South by Southwest got its start as a music festival where entertainment was the main attraction. These days, it’s a better place to do business.
While the back half of the interactive, film, and music conference, held each year in Austin, Texas is still a mix of up-and-coming and well-known musical acts, the attendance numbers show where the real interest lies: technology.
Last year, the Interactive portion of the show attracted nearly 33,000 people. This year, organizers expect roughly 34,000. (Music, meanwhile, brought in just shy of 28,000 people last year.)
“Increasingly, on the front end of the event, it has more and more facets of a traditional business conference,” says Hugh Forrest, director of South by Southwest Interactive. “Business is getting done. Startups are meeting VCs or angels or investors and brand people are talking to brand people . . . but it gets done the Austin way. You may start a deal at a panel, but finalize it at a party.”
SXSW Interactive attendance surpassed music in 2010 and has been the scene of some of the festival’s most memorable moments, such as a 2008 Mark Zuckerberg keynote that led to open heckling and the 2010 speech where Microsoft (MSFT) senior researcher Danah Boyd called out Facebook (FB) and Google (GOOG) for not respecting the value of privacy.
This year, with social media now commonplace and hardware innovations such as 3-D printers and virtual reality still commercially immature, SXSW is likely to be a somewhat quieter show than it once was. Keynotes at the Interactive portion won’t be delivered by celebrities such as last year’s Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage, but by executives of innovative companies: Lyft co-founder and CEO Logan Green and Astro Teller of Google X.
“We’ve had a lot of changes internally… so it has been particularly challenging from that standpoint,” says Forrest. “That said, it looks like another really strong year. I’m excited we’ve been able to bring in a lot more diversity this year.”
That’s a key move by the conference, given the hurdles the tech industry faced in the last year (none more prominent than #GamerGate, which saw many high-profile women in the video game world subjected to harassment and death threats). Diversity, though, isn’t the sort of ‘next big thing’ that SXSW attendees expect.
Other topics Forrest says will be big include the so-called Internet of things and futuristic hardware, such as flying cars, that is expected to revolutionize lives in the years to come. The festival will feature robotics heavily and video games will be the subject of its own show within the show. Automakers including Ford (F), Hyundai, and Chrysler will demonstrate connected-car technology.
The biggest expansion this year will benefit startups and entrepreneurs. The festival’s organizers have doubled the dedicated space for startup companies, allowing venture capital firms to scour the show for diamonds in the rough. Entrepreneurs can also pitch their companies at the SXSW Accelerator. Since the start of that event in 2009, attending companies have received more than $600 million in funding.
The shadow of last year’s tragedy, when a car drove through a barricade into the pedestrian crowds, killing four and injuring almost two dozen, continues to loom large. But it hasn’t scared sponsors away. Mazda, AT&T (T), McDonald’s (MCD), and Pepsi (PEP) are among the dozen major sponsors funding the show this year. Companies like Dell, meanwhile, are sponsoring concurrent events at the show.
And despite the frequent rumors that SXSW is getting frustrated with Austin’s limited housing for attendees and restrictions by city officials, Forrest says there are no plans to go anywhere. Hotel blocks are set for “at least” the next five years, he says. And removing the festival from a town that self-describes itself as “weird” just wouldn’t feel right. SXSW Interactive may be inching closer to the board room, but it’s still the employee in sneakers.
“So much of what SXSW is relates to Austin,” Forrest says. “It would be hard to take that anywhere else.”