The South by Southwest Music Festival has been running strong, and getting stronger, since it originated in 1987. Austin considers itself the live music capital of the world, and though cities would like to battle that claim, musicians and music industry types clamor to the capital of Texas every March from around the globe.
Austin has had an entertainment district for several decades. As the home of the state government and the University of Texas, Austin has always had lively nightspots, some of which date back to the 1800s, when many of General Custer’s troops poured into clubs after the Civil War. The majority of these clubs were located along 6th street and 4th street, where the entertainment district is still located today, and the musical styles varied widely due to the mix of Mexican, colonial and German settlers. The area today hosts the highest concentration of original music nightclubs of any other city worldwide.
In 1986, the New Music Seminar in New York invited many of Austin’s local bands to their popular music convention, and discussed having another one in Austin the next year, and it would be called the New Music Seminar Southwest. Though the New Music Seminar group pulled out shortly after their announcement, Louis Black and his cohorts ran with the idea, and started up their own festival and conference, calling it South by Southwest.
In 1986, those working on the festival announced the idea at a BMI seminar at the Hyatt, and the buzz began. A few of those working on the event were also working at The Chronicle at the time, and they began getting the word out to other alternative newspapers around the country. Knowing they didn’t have the serious industry connections on the east or west coast, an ad and story was run in Billboard magazine, which really fueled the fire. Executives from major record and publishing companies from New York, Nashville and Los Angeles began to register for the conference. Though the South by Southwest crew originally shot for 150 registrants their first year, more than 700 turned up.
Having the SXSW Music Festival in Austin was beneficial for the music industry as well as the local musicians: the music business was curious about Austin’s live music scene and had a reason to visit the city, and the musicians, who are normally isolated from the rest of the country in the middle of Texas, get a chance to do business with the industry from the comfort of their own backyard.
In 1988, SXSW fever had hit the international stage, after the hometown bands found some success in Europe, and the interest from those attending the festival in seeing international acts perform. Now SXSW has offices in Europe, Australia, and Japan to help those international bands with their travel arrangements, get their visas in order, and find housing upon arrival.
As Austin changed and grew, hi tech companies moved in and the film industry deemed Austin as “The Third Coast.” In 1994, SXSW added a film festival and an interactive festival that tied into their music festival, stretching SXSW over two weekends during spring break, when many students have left the town. Now the festival, started with 700 in attendance.