SXSW Magic

From the road…this is South by Southwest week, otherwise known, depending on how hip you are, as SXSW or “South By.”

OffBeat has been a media co-sponsor of the event almost since its first year. I remember when Roland Swenson, the founder of the event, along with Austin Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro and editor Louis Black created the event back in 1986. These visionaries wanted to create a music and media conference in the south that would rival the then “big daddy” of music seminars, the New Music Seminar, which was held annually in New York.

It started small, really small, at a hotel in downtown Austin with only 700 attendees (only 150 were expected). When it got larger, it moved to take over a portion of the Austin Convention Center. In the past decade, SXSW has grown to include not only music, but film and interactive as well. It’s grown to almost 31,000 paid attendees, has an $167-million economic impact on the city and has spawned a number of similar festivals both in the US and abroad.

Every year OffBeat had a booth in the music trade show, and for many years, we were the only Louisiana business that was represented at SXSW’s trade show. But the month of March is the busiest time of the year for us, and a couple of years ago–while we still support SXSW as a media sponsor–it just got harder and harder for me and the staff to go.

The interactive and film events have put Austin on the map as a force to be reckoned with for introducing new films and technology. In the music portion of the event, there are workshops, speakers (keynote this year is Dave Grohl), hundreds of showcase performances by bands from all over the world, educational opportunities, and parties galore. The Austin Music Awards also take place. Sponsored parties now take over the event, and SX has become more a party an an opportunity to showcase products and services to the captive audience. It’s literally impossible to attend all the parties and events. SXSW is Austin’s Jazz Fest, but the crowd is a lot younger, for the most part, much more tech-savvy, and there’s a lot more industry networking going on. (Today, for example, I talked to at least a dozen people in the business in my short time in the Convention Center).

This is the first year I’ve been to SX in four years, after having attended for 20 years. I checked into my hotel, stashed my luggage, and hightailed it down to the Convention Center. The amount that SXSW has grown took my breath away; it’s grown exponentially since last time I attended and has taken over the entire Convention Center.

Back in the mid-1990s, Louis Meyers, who had come on board with the original SXSW founders, left and came to New Orleans and tried to start a similar event in New Orleans (LMNOP-Louisiana Music New Orleans Proud). It didn’t fly because it was scheduled during the same time as Jazz Fest. The best thing that came out of that effort was that Meyers employed Scott Aiges to help him put LMNOP together. Aiges now works for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and put together the SyncUP Conference in New Orleans –also during Jazz Fest, which has successfully attracted more industry types to the city.

The. point is that it takes visionaries, cooperation between the city and local business interests,  determination and a market niche to fill and any city can create a phenomenon like SXSW. Can–or should– We branch out from our great music festivals to create something like this in New Orleans outside of its existing festivals? What could it bring to our city and state?