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SXSW: A History

SXSW: A History

Posted on Feb 02, 2015 by

While it’s likely you hear all about SXSW bands, films, and interactive panels every year, most people don’t know the exact history of how the festival first started and then grew to the massive event it is today. This blog is part one of our four-part SXSW blog series that will span throughout February, with one blog going up each week.


1987 marked the first South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival. At the time, Austin was not a huge market, but the culture of the city made it an ideal location for this festival. The fact that The University of Texas was – and is – located in the heart of the city helped draw many people to the city, as did the Capitol’s location downtown. Still, the issue was that Austin was right in the middle of Texas, so the bands needed to come from other cities, as well, including Chicago, Toronto, and Tokyo. Interest in the festival quickly nationalized and music industry execs became interested.

Fast-forward to today and SXSW has international offices in Ireland, Germany, Australia, and Japan. The music event started out with 700 registrants in 1987 and now boasts 28,000.


Launched seven years after the music side, SXSW Film began in 1994 as SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference. After all these years, the goal remains the same: “to provide a forum for new voices in filmmaking, a community where filmmakers can celebrate and support one another, and a source of discovery for the future of film.” The conference portion now has keynotes, featured conversations, and group sessions. Specialized sessions of workshops and one-on-one meetings also exist in the Mentor Program. The SXSW Film Festival now runs nine days, featuring a diverse and high profile selection.


Launched at the same time as Film, SXSW Interactive officially began in 1994 as part of the then titled SXSW Film & Multimedia Conference. It only took a year for the two features to separate, becoming SXSW Film and SXSW Multimedia in 1995. The CD-Rom marked a huge year for 1996, with panels including “CD-Plus from A-Z.” The title changed again to SXSW Multimedia & Interactive Festival in ’97 and finally SXSW Interactive Festival in ’98, notably the first year for the SXSW Web Awards.

The Internet marked a big change in the Interactive portion, with 1998 honoring top websites and digital work and 2000 hosting the SXSW Dewey Winburne Community Service Award that commemorated technology “do-gooders.” In the last ten years, noteworthy speakers and interviews range from Craig Newmark (Craigslist) to Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) to Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook).

Approaching 30 years, the SXSW festival plays a monumental part in not only Austin’s culture but also in music, film, technology, and innovation throughout the world. While the festival is bigger today than ever before – in 2014, 60,458 room nights were booked in 71 official hotels – knowing its history can be informative and reflective on how greatly it has grown. Check back next week for our blog on “Our Tips for Surviving SXSW 2015.”

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