Economic Impact, History, Criticism

South by Southwest

The annual “South by Southwest” festival and conference, also known as SXSW or South By, is a group of simultaneous film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that are cooperatively planned and held in Austin, Texas, in the middle of March. It started in 1987 and has since expanded annually in both scope and scale. The conference took place over a 10-day period in 2017, with the interactive track lasting five days, the music track seven days, and the film track nine days. Due to the COVID-19 epidemic in Austin, Texas, there was no in-person event in 2020 or 2021; instead, a smaller online event was held in both years.

The company SXSW, LLC, which manages conferences, trade exhibitions, festivals, and other events, is in control of SXSW. In addition to SXSW, the company also co-manages North by Northeast in Toronto and the future SXSW Sydney festival. The events North by Northwest (1995–2001), West by Southwest (2006–2010), SXSW Eco (2011–2016), SXSW V2V (2013–2015), and me Convention (2017- 2019) were previously planned by it or in collaboration with it. In addition, SXSW has served as an inspiration for numerous other previous and contemporary events that are together referred to as “four-letter festivals.”


Inauguration in the 1980s

To discuss extending the New Music Seminar music festival to Austin, the producers of the New York City event got in touch with Roland Swenson, a worker at the alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle, in July 1986. They then said that they will host a “New Music Seminar Southwest.” But when the plans fell through, Swenson made the decision to co-organize a local music festival with the assistance of two other Chronicle employees: editor and co-founder Louis Black and publisher Nick Barbaro. A musician and booking agent named Louis Meyers was also added. The term was conjured up by Black as a joke about the title of the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest. (South by Southwest is not a real point on a compass, although Southwest by South is.

The first event was in March 1987. Over 700 people showed up, exceeding the planners’ expectations of 150 attendees for a regional event, and, in Black’s words, “it was national very quickly.” Early in the 1990s, Meyers left Austin and the festival, but as of 2010, Black, Barbaro, and Swenson were still the festival’s primary planners.


From March 11 to March 20, South by Southwest 2022 took place.

All registered in-person participants and attendees were needed to show confirmation of full vaccination against COVID-19, or a recent negative COVID-19 test, in order to receive their badge. SXSW planners intended for a hybrid event (in-person with online monitoring and participation possibilities). Additionally, all SXSW employees and volunteers on-site need evidence of vaccination. When possible, physical distance was highly advised, masks were required in a number of important interior places (such as those used for registration and displays), and hand sanitizer facilities were available throughout the conference and exhibition sites. Along with other event venues, the Austin Convention Center improved air filtration and increased how frequently high-touch surfaces were cleaned and cleaned, including by employing UV light technology. Overall, the event was a little bit smaller than in previous (in-person) years, with fewer musical acts and overall content; significantly fewer major celebrities (especially musical acts) appeared than in previous years, though the film component appeared to be celebrating a strong comeback after two years of virtual festivals. The downtown core was also not quite as crowded (making it easier and faster to get around).


SXSW 2023 will take place in Austin from March 10–19.

SXSW Sydney, a new spinoff event, will take place for the first time in Sydney, Australia, from October 15–22, 2023.

Economic impact

With an estimated economic impact of $190.3 million in 2012 rising to $218 million in 2013, $315 million in 2014, $317 million in 2015, and $325 million in 2016, SXSW is the Austin economy’s highest-grossing event outside of athletic and other events connected to The University of Texas at Austin. (By contrast, the 2017 Final Four had a $324 million economic impact on Phoenix, Arizona, and Super Bowl LI had an economic impact of $347 million on Houston.)

In addition, the Austin area’s demand for hotel rooms continued to outpace demand, driving average nightly room rates to an all-time high of $350 in 2016 and a 60 percent rise over the average room rate recorded during the 2011 version of SXSW. Additionally, the typical SXSW attendee stayed in Austin for 5.2 nights in 2016, which is an increase from 4.9 nights in 2015.


The festival’s expansion has raised worries about safety, crowd control, and violence.

After the drunk driving incident in 2014, many began discussing whether the festival had gotten too big and rowdy. Families of the four victims filed a lawsuit against SXSW Holdings LLC and SXSW Holdings Inc., the festival’s producers.

Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission declared in May 2014 that it was seeking to improve safety during the festival, with an initial focus on establishing transportation measures to address festival-related issues. This announcement was partially inspired by the 2014 crash. The Austin Music Commission also got together to talk about festival-related sound issues and music venues. 

“I can’t help but feel that it has strayed far away from its original premise as a grassroots gathering place for new, undiscovered skill and growingly feels like a big ol’ Times Square billboard-sized commercial,” wrote NPR writer Andrea Swensson in 2013 when she announced that she had stopped going to the festival.

Due to threats of violence made against the festival hosting the panels, SXSW canceled two video game panels (“#SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up Overcoming Harassment In Games”) scheduled for the 2016 event. After the cancellations, BuzzFeed and Vox Media released comments threatening to boycott the festival if the two panels weren’t put back on.

In popular culture

  • In the 1998 short film Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and SXSW, in which he pretends to various personalities and asks strange questions of musicians and other guests at the SXSW Music Conference, the comedian, and actor Fred Armisen launched his comedic career.
  • The Real World on MTV covered SXSW in its 2005 season. The cast members were charged with creating their own music festival documentary, which they had to film and edit.
  • Flight of the Conchords, a comedy group and band, played at the 2006 SXSW Music Festival while also filming a documentary called Flight of the Conchords: A Texan Odyssey, which was broadcast on New Zealand’s TV3 in late 2006.
  • The Canadian band Said the Whale’s 2011 US journey, which culminated in the SXSW Music Festival, is the subject of the 2011 documentary Winning America.
  • An experimental band in the 2014 British movie Frank, led by the main character, is scheduled to perform at the SXSW Music Festival, but the engagement causes the band to break up.
  • The titular band is scheduled to perform at the SXSW Music Festival in Mars in the 2019 anime Carole & Tuesday.

Similar festivals

SXSW-inspired festivals include:

  • Web Summit – Lisbon, Portugal
  • Live at Heart – Örebro, Sweden
  • So What?! Music Fest (originally “South by So What?!”) – Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex
  • The Great Escape Festival – Brighton, England
  • XOXO – Portland, Oregon

“Four-letter festivals” is the collective term given to festivals that draw inspiration from South by Southwest. Such festivals were significant money generators for the alternative weekly newspapers that launched them, according to a 2013 article by Metro Silicon Valley, which also founded C2SV.

South by South Lawn (SXSL), a one-day event held by SXSW, the American Film Institute, and US President Barack Obama, took place at the White House on October 3, 2016.