SXSW Key Milestones:

1987: The very first SXSW kicks off with 177 Showcasing Artists, 15 Panels, Workshops & Sessions and 15 Venues & Stages

1994: SXSW introduces the Film & Media track in the same year the iconic Johnny Cash speaks at the Music conference

1996: SXSW Film & Media split, creating space for the Multimedia conference

1998: SXSW Multimedia becomes SXSW Interactive

2001: SXSW Music exceeds 1000 performing artists

2003: Urbanist and author Richard Florida talks about the growing importance of über-creative cities in his keynote speech

2007: SXSW Interactive presents over 150 sessions and 450 speakers; Twitter is launched

2008: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg presents SXSW Interactive Keynote Speech

2009: Foursquare is launched at SXSW Interactive; 3-D Printing and Big Data make their first appearances at the conference

2011: Bob Geldof speaks at SXSW Music, AirBnB gains recognition at Interactive and the first SXSWEdu track is conceived

2012: SXSW Interactive introduces Startup Village as a hub for the startup community

2013: SXSW Interactive turns 20 years old and total number of registrants is just over 30,000

2014: Lady Gaga gives Keynote Speech at SXSW Music, while Interactive hosts a conversation with Edward Snowden

2015: SX Health and MedTech Expo are launched within SXSW Interactive

2016: President Barack Obama gives the Keynote Speech at SXSW Interactive while the First Lady Michelle Obama takes on SXSW Music

Between meeting emotional support robots and hearing superstar Kerry Washington speak about social media, this year’s SXSW was, as usual, bigger than ever for the attendees who flock from all corners of the world to Austin, Texas. And that’s not even to mention the history made with the 30th edition of the tech, music and film conference; for the first time ever, a sitting president spoke at the cult phenomenon of an event. President Obama’s keynote conversation undoubtedly gave an added level of legitimacy and importance to the conference that has long been considered an industry-insider’s secret scouting ground for innovation. “It’s certainly a strong validation of all the work lots of people have done at SXSW over the last 30 years,” says Hugh Forrest, Director of SXSW Interactive. “It’s also a validation of all the neat stuff that happens in Austin!”

Hugh Forrest Director of SXSW Interactive

Hugh Forrest Director of SXSW Interactive

Neat might be considered an understatement by most; the streets of the once-sleepy city bustle day and night come March of every year since 1986, especially in the last few years where the Interactive track – dedicated to technology, data and new media – has grown in prominence, meaning geeks and gamers now collide with producers and pianists, film buffs meet bioengineers and city mayors mingle with entrepreneurs. Initiatives are announced, deals are made and you can’t swing your entrance badge without bumping into someone in costume on the street hocking goods and services from the latest gourmet taco to the wackiest new form of urban transport. “President Obama told me backstage: ‘I’d take any excuse I can get to come to Austin,’” continues a proud Forrest. “Austin is a creative city, 365 days a year. What happens at SXSW is that we put an even brighter spotlight on what happens here. From a social perspective, a lot of the things we focus on [when programming SXSW] involve communities, civic engagement and giving back to the city – it was great that Obama reiterated that in his speech…”

The notion that this edition of SXSW might be the most influential yet is echoed by Austin’s Mayor Steve Adler. “The president’s visit is affirmation that Austin is a center for innovation and technology in the country. It’s also an affirmation of the importance of SXSW; as I travel around the country, and indeed the world, when people hear I’m from Austin, those are the two associations people automatically make,” he explains as we meet at City Hall. “We have more new startups per capita than any city in the world. We were just named by Forbes as being one of the few cities that they predict will be ‘the future Silicon Valleys.’ And that’s part of our DNA – Austin is a very creative, innovative entrepreneurial city. It was like this since I first moved here in 1978. Perhaps there’s something in the water!” It’s this intrinsic yet tangible characteristic of a city once known only for its music scene that makes it a hot bed for innovation; an entrepreneur magnet and a techie’s dream come true. In fact, it might just be its musical roots that give Austin its open-source, accepting and early-adopting qualities – musicians, and indeed artists from all disciplines, tend to be more open to experiments, inventions and integration than the average white-collar worker. Many point to the 2007 edition of SXSW as the tipping point for the festival, wherein the Interactive track became as integral as the original Music track thanks to the launch and subsequent success of Twitter. Soon after, the festival and the city quickly became a mecca for entrepreneurs looking for an audience and venture capitalists with ROI on their minds. “A lot more media started paying attention to SXSW then,” affirms Forrest. “I always preach that SXSW is about making small connections that can lead to big, big, BIG things.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Every year, SXSW puts out an economic impact report detailing just how much money the city makes during this time, and every year the numbers have grown exponentially. However, more striking than the figures of direct and indirect monetary contributions of the 10-day event are the ever-increasing rates of economic growth in Austin as a whole: Forbes puts its projected growth at an impressive 6.1% annually between 2011 – 2016, while population growth during the same period is at 2.8%. By many measures, Austin is the fastest growing city in all of the United States of America, bucking the trend even in its own state of Texas where downfalls in the energy sector saw the oil and gas industries cut 57,700 jobs in 2015. By contrast, the Austin metropolitan area added 44,500 jobs in the same financial year – exceeding projections by nearly 10,000 new positions. Interestingly yet, employment in Austin’s tech sector today has surpassed peak employment during the dot-com phase, cementing this era in Austin’s existence as its most prosperous yet. Without a doubt, the success of SXSW has much to do with city’s growth, but there are also several initiatives in play with the aim of attracting and retaining talent that intertwine delicately but purposefully with Austin’s historic roots as the world’s capital of live music and its heyday as an artistic hub.

Beyond Festival Season

“The lesson learned from the dot-com bubble was to diversify Austin’s economy and create clustered industry groups that were designed for resistance. The result of that was the creation of this very department,” says Kevin Johns, Director of Austin’s Economic Development Department. “Our focus is a fusion of all the creative industries, as well as traditional business.” For some, the very grouping of arts, music and culture with technology companies is problematic. “Some musicians would say that [the technology industry] takes away from the traditional music scene Austin is famous for,” admits Don Pitts, who heads up the Music and Entertainment division of the Economic Development Department. “But some music folks have realized that it actually adds to the industry. The tech crowd is coming here regardless and the music scene is finding out how to make it work for them.”

Indeed, Pitts spearheaded a first-of-its kind musicians ‘census’ which let those in the industry – some 4,000 of them, from musicians to roadies to venue owners – vent their concerns. However, despite the usual complaints of a gentrifying city (those surveyed cited not enough earnings to live downtown and venues charging covers for audience entry, among other issues), the artistic industries in Austin continue to employ around 50,000 people and counting. “SXSW, alongside the Formula 1, are the key driver of tourism to Austin,” explains Jim Butler, Creative Industries Manager at the City of Austin, adding the startling fact that many downtown dining and nightlife venues make up to 40% of their annual income during the festival.  But it’s not just the influx of people or seasonal sales that are keeping the arts afloat in Austin: “Year round, the creative industries generate $4.3 billion in Austin… That’s $71 million of taxes,” says Kevin Johns.

Austin's Economic Development Team

Austin’s Economic Development Team

“Following the music census and other similar surveys and focus groups, Mayor Adler has put forward a resolution that directs city staff to put together a comprehensive response in terms of Austin’s affordability,” explains Christine Maguire, Austin’s Redevelopment Division Manager. “Our business loans and retention and expansion programs are being overhauled with an eye to small businesses, creatives and music. And our assistance will favor character over anything else.” Indeed, the city’s unofficial motto to “Keep Austin Weird” is not lost on even the highest ranking officials. “If we lose the diversity – the artists and the creatives that have made this city what it is – then we’ll become something else,” offers Mayor Adler. “San Francisco’s median home price is now one million dollars… Ours is $260,000. So there’s still time for us to be creative and innovative in changing the course of [gentrifying] events. Preserving the spirit and soul of this city is the most important challenge we have – and it’s all about preserving the people.”

Meanwhile, Austin as a whole continues to get more prosperous and the tech industry is largely responsible for that. However, like many American metro areas, there’s a disparity in wealth. And the tech industry is largely responsible for that, too. “We create more middle class jobs than any other city, but there’s a gap between the people who live here and these jobs, and economic growth is not being shared by everyone in the city. Right now there’s 40,000 jobs available and around 36,000 looking for jobs – they just don’t match. We have to do a much better job in training our existing populations for the industries that are flourishing here,” admits Mayor Adler.

Not one to point to problems and wait for solutions (that’s just not the Austin way), the Mayor’s Office is drafting the first regional workforce development plan for the city that aims to increase the capacity, and therefore opportunity, for the Austinites that have so far been left out of the boom. Meanwhile, the Economic Development Department is working with merchant associations outside of Downtown Austin to offer free services and assistance to small and medium private sector businesses who help form a network of ‘urban villages’ – mixed use, small urban cores that serve suburban populations – so that the positive benefits of urbanization and indeed gentrification are felt across the city. “There’s also a huge amount of support for startups and the entrepreneurial community in this city. Austin is a place that celebrates and helps people who take risks,” adds Jim Butler.

And whether those risks are artistic, financial, ideological, public or private – Austin seems best poised to give out some serious rewards.


The #CreativeCitiesUSA Austin editorial project was made possible with the support of:

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Photography by Breezy Ritter for progrss.com