In August, Austin’s venerable SXSW Music and Media Conference lost one of its principal architects, Brent Grulke, who died of a heart attack following oral surgery. Perhaps more than any other individual, Grulke, the conference’s creative director, helped turn SXSW into a globally recognized event. As staffers prepared for this year’s music festival, which begins March 12, we talked with co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson about the loss of his friend and colleague for the Lookout column of the magazine’s March issue. A longer version of the interview appears below. We spoke to Swenson by phone while he was attending the MIDEM music conference in Cannes, France, an event he had often attended with Grulke.
Jeff Salamon: Brent was the creative director of SXSW Music. What were the official responsibilities of that title and what did he do, unofficially, on top of that?
Roland Swenson: His primary task was overseeing the music festival. And that includes trawling through the applications that are submitted—you know, we have like eight or nine thousand this year. It includes outreach to labels and agencies and managers who have talent that we want to see at SXSW, and then deciding where these shows should happen, at which nightclubs. And then, beyond that, he had a general consulting task on everything from the art we use to the promotions we might choose to run and everything that had to do with our look and advertising and things like that.
JS: What was the most distinctive skill that Brent brought to his job?
RS: He had encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of music. He would know who an act was—who they were and what they meant, whether it was important for us. And he knew enough to trust other people’s taste and knowledge in music, and that was a big part of how the festival evolved over the years, which is the team that he recruited to work on the festival.
JS: So Brent passes away in August. Where were you in the process of organizing this year’s festival when that happened?
RS: We had just launched the new season, which we start in August—putting up our new website and our new application process, and starting to receive submission from acts. Brent had started the travel that he did—I guess I forgot to mention that was among his tasks; he traveled all over the world to different music festivals and conferences and events and scouted talent and met people and spread the word. He was an evangelist, I suppose, for SXSW.
JS: Besides the fact that you were obviously personally devastated by Brent’s passing, how panicked were you about the prospect of putting together this year’s festival without him?
RS: One of the great things about Brent was that he was not afraid to delegate and give people a lot of responsibility and trust them to perform. So over the years he had developed a team of people that really knew what they were doing. And he was secure enough to let people do what they knew how to do; he was not a micromanager. So I knew that people knew what to do. The thing that worried me was not having access to his hefty intellect. Every day something comes across my desk that I would’ve asked Brent about or asked him to handle. He was my friend. He was my co-conspirator. He and I almost always saw things the same way, which was reassuring and saved a lot of time. We didn’t have to explain things to each other.
JS: How quickly did you start doing things to deal with his absence?
RS: SXSW doesn’t stop for anything, you know? I didn’t want to immediately sit down and go, “Okay, well, here’s his successor,” because a guy like Brent, you just can’t replace. Not just because of his personality and his skills and knowledge but also because of his history with the event. He’d