SXSW 26 Years On: A Conversation with Roland Swenson
The local spotlight beams on South By Southwest in the early months of every year into mid March, when the Fest/Con monster takes over much of central Austin. And doesn't just capture the attention of our city but becomes news across the nation and worldwide. But what may seem to some as a once-a-year endeavor is actually gears turning year-round at a substantial professional conference and event production company born and bred in this city. And at the center of its myriad moving parts is Managing Director Roland Swenson.
Originally positioned as a grassroots regional music conference and festival held during spring break to help Austin's music clubs earn income when the then-far-smaller city was quiet while students were away, it was modeled on New York City's New Music Seminar (NMS), which was the cutting-edge music professionals' gathering at the time.
To keep its staff employed year-round, SXSW took stabs at other events starting in the early 1990s: An Austin Battle of the Bands, a John F. Kennedy Assassination symposium in Dallas, and similar spin-off music confabs/fests in Toronto, Portland and St. Louis. SXSW Music enjoyed a steady growth curve in the 1990s, especially after the demise in 1995 of its spiritual pater NMS. SXSW "Multimedia" became today's SXSW Interactive, now the biggest SXSW event with 30,000 registrants this year. Music made it through the music business downturn of the late '90s, and now enjoys small yet still continuing growth. Film has become a signature event on the movie fest circuit. Three years ago SXSW launched education and ecological conferences; this year it spun off the comedy performances that were a part of other portions of the fest into its own SXSW Comedy.
The SXSW digs today are far from the the shabby warren of windowless offices at 28th and Nueces where I myself worked for a spell in the early days, the current offices being a modern and well-wired three-floor suite cum cube farm of offices at Bowie and Fifth Sts. where a staff of about 120 works full time (and swells with seasonal employees, volunteers and interns as the confabs and fests come closer). SXSW owns the building and all the land underneath their HQ and neighbors Schlosser Development and an overflow branch of neighboring HomeAway, making it a Downtown stakeholder apart from the role of the festival iteslf.
So with the 27th SXSW out of the way, and buzz on next year not yet percolating (even if applications for music showcases opened on July 9), it seemed a good time to sit down with Swenson for a talk about the event's past, present and future, and its place in the local landscape.
Austin Post: During SXSW Music this year, one thing that struck me was how future Downtown residential development might rub up against the teeming masses of visitors for the 10 days or so of all of the March conferences. And especially the 2,300 or so musical acts playing official showcases and the noise that generates. What's your take on Downtown growth and how it may affect SXSW?
Roland Swenson: There's a couple of issues there affecting the music scene. One of them is the Waller Creek tunnel project and what that's going to mean to Red River St. Because once all of these properties are out of the flood plain they'll have a lot more value. On the other hand most of them can't be built that high because of the Capitol view restriction [that prohibits buildings that obstruct some views of the Capitol]. Will that land get so valuable that the owners will want to flip it to developers?
That is a challenge. But we've seen the music scene move to different parts of town. In the early years we had the Hole in the Wall and the Cactus Cafe, clubs on the perimeter of downtown that people would go. But we've had to give up on them because people wouldn't travel more than two to three blocks to go to hear music since everything else was so close.
Back in the day you could actually jump in your car, drive up there, see a show and get back in your car and drive back downtown and find a parking place and go see another show. Now getting in and out of downtown is like an hour proposition.
I'm working with Austin Music People and others to try keep the music scene healthy downtown. Our dream is that there would be a package of incentives to developers to include a nightclub in their projects, things like that. Various tax breaks that might be available. The goal of preserving Red River is important. But the music scene has always moved around. And now it's spreading east.
AP: Interactive has grown in leaps and bounds to now be far and away your biggest draw in terms of registrants. What's your take on its future growth?
RS: The last five years added 10,000 people. That's my off-the-top-of-the-head. Right now we're going to flatten out because of the limit on hotel rooms. We just did a survey where we found out a lot of our people are staying in HomeAway-type situations, and I think we've maxed those out. But by 2015 we'll get another 1,500 to 2,000 hotel rooms, and that will help.
For Interactive the problem is really just moving bodies. They're business people and they're willing to stay away from Downtown. Music people don't want to do that at all. But we have to move those people from those outlying areas Downtown.
AP: As I'm sure you know, SXSW is the target of numerous local complaints from some quarters.
RS: Really? Hey, this is Austin. Bitching is the only professional sport we have. People in Austin have complained about what's good about Austin forever. People complained about the Armadillo. People complained about Stevie Ray Vaughan.
AP: What do you say to those who complain that SXSW doesn't focus enough on supporting the local music scene?
RS: Well, the main thing we are doing for the local scene is helping to keep the clubs they play at in business. That was one of the original ideas of SXSW was to help the clubs so they could pay their ad bills at the Chronicle. I'm not kidding.
I don't want to take all the credit for it, but it seems to me that the lifespan of Austin clubs is a lot longer than it used to be. I saw a lot of clubs come and go in a four or five year period in the past. That is about as long as anyone could last. And now there are lots of clubs going on being around for 20 years or so.
AP: How about the complaint that it doesn't showcase enough local bands?
RS: Okay, fine. No Austin band has ever gotten anything out of SXSW. Sorry about that.
The main thing is for the bands, I think – whether or not anyone is getting million-dollar record deals – is to meet all the other bands that come to town. The original idea was that an Austin band would meet a band from Dallas and they'd let them open for them in Dallas and the Dallas band would open for them in Austin and they can sleep on each other's floors. And I know that kind of stuff has happened over the years. And that was one of our original goals. Because at the time it was really hard for Austin bands to get shows out of town and vice versa.
Even if you aren't a showcase band, SXSW offers lots of opportunities to be heard and make connections if the bands get out there and work it.
RS: That 10 percent is more than the Austin bands that played the first year.
AP: What's your thoughts on how some people complain that using a volunteer workforce for a good part of the time leading up to and during the conference is exploitative?
RS: That's kind of a culture unto itself. There's a lot of people that met their spouses and had babies from volunteering at SXSW. For someone who's new to town it's a really fast way to meet a lot of people. And it's fun to be part of the show. We've had volunteers that return year after year and those who joined our staff.
AP: And then there's the accusation that you and the other directors are getting rich off of Austin's culture and creative strengths. Are you?
RS: Are we getting rich? What is rich? I'm not sure what that means. To me rich means that I don't have to work anymore. And if that's the case I'm not rich.
AP: How do you handle the challenge of overseeing five conferences all happening at relatively the same time?
RS: I can't. Nobody can. Our brains are like networked computers. We can't carry all the loads. We have to offload stuff to other people.
AP: So I imagine it's a matter of delegating?
RS: That's definitely a challenge. It's something that I've just had to do. It's harder for some people than others to let go and let someone else run with the ball. But that's really what you want to do if you want to be successful. I always tell my managers that they have to be able to let people fail before they can achieve anything.
AP: This was the first year of the Music Fest without the late Brent Grulke in charge. What was that like and how did you address the loss?
RS: We were talking about delegating. And that was one of the things that Brent did really well is delegate to his staff. So I knew that people who had worked for him knew what to do, that we would have strong talent and the show would go on. For me... not having him... in a way it was less fun. And I think it always will be. He was one of the things that kept it fun for me. So now I have to look for other things.
RS: Brent was the road warrior. He really made friends and allies all over the world. Something like one in four people are from outside the U.S.
AP: In the last few years, especially this year, SXSW Music seems to have entered a new phase where superstar shows both official and unofficial are common parts of the festival.
RS: We spend a lot of time trying to bring... how would I say... independent events into the big tent with us and to work with us. And we're successful a lot of the times; you don't always end up with an ideal situation. But SXSW exists by consensus. More people think it should be here than to go away.
We prefer to be in complete control [laughs]. But we're not. We're collaborative with somebody whether it's an act or manager or anybody, really.
AP: Those big-name surprise shows sure add to the buzz, like Prince this year.
RS: That all happened in a short amount of time. It was less than two weeks from when I heard that Prince might come and do an actual show.
AP: As a voice from the bleachers, it feels to me like the showcase system could use some restructuring. With so many name acts even playing regular slots, maybe you need to start giving more of them more time to play full sets. What's your thoughts on that?
RS: There's definitely time when the 40 minutes is a little restrictive, especially with the established artists. But part of what we're dealing with is whatever label or agency is sponsoring a show is trying to get one more band on the show, just one more band. So it gets pretty hard to do more than one an hour between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. And people are used to that rhythm of knowing that shows start on the top of the hour and you have 20 minutes to get to the next place.
We're a lot more flexible than we used to be. We've got shows where bands are playing 20 minutes instead of 40 or 50 minutes rather than 40.
AP: For all the impressive digital resources you offer for scheduling showcase hopping, in the press of the crowds Downtown it still would be helpful to have visible signage on clubs noting it's a showcase venue and who plays when that night.
RS: I agree. That's where it comes down to dealing with the city. Because we just can't make up our own street signs and put them out. We try to have a sign that says this is an official SXSW showcase venue on the door where people can see it. Sometimes clubs say, we're not going to let you put that on the front of my club. Or there's no place to put it really that people can see. Signage is something we are always trying to improve. We do a pretty good job inside the Convention Center. But out on the streets....
One example is that at one point Cesar Chavez at Red River was completely clogged up, and all these people were turning north on Red River, not knowing that it was closed off further up and dead-ended. And they'd get up there and literally have to turn around and then fight their way back. So we went to the city and said: Can't you put a sign there that said 'street closed at Fifth St. Take Congress' – that's what we wanted them to put. So they came back and were willing to put a sign up that said: "Event Ahead. Traffic Heavy" or something like that. That's all they wanted to say.
AP: The one Austin conference not in March is SXSWEco, coming up in early October. How is that event developing?
RS: We're about to do the third one. It's a tougher job to do that one, partly because there are so many other conferences. But the people who come to ours seem really energized by it. We sort of have this thing we do that's very cross-disciplinary. Most sustainability and environmental conferences are all water or all air. But we kind of cover the gamut and bring all of these different people together to talk. I think what we are doing has great potential. Are we going to be able to pay for this? I hope....
AP: This year you're launching SXSW V2V, an entrepreneurial and venture capital conference, in Las Vegas in August. Why aren't you doing that one in Austin?
RS: We're already doing like six events here!
Truthfully? The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Bureau came to us about doing it. And they wrote a check.
AP: Care to tell us how much?
RS: It wasn't enough to pay for it, but it will certainly reduce the pain of its losses in the first year. I don't know. If we get 1,000 people we'll be happy.
AP: Any advice you can offer to others who stage big events here or would like to?
RS: Find good people and pay them well. Don't let people's complaints stop you from doing what you think should be done.
AP: What wisdoms can you share with them on working with the city in staging a large event?
RS: I'll let you know as soon as I can figure it out. The thing to remember is that the city is made up of a large bunch of people who are great to work with and others not so great to work with. For the most part they all work hard and are under-appreciated. So.... I think we used to see a monolith when we thought about the city but now we sort of realize it's a lot of competing interests, and not everybody feels the same way. I actually had a council aide tell me that we were lucky the city lets us do SXSW because it was so inconvenient for them.
So there's not a unified approach to SXSW by the city. But they've been getting better. This guy Don Pitts that they brought in to run the music department has been very effective and gets it and has done a lot of good stuff. The Music Commission has kind of stepped up in the past few years and that helps. And I think that all the council members realize that the music community is an important part of the city. So all that stuff has helped and it's slowly getting better. But there will always be this government weirdness to deal with.
AP: Like Rollingwood's mayor asking C3 for $150,000 from ACL Fest for the headaches he says it causes his community?
RS: It's really funny because Rollingwood exists because a group of people said, fuck you, we don't wanna pay Austin taxes, we're going to start our own city. And then they're constantly complaining how Austin doesn't do this or do that for them. I know. I lived in Rollingwood.
AP: Did you ever imagine it the early years how massive SXSW has become?
RS: I thought it could be a large and influential event. But... you were there. We didn't have email. We didn't have the World Wide Web. We barely had a fax machine. It was very different world back then. So, no, I couldn't ever imagine it being like this.
RS: It's hard for me to wrap my head around the whole thing. I realize that it's part of popular culture. They make jokes about it on TV. So I think reaching that stage is what I am proud of.
Did you see "The Colbert Report" thing where Kim Jung Il was going to send missiles to Austin, and the voiceover said SXSW used to be really cool but now it's not?
I am proud of that fact that one of our goals is to always be reinventing ourselves, always changing things. And I think that helps keep it fresh for us and our attendees.
One of the things I like about it is that there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and it's not always the same.
AP: Do you miss at all its charms when SXSW was smaller in the 1990s?
RS: It was a lot of fun when it was small. And I think it still is a lot of fun. But I was kind of able to know everything that was going on back then. And it hasn't been like that for a very long time. So that can be kind of frustrating when there are things that are going wrong that I didn't even know we were doing. That can be a drag.
AP: As a local longtime music person, much as I can't help but enjoy SXSW every year, I also do wish it were in another place and like so many attendees I was on vacation, in a way. Because it's so big it can't avoid inconveniencing daily Austin life. But do you think it could even work in another city?
RS: I don't know. Probably not. There's probably no other street like Red River St. anywhere else. The populace here is probably more inclined here to go along with a certain amount of craziness than anywhere else.
AP: I would contend that SXSW forged Austin's current stature and economic sector as an event city, being the predecessor to ACL Fest, Fun Fun Fun and even in a way F1 and the COTA track. What's your thoughts on that?
RS: Well, uh.... I think we've helped shape Austin's image around the world as a place where creative people are doing fun and interesting things. When I first went to New York when I was in the music business, I'd say I was from Austin, Texas, and people would say, So what? If they didn't say that, they'd say, oh, you ride a horse? I'd go yeah, sure, I ride one to work every day. So that has changed. Now when I say I'm from Austin it means something to people. And before it was like, uh, you've got a gun... [laughs].
Part of that is the city's infrastructure growing pretty much on track with us, except for the hotels at least. But if you think about it, in the last 20 years we've gotten a Convention Center, a new airport, thousands of hotel rooms downtown. We could not have grown without all that other stuff happening. And I don't know how much credit we can take for that growth.
AP: Any unfulfilled ambitions for SXSW?
RS: Every year we have unfulfilled ambitions. But is there one overriding one? I'm not sure. I'm kind of amazed at some of the things that have happened.
If there is one, it's that when we started film and interactive we thought, well, eventually it will all be just one event. But we can't do that because there just aren't enough hotel rooms for Interactive and everyone else. We have people staying all over town, way on the edge of town. The joke starting about two years ago was: Good news! We got you into the Airport Hilton.
For Interactive the problem is really just moving bodies. They're business people and they're willing to stay away from Downtown. Music people don't want to do that at all. But then we have to move those people from those outlying areas Downtown.
RS: We've sort of said to ourselves: Okay, enough of the big bold ideas. Let's not start anything new this year. Let's consolidate all the stuff that we've started over the years. So I'm not sure what that's going to be. A lot of times it just develops on its own.
AP: How can it not when, as you said, it's a collaboration, and the conferences and fests all tap into creative communities, right?
RS: As I said, SXSW occurs kind of by consensus, because more people think it's a good thing and will cooperate than don't. And we're very aware of how fragile that coalition is. And how every move we make, every change we make, we have to be very aware of how that will impact everything else. And that makes everything very complicated.
AP: How do you deal with the complications?
RS: Oh, even when I was just starting out in the music business and booking a few bands into clubs, there were all of these people that would say, oh, that guy, he's so ruthless, he just wants to run everything. And this was on the tiniest scale you can imagine. So at that point in my life I just decided I wasn't going to let people like that stop me from doing what I thought was the right thing. And I've taken a licking for that and I've certainly made mistakes that have brought even more criticism down on me.
When anybody does something there will always be somebody who says, hey, I could have done that better, or you did it wrong. Or who told you you could do that – those are the typical reactions. I kind of get Austin. I think that helps. But it does keep me gnashing my teeth a lot.