is Bushwick Bill in case you didn't know. Would you mess with this guy?

In 1994, SXSW added films into the mix (the Film and Multimedia Conference is now known as the Film and Interactive Conferences). The next year saw the profile of South By grow even more with the shuttering of the NYC New Music Seminar. However, even this period of prosperity wasn’t unmarred as Billboard began a decade-long tradition of not acknowledging the conference. The late ’90s saw more success for the festival with landmark sets in ’97 from Tony Bennett (nobody showed up because everybody thought it was going to be a mob scene) and The Flaming Lips infamous “Parking Lot Symphony” in which frontman Wayne Coyne arranged 30 cars to play 30 cassettes simultaneously. Uh, artsy? Two-thousand attendees thought so.

The aughts have been good for the conference for sure. If there was any indication of SXSW finally hitting the mainstream”though F.Y.I., Pepsi and BMI first sponsored the conference in 1991“2005” then the keynote address delivered by none other than Robert Plant and The Real World: Austin kids heading out to the shows to shoot a SXSW Rock Doc for MTV are pretty good signs. Last year was notable in that the number of band entrants for the music conference passed the 13,000 mark” and the interactive portion actually surpassed the number of entrants to the Music conference for the first time. Now, of the 13,020 music conference entrants only 1,978 of those acts were accepted and actually played. That’s a lot of bands and a lot of fretful decisions about whose set to blow off, but consider the math. A little over 15% of all bands that apply for a gig get accepted. It’s official: In the twenty five years of their existence SXSW has gone from Animal House to the Ivy Leagues.

So who’s hitting up the conference this year? (We can’t, stuck in the office… grrrrr) The lineup, as usual, looks both fantastic and diverse with James Blake, TV on the Radio, Odd Future, The Antlers, Bright Eyes, Skrillex, and some of OurStage’s own”including Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, Lelia Broussard, Blacklisted Individuals, Andrew Belle, Geographer” and many more hitting various stages. A list of all the bands playing SXSW can be viewed HERE, but fair warning, it’s pretty daunting. If you’re not going to South By this year but want a taste of the experience, check out this time lapse video from SXSW 2009. It’ll give you a pretty good sense of the craziness.