SXSW Music Festival

2019-01-20 15:13:19

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South by Southwest Music Festival

In 1987, South by Southwest (SXSW) started off as a small, obscure festival in Austin Texas that has grown into arguably the largest event of its type in the world. The live music is only a part of a much larger conglomerate that includes film, conferences, and interactive media which in total lasts for 10 days, although the music festival lasts for seven. 

This annual event is held in March and given its location provides pleasant weather for the purchase of concert tickets and attendance of the events. The company that runs SXSW also holds events in Frankfurt, Germany and in previous years, Las Vegas, Nevada. Today, SXSW is arguably the largest music festival of its type in the world, providing outlets for both live music performances and video samples of artists through their YouTube channel. 


The history of the SXSW festival includes artists from different genres playing at the main location along with the many parks, clubs, hotels, and other venues in the greater Austin area. While Austin has developed a rich music scene, the SXSW has gathered performers from around the world, showcasing different musical styles that include over 2,000 acts. 

In addition to the live music, there are showcases which have been created by booking agents, PR firms, and record labels along with other publishers in media outlets to provide a chance for performers to be discovered. This is one reason why SXSW has become one of the most popular places for artists to gather with the hopes of taking their careers to the next step. 


The history of live music as SXSW is tied directly to the history of the total event itself, including its expansion to conferences, trade shows, and other festival events. It all started in 1986 when the organizers of the New Music Seminar in New York City contacted Roland Swenson about organizing a similar event in Austin, Texas. When that fell through, Swenson went ahead and organized a local music festival with the help of Louis Black and Nick Barbaro.

The name South by Southwest was a play on the Alfred Hitchcock classic, “North by Northwest”. In 1987, the first SXSW was held with the organizers expecting about 150 attendees to appear and was surprised when over 700 showed up for the festival. It became immediate apparent that the festival had national aspirations almost from the start. 

Over the next several years, SXSW grew in attendance and stature as it attracted performers from around the world. By 1993, the live music festival moved to the Austin Convention Center where it is still being held today. By the following year, the live music was augmented by adding film and other media to the festival and thus the SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference was born with its first keynote speaker being Johnny Cash. 

In 1994, a young trio of brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma known as Hanson traveled to SXSW in hopes of being recognized by music industry executives. The move worked as they were discovered and eventually signed to Mercury Records when three years later they became an international sensation. Since then, it has been common to see performers of all types playing impromptu sessions to get noticed at SXSW. 

By the end of the decade, SXSW had grown considerably and branched out into different sections that included film and interactive media drawing in many thousands from around the world. However, the live music shows were still the centerpiece with concert tickets selling out at a rapid rate. Thanks to the support from the Austin community, SXSW was becoming a player on the world stage in terms of festival attendance. 

In addition to Hanson, other performers were getting noticed by record companies. In 2000, a performance by John Mayer at the festival led to his signing at Aware Records. The Polyphonic Spree managed to duplicate Mayer’s success at the 2002 SXSW music festival and two years later James Blunt was discovered as well. 

By 2005, SXSW was becoming as well known for their films and interactive media as the live music with independent movies being recognized and rewarded. However, the concerts remained quite strong with a secret performance by The Flaming Lips in 2006 being regarded as one of the greatest festival moments of all time by Time magazine in 2009. 

Since then, SXSW has kept growing and expanding, adding new performers while allowing established acts to headline shows over its 10-day run. In recent years, the emphasis by the concert promoters is to focus on regional and local acts who are not nationally known which has created a higher demand on record labels to attend SXSW in hopes of discovering the next big thing. 

SXSW Today

The small live music festival that started in 1987 has now grown to one of the largest events in the country thanks to its expansion into different media. It has also become the single largest revenue-producing even in Austin, apart from the impact the University of Texas’ athletic programs have on the city. It is estimated that the economic impact on Austin is closing in on $350 million for the entire 10-day event. 

While SXSW is not without its controversies, its success cannot be doubted. The festival itself has entered popular culture and has even been seen in celebrated movies either in the background or as important elements of the plot, such as the 2014 movie, "Frank". SXSW has managed to grow into the must-see live music event for many thousands of attendees who spend the week-long festival in Austin traveling from venue to venue to catch the latest acts. 

For performers wishing to participate in SXSW, they must pay for their own expenses to travel and for lodging, but they do get in return a wristband package that allows for access to all live music events or a cash payment for their appearance. Given the rich history of music in the Austin area, concert tickets sell out quickly for SXSW which is only expected to grow for the foreseeable future.

For more information and tickets to South By Southwest, check out LIVE MUSIC NOW.

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