In the wake of a difficult year, festival co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson says his organization plans to keep growing—if Austin will let it.
From the moment in 1986 when the idea to hold a music conference in Austin was first broached, Roland Swenson has been a part of SXSW—initially to convince people that it wasn’t a crazy idea, and then to make it happen. In the years since, he has overseen a trajectory of growth that has included the launches of SXSW Interactive, SXSW Film, SXSW Edu, SXSW Eco, and the V2V entrepreneurial conference. Last March, the music festival, which has grown increasingly raucous, as non-sanctioned shows have taken over much of downtown, faced its worst crisis ever when a speeding driver plowed into a crowd, killing four people and injuring more than twenty.
JEFF SALAMON: SXSW starts in mid-March, so as we speak you’re heading into crunch time. What’s taking up most of your bandwidth right now?
ROLAND SWENSON: This is the real crunch time when everybody asks me, “Well, who’s playing, what movies are we going to have?” and I always say I don’t know, because if I talk about something that’s happening that I’m excited about, then it almost guarantees it gets canceled. So you know, there’s a lot of drama as we pull our schedule together to announce. It’s all very squishy until it firms up in February, by necessity.
JS: So what takes up most of your day?
RS: I work a little on everything, not the least of which is mediating turf wars between departments and helping people who are facing some kind of problem. Often I can say, “Oh, I remember the first time that came up, in ’92, and this is what we did.” Sometimes that’s the solution and sometimes that’s the wrong thing to do.
JS: How many people are on staff?
RS: You know, it changes all the time. I think there are probably about 160 people right now. We have, like, 130 year-round people, and then we’ll probably have 200 full-time people by the time the event starts, in March. And on top of that we’ve got about 30 interns and many, many, many volunteers.
JS: How much busier does it get between now and when the festival begins?
RS: It get’s pretty manic at times, but mostly it just stretches out into some really long days, and we become almost a 24-hour-a-day operation.
JS: Starting when?
RS: Well, now, really. I doubt if anyone is staying all night. But I’m sure if I came back at midnight there would still be a lot of people here working. Part of that is dedication, and part of it is fear, because that’s the thing about doing an event: it’s coming. There’s no “Maybe we’ll do it a week later” or anything like, that and you’ve got a hard deadline, and it’s going to happen, with or without you, one way or another. That kind of ratchets up the stress level a little bit for everybody.
JS: What are people scared of? Are they scared of you?
RS: No. Failure, I think. And being embarrassed, having people yelling at them—you know, their speaker’s slide got screwed up or their showcase got screwed up, or a big film debut or premiere got screwed up.
JS: So someone from outside SXSW is screaming at them, not someone within these walls screaming at them.
RS: Yes. Well, there’s screaming here. But for the most part, as the pressure from the outside grows, we tend to close ranks and watch each other’s backs.
JS: You oversee everything that has a SXSW brand on it—Music, Film, Interactive, Education, Ecology, all of that?
RS: I guess I’m sort of the ultimate yes or no for those events for anything that’s like new or a problem, or controversial. At this point I’m not nearly as hands-on as I was even five years ago, because it’s at the point where there’s lots of things we’re doing that I don’t even know about. I’ll find out about them in May or June when I’m reading a story and I’ll go, “Wow, we did that, really?” But that’s the nature of the event. It’s a mega-event. There’s always supposed to be way more to do than any one person can do and for a long time there’s been more things happening than any one person can know. It’s pretty exciting.
JS : Of the five festivals that SXSW runs, are there any that you more closely monitor?
RS: Because of my music background and because we started out as a music event, I tend to gravitate toward that part of it. But everything is really related at this point. Since we started doing our trade show, covering all three events, that has really tied together a lot of the traveling I do and the events I attend to promote SXSW, so I’m now working on everything. In a lot of ways, music is the foundation of the trade show, in that if you walk through the show you’ll see the people from New Zealand, you’ll see the people from Chile, you’ll see the people from Brazil and the UK, and each of those countries started out with music and then expanded out to create technology and film. I don’t know that most people realize that something like one in four people at SXSW is from outside of the United States. In some ways, we’re more famous outside of the U.S. than we are here because those countries are smaller and the national media will focus on acts or films or whatever that are coming to SXSW, and they’ll get actual coverage. The BBC in the UK does a ton of coverage on us; virtually everyone who has listened to the BBC has heard about us. I still meet people in the States who don’t really know what SXSW is or have never even heard of it .
JS: I’ve met people in Austin who have never heard of SXSW. What sort of changes should we expect to see in the festival this year?
RS: We continue to diversify, and it’s not always from our own planning, but reacting to the people that are attending. Examples of that are the expansion, and this is largely within the Interactive event, of the medical community. We’ve started a medical technology expo trade show that’s going to be running at the JW Marriott. That grew out of the fact that more and more people from medicine were coming to Interactive, largely to talk about information technology. We also have a big component of people involved in space exploration, whether that’s private companies that are contractors or people who are involved in SpaceX or Virgin’s space program. NASA usually has a presence here. Those are just a couple of examples. Maybe they don’t get that much attention just because there’s so much going on and the movie stars and the rock stars garner a lot of the attention. But we’re expanding. And food—we have a component called “South Bites” that is made up of panels where people are talking about anything from chefs to delivering food and GMO and all these other issues surrounding food.
JS: Obviously last year was a tough year for the music festival, because of the crash. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience on that night?
RS: I was at the show. I had gone to see [the band] X; I was up on the top level at Mohawk and I saw the police car come around the corner. I worked my way over to the side and looked down and saw what had happened. You know, it was awful, it was awful. There were a lot of SXSW staff there and we were involved in the aftermath, trying to keep the crowds out of the area. We were lined up, creating a detour, me and the staff—there were probably twenty people from the staff around when it happened and then fifty or sixty of us there within five or ten minutes because everybody heard about it. It was pretty traumatic for our staff. We’re still getting over it. We’ve had some group counseling—there were probably a half dozen eyewitnesses on the staff who saw the whole thing. It’s definitely put a cloud over everything for a long time. Of course it doesn’t compare to what the victims and their families have gone through.
JS : What were the first 24 hours like?
RS: It was really tough. We had taken steps to be ready for some kind of emergency. We have a communication center with TV monitors that allow us to look at most of the places at the festival; we monitor social media; we have radio contact with all of our people in the field; we have a direct line to the police group emergency center. So we were ready for a coordinated response. But we had never foreseen something like this happening. Because it wasn’t an accident, it was a deliberate act.
JS: Can you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been doing to address the safety concerns that came up after that?
RS: We really have to follow the lead of the police and the city. We brought in a consultant, the Populous Group, to help get us over this hump that we had been having, where we’ve been saying for years that there needs to be a coordinated plan for everything that is going on downtown during SXSW downtown, not just our events. We had all of our stuff mapped out, but then there were all these other pop-up events, that sometimes we’d heard about, sometimes we didn’t. It made it difficult in planning anything from how we were going to line up people who were trying to get into clubs to where we need to put the police that we hire and questions like that. One of the recommendations that Populous made was this comprehensive safety plan that the city has agreed to implement. The idea is just to create more transparency about all of the activities during the event, because frequently we’re the most monitored by the police and fire departments, because we have the information readily available for them to find us, but all these other shows and parties and stuff are off the radar. A lot of times when police or fire will show up, responding to some kind of complaint or problem or whatever, it’s not immediately apparent to them whether they should be calling us or somebody else to get control of the situation. So with this integrated safety plan, everybody should be on the same page.
JS: Does that happen sometimes, where the police will call you and you’ll be like, “That’s not our thing”?
RS: That happens every night, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten times. They have a really tough job and I think they’ve done a remarkable job in that we went 28 years without a fatality.
JS: You say that the city has agreed to implement the safety plan that Populous proposed in their report?
RS: We’ve hired Populous to sort of write the plan and map it all out. And it will be up to all of the city departments and our staff and all of the participants to cooperate, to pull all of this together. It’s going to be a big task. There’s this whole world of emergency response and safety, which we’ve been immersed in for a long time now. You know, five years ago we hired this guy who’s one of the leading experts on crowd management in the world—he works with the Olympics, he works with the Hajj, he works on all these major events—to come in and consult with us. He gave us this methodology of how to look at how crowds react. So we’ve been holding seminars with him and with first responders, and Populous was another part of that whole process.
Once you learn more about this whole world, there’s things that aren’t widely known. For example, there’s this language they call NEMS, which is the National Emergency Management System, which was developed by Homeland Security so that first responders were all using the same nomenclature, so that when they were trying to describe a problem to another agency there was no ambiguity about it, who they were talking about or what they were talking about. So we’ve hired experts in writing safety plans in that language so that the police and the EMS and the fire department can all be on the same page. It’s really inside baseball. We’ve got a guy consulting with us who worked on the Boston Marathon bombing and he’s helped us a lot in getting better coordination with the police.
JS: SXSW has always taken place during spring break. Why have we seen the spring break craziness come up in only the last couple of years?
RS: There’s a bunch of reasons. I think one of my favorite ones is to blame it on [the MTV show] The Real World. [In 2005] they shot The Real World here, and the kids in the show went down to Sixth Street and got drunk off their asses every night. And all of these kids around America, that was their impression of Austin. Then, in 2008, when the economy collapsed, suddenly a lot of kids’ parents weren’t paying for them to go to Cabo, or the Caribbean, so they found places to go on spring break in the States, like SXSW. At the same time, traditional media was completely upending; nobody really knew what kind of marketing really worked anymore. So along came this whole experiential marketing, ambush marketing, guerilla marketing—whatever you want to call it. All of these big corporations started creating these “experiential events” to market themselves. So we ended up with a lot of these [non-SXSW] shows that are often held in parking lots or vacant buildings, and they’re free and alcohol is usually free. And because they’re not selling alcohol, they escape a lot of scrutiny by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, who are only really interested in people selling alcohol, although they’ve realized that doesn’t work. All of these things happening at the same time, I think, is what created this.
JS: I know that you guys have had mixed feelings about all the non-SXSW shows over the years. But has the growth of those events in any way benefited SXSW?
RS: People like those shows and frequently the acts that are coming in to play a show for the festival are able to do a second or third show, which is good for them and part of the appeal of the event. Our issue is the lack of coordination and the lack of control. When you start pouring vodka and energy drinks at eleven a.m. and you do that all day long, people get really drunk, and that creates problems.
JS: But you recognize that it’s a good thing for the bands? It gives them more opportunities for exposure?
RS: At this point for us to say, “We like this, we hate that,” we don’t even think that way anymore. We just try to deal with it.
JS: Does the buzz that’s created by the large crowds at these large parties benefit you at all?
RS: In some ways, sure. If it was up to us, would it be different? Yeah. But it’s not, so we deal with it. When it first started, our initial reaction was to try to resist it, to try and stop it. We realized pretty quick that that just wasn’t going to happen. So then we tried to bring them into the fold.
JS: Is there a part of you, when you hear that Kanye West is flying into town and is going to play some non-SXSW shows, is there’s still a music fan part of you that goes, “Oh that’s actually kind of cool”?
RS: Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of two-fold. There’s a lot of people who complain, “SXSW, they sold out, they only have these huge acts.” So we get the blame for something like Kanye West coming and playing a party even though it’s not really us doing it. So it’s sort of a mixed blessing. On one hand, we’ve got Kanye West; on the other hand, we have these other issues to go with that.
JS: When [the Populous] report that you commissioned came out last fall, it made headlines because it hinted at the possibility that you guys might choose to leave Austin if the city didn’t figure out a way to get the overcrowding situation under control, which some people saw as a not-so-veiled threat. Did you intend it that way?
RS: We didn’t threaten to leave. We didn’t threaten to shut down the unofficial events. That was not our agenda even though it was reported that way.
JS: Would you say that at this point you were committed to staying in Austin?
RS: Yes. Our fear is not that we would need to leave Austin but that [SXSW] would no longer be viable here for a variety of reasons. We’re being made responsible for everything that happens downtown during our event. It’s these hundreds of thousands of people coming for these free events who are making it so crowded, causing street closures and police overtime. But the city takes all those costs, rolls it up into one package, and says, “Hey, guess what, SXSW? We’re not going to make you pay for that, we’re going to give you a fee waiver.” And then everybody looks at us like, “Hey, corporate welfare, you guys are for-profit. How can the city not charge you?” And our position is just, like, why should we have to pay for all of the stuff that we didn’t do? So that’s kind of where we’re at.
JS: You said that you’re not sure if this festival would continue to be feasible here. Are you saying that you would go to a city where there is an infrastructure to support those large crowds?
RS: No, I’m saying it would be over. It would be over. Every year I tell the staff, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get to do this again. It could all blow up in our faces and fall apart. Because we’ve seen that happen many times to other events. We exist by consensus. More people in Austin think it is a good idea that we do this and cooperate with us then think we’re dickheads and won’t work with us. That could change. There’s nobody that makes the clubs work with us. There’s nobody that makes the theaters show the movies. It all has to be by consensus.
JS : Would it be more feasible, if the city took more control of the non-SXSW events?
RS: One of the problems we had, the way the laws were written, the city didn’t really have a way to turn people down for an event. They didn’t really have a legal way to say no. At least that was their excuse to us. And for us, the big issue is not that there are unofficial events, it’s that they all want to be within three hundred yards of Sixth and Red River and we just can’t keep packing more and more pop-up events on Sixth Street. I don’t know if you’ve been down there on any given weekend, let alone SXSW; it’s a serious year-round problem. And it only gets worse during SXSW, the Texas Relays, or Halloween or New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras, on and on and on. I remember when there was nothing going on on Sixth Street and then it was sometime in the early eighties when the whole “Hey, let’s go to Sixth Street and hit all these bars” lifestyle grew. And it was fun, and in some ways still is, but it’s also gotten very dangerous.
JS: The Populous report started one sentence with the clause “If SXSW cannot sustain success and growth in the future.” And it made me wonder: Are you still interested in growing? I mean you’re pretty big.
RS: It gets more expensive every year, even just to stay at the same size, so growth doesn’t necessarily mean more bodies, but it does mean that we need to make more money every year to keep everything afloat. Something we learned is that any event that is not growing is dying. We’ve seen that happen. So do we want to grow? Sure, in some ways, like the things I was telling you about—space exploration, medicine, what we’ve done with SXSWEdu—there’s a lot of areas we want to pursue.
JS: What makes these festivals more expensive each year? Is it because this city is a boom city, so to rent these facilities gets more expensive?
RS: That’s part of it, but we’re also now competing with a lot of these giant corporations who are throwing money around to venues, to rent them, and a lot of people say, “I can make so much more money just selling my club to some tech company.”
JS: Have you considered at any point declaring a sell-out limit on badges, to downsize, make the crowds more manageable?
RS: We’ve really a got a pretty good handle I think, on our shows. The number of wristbands we’ve sold, we haven’t increased that in forever. The number of music badges sold has been relatively flat for five years now, so we’re not trying to put more people into the clubs than we were. It’s part of the formula, like if we’re going to put a good show into the Continental Club, then it’s going to fill up and everybody can’t come. That’s part of the nature of SXSW. So the idea is, if you can’t get in there, then there are ninety other shows that you can choose from and most of them you can get into. I think we’ve got a balance worked out pretty well for our people. It’s all the extra people, that part of it is growing exponentially, compared to us.
JS: So according to Greyhill Advisors, a consulting firm you guys hired, your impact on the city’s economy jumped from $218 million in 2013 to $315 million in 2014. That’s an astonishing leap in one year for an event that’s kind of a mature event.
RS: If you read the report, that’s explained. One of the things that we were obviously really careful about was only measuring our activity, our events, our registrants, our hotel use, our use of venues. But we knew that was only part of the picture, because there were all these other events going on, arguably at least as much as what we were doing and maybe even more. So last year we started this new program called “the guest pass”—people picked up these free wristbands at Whole Foods and Waterloo Records and all these other places and those were used to go to our free events, like the Town Lake shows—sorry, the Lady Bird Lake shows; I guess I’m showing my nativeness—Flatstock, the gaming expo, there’s like twenty events. So on every one of those wristbands was a serial number and an invitation to go online and get on the list and then we gave away stuff to people that entered—free badges, gift certificates, stuff like that. Then we were able to collect demographic information on all of these people who weren’t wearing an official wristband or a badge, and then we were able to extrapolate their economic impact on the city, and we included that in the report, and that’s why it grew so much.
JS: Do you think that if you could correct for the fact that you’re doing different measurements now—do you have a sense that the economic impact in the city continues to increase pretty much each year?
RS: It has so far. But I think we’ve seen things kind of leveling off on the gross number of bodies that are attending or pay to attend our events for a few years now.
JS: All of the festivals?
RS: Yeah, even Interactive is not growing at the same rate that it was. We had a big jump from 2006 to 2010, when it was just really growing fast. Those people spend a lot of money.
JS: What do you think are the effects of the economic crash that the country has gone through the last seven years or so and the implosion of the music industry on the way you guys operate?
RS: That’s something we’re talking about every day—how tenable is the music industry anymore, you know? Even the biggest labels are selling a fraction of what they used to sell, artists are having to look for different revenue streams, and that’s part of what we’re providing: access to brands and tech companies and a lot of the new users of music.
JS: The music industry used to have these deep pockets that could subsidize bigger bands and even medium-sized bands coming to town for the festival. Now if those bands come it’s often for a brand party, a payday. How does that change the overall dynamic of the festival?
RS: It really makes it trickier for us. Fortunately we have a certain amount of leverage because people want some of the services that we can provide them, whether it’s access to better hotel rooms, whether it’s being part of our phone app and our general press push. If somebody’s giving us the finger then we can just leave them out of everything. People want to be part of our event. They want to be considered part of our event. So that’s about all the leverage we really have on that. A lot of the brands have sort of come around. We’ve certainly had this reverse David and Goliath where we’d be up against these multinational, billion dollar corporations who were casting us as The Man and they were the young rebels. And that worked for a long time, but it doesn’t work so well now.
JS: You’ve obviously got an interest in fostering relationships with sponsors. Do you ever worry that there’s too much brand stuff out there?
RS: A lot of it is perception and it’s hard for us to control that perception because there’s still a lot of stuff that’s just not us. You’ll see all of these little pop-up events—cellphone companies, on and on and on—that will take over a space. People walk by and think, “Oh, those guys at SXSW, they’ve sold out,” and it’s not even us. But at the same time we’re not afraid of being associated with brands. We see that as just the way things are for everybody, that brands are funding a lot of things now—artists and films and all kinds of things. We’re not embarrassed to be associated with brands. Now, are there as many other brands doing stuff on their own than are actually working with us? Yeah.
JS: Doritos was one of your official sponsors, but the show featuring a giant Doritos vending machine/stage was not one of your shows. You guys didn’t book that show, I don’t think.
RS: That was a tricky relationship for us. We got Doritos through a deal we did with Pepsi. When they told us that they wanted to build that thing, my reaction was, “Oh, they’ll never get a permit to do that.” But they did. And part of it goes back to what I said about the city saying they didn’t have a way to say no to them. Once it happened, our choice was either to ignore it and let it run wild or try to get our arms around it as much as we could. We opted to do that. So yeah, we cooperated with them, we helped them book some of their shows, and they paid to bring in certain acts. But they pushed it too far when they tried to do Lady Gaga there last year.
JS: At the parking lot outside of Carmello’s Italian restaurant?
RS: Yeah, and the thing about it is that vending machine structure took up almost all of the parking lot. The amount of space for bodies in there was pretty tiny, really. Sadly, that’s one of the things that brands want—they want a mob scene, they want a line down the street, they want to reward people by getting them in to build brand loyalty.
JS: Does the Roland Swenson who went to a Sex Pistols show in San Antonio in 1978 and had his life changed still exist? Is there any part of that Roland Swenson still around who looks at a giant Doritos vending machine thinking, “This is what people think of when they think of my festival,” and is bugged at all by that?
RS: [Laughs.] I think the Roland Swenson that went to the Sex Pistols is still around. Did the Doritos thing bother me? Not as much as I thought it would. In a way, I thought it was kind of a hoot. But it was what they were doing with it that bugged me the most. The first year we were in there, all of a sudden they were shooting fireworks off of it, and that was something we expressly said: “You cannot do any pyrotechnics.” That’s one of our big rules—“No pyrotechnics anywhere”—and suddenly they’re shooting fireworks off of it and we’re going, “What the hell—what are you doing?” And they had just gone down to the fire department and gotten a permit to shoot off fireworks. How did that happen? I don’t know. So, at this point, I’ve been vilified, insulted, castigated for thirty years. I have pretty thick skin, so it really takes a lot to make me embarrassed.
JS: You mentioned earlier that, because of the laws in the books, the city had no way to turn down a lot of these things. Has there been any movement in the city to change those laws so that the city can get better control?
RS: One of the things that happened right at the end of the outgoing city council was that they passed an ordinance that gave some legal cover for the city bureaucrats to say no. There’s this guy Don Pitts—he was the city music liaison—and he was the one that said no to Doritos when they wanted to put Lady Gaga there, and he really climbed out on a limb to do that. Now he’s got some backup. I’m not trying to get rid of stuff as much as I’m trying to keep it from all happening in the same spot. That’s my goal.
JS: Let’s get off music for a little bit. Interactive now has more registrants than music, I think.
RS: Yeah, it’s been that way for a while.
JS: And Film isn’t that far behind. I would have to imagine that putting on a music fest is exponentially more complicated and labor-intensive than putting on a film festival and conference and an interactive conference. Would I be right about that?
RS: Interactive is pretty complicated. But they’re primarily dealing with speakers’ making presentations and we’re dealing with two thousand bands each representing six to ten to twenty people. So yeah, it’s pretty complicated, just the staging of it and all of that. Yeah, it’s really complicated.
JS: Is Music also more profitable?
JS: Is Interactive the most profitable at this point?
JS: By a mile?
RS: I don’t know. The associated costs are lower. But it’s all part of the mix, you know? Would Interactive have grown to the size it is if there’d been no Music? I think not.
JS: So you never think, “Man, this music thing is just too tough. Film and Interactive are easier and they make a lot of money. Let’s just bail on the music.”
RS: Nah, it’s our soufflé, you know?
JS: I have trouble keeping track of what Interactive is at this point.
RS: Me too.
JS: If you had to explain what Interactive is to my mom, how would you describe it?
RS: Well, it’s about technology and new ideas. That’s really what it’s about.
JS: How much of it is hardware as opposed to people talking about things?
RS: When we first started the interactive thing, it was all about CD-ROMS. Early on we had Todd Rundgren as a keynote speaker, and he got up on stage and said to a room full of developers of content for CD-ROMS, “The CD-ROM is dead. Everything is going to live on the Internet,” and they were pissed. Of course that turned out to be true. So, Interactive sort of grew with the tech bubble until the end of the last century and then it sort of collapsed. When Web 2.0 started—or social media or whatever you want to call it started—then that became a driving force for Interactive. Then the Twitter launch made it explode. So what is it about? It’s about social media. But it’s also about all kinds of endeavors and how they interact with social media and technology.
JS: Where do you think the film fest stands compared to other film fests around the country, around the world? Do you think it’s gotten to a point where it’s ranked pretty high in terms of major film festivals?
RS: It was never our goal to be the new Sundance or anything like that. Typically when you see stories on the top ten film festivals in the world, we’re on that list, usually the upper half of that list. But it’s a unique beast. It’s the only film festival that has the kind of conference programming that we do and it also has a big TV component, which is different than most of the festivals. It interacts with Music a lot too, which is unique and what we wanted. Like I said, we didn’t want to be the new Sundance or anything like that.
JS: Indiewire called it the fourth-most-important film festival in the world, which just kind of stunned me. They chalked it up to the synergy between Music, Interactive, and Film. Was that sort of the grand plan?
RS: Yeah. We started out with the music event in 1987. And then around 1993 we began the first of many conversations trying to figure out what entertainment was going to be like in the twenty-first century. We knew music would still be around, we knew movies would still be around. And the music conference came along right at the time the Macintosh arrived and, along with that, desktop publishing. At the time I was working at the Austin Chronicle, which was extremely analog—we had a typesetting machine, we had a waxer that we pasted up the boards with. So we were very much from that background, so when desktop publishing arrived, we were like, “Oh my god,” you know? We used the Chronicle’s computer that they used for billing the first year, and then we drafted Hugh Forrest [now the director of SXSW Interactive] who had a Mac II and a laser printer, and kind of never looked back. We had a computer on every desk, I think, pretty early for most companies. Anyways, it’s 1994, we’re looking at how much we’ve been impacted by technology—I think I had gotten my first email address around then, and our first website went up around then—so we knew there was something that was going to happen. So we decided to add these two new components to what we were doing. And we did them separately because we wanted them to stand on their own. We didn’t want to have a film festival where there were lots of music films and lots of music people went. We wanted to have a film festival where filmmakers went and where film industry people went, and the same with Interactive and the developers and all of that. But as it all grew, everything kept getting closer and closer together.
JS: So they started off actually separated, no overlap?
RS: The first year they were all at the same time, on the same weekend. One of the things that happened was we’d been in the Hyatt and they had just opened the Convention Center, so we were moving Music into the Convention Center because we had outgrown the Hyatt. We still had all of this space in the Hyatt and we thought what are we going to do this? And that’s when we started really thinking about doing something else.
JS: Has there ever been any thought to separate them to make it more manageable?
RS: I think we’d go in the other direction.
JS: Have more overlap between them?
JS: What would be the benefit of that?
RS: I think it would just be acknowledging the fact that the separations between those three disciplines are shrinking all of the time. The biggest music company in the world is a tech company.
JS: Meaning Apple?
JS: But wouldn’t it be even more difficult for people wanting to see films to get hotel rooms and such if Music and Interactive are at the same time? It would seem like that would be a logistical nightmare to have all of them going on at once.
RS: I guess we’ll find out.
JS: Are we going to find out?
RS: We’re already heading in that direction. We have this big track that we call “Convergence,” which covers topics that are pertinent to multiple events and that any badge can get you into, and we’re already doing those right in the middle of the conference. So I think we’ll probably end up spreading out more from there and as more hotels come online in Austin. Like I said, I think we probably have leveled off in our growth. I think we can make it work.
JS: Right now, starting from when Film and Interactive begin to the end of Music, that’s ten days. If you start with SXSWEdu, it’s fourteen days. How much would you be compressing things to have them all at the same time?
RS: I think we would make the whole event just last longer.
JS: Oh, okay. I thought you were talking about compressing it.
RS: No, no, no.
JS: So Edu and Eco are fairly recent additions to your lineup, right?
JS: Are those profitable at this point?
RS: EDU is the strongest one, because we had a real clear vision for that and we also found the right guy to run it who had a twenty-year history in education. So it took off like a shot. It’s also leveling off a little bit too. Eco, you know, is exciting, the people that go really like it. But, no, it’s not really profitable.
JS: They’re both intended to be profitable and not you showing off your do-gooder side?
RS: I’d like to do good and be profitable.
JS: You said Edu was the stronger of the two, but you didn’t specifically say that it was profitable.
RS: It pays for itself. One of the advantages for an event that we start like Edu is that it is able to sort of graft on to all of these systems that are already operating in place, like the hotel reservations and the planning department and the sales department. A lot of those costs are sort of preexisting, covered by other activity.
JS: If something like Eco never gets profitable, at some point do you ax it, or is there an advantage to keeping it for your brand?
RS: We’ve axed events before, so I don’t know. It depends. I think with us a lot of it will be determining whether we’re accomplishing our goals and people need it or not. If we think that it’s not really doing any good, then we’d probably stop doing it.
JS: Are there any other festivals that you guys are thinking of launching?
RS: No. After we did Eco and Eco and V2V really close together, I promised everybody, “No, no new events.”
JS: How is V2V doing?
RS: I think we had a little bit of a sophomore slump there. But I still believe in the idea, and Vegas is a great place to do an event.
JS: Could you tell me why you chose not to do that one in Austin?
RS: Uh, the Vegas convention bureau wrote us a big check.
JS: Fair enough. Are there any ideas for festivals you guys considered but decided not to do?
RS: Not so much. We use to do the one in Portland [NXNW], and we stopped doing that just because it was too big of a pain in the ass and the people in Portland are too cool for us.
JS: How so?
RS: They were just too cool for us, what can I say? It turned out to be fortuitous because the year we canceled, the dates we were holding were September 13 to the 15, 2001. That could have pulled the whole company down.
JS: You wouldn’t have had insurance that would have covered you?
RS: Not for something like that, no.
JS: What do you think SXSW as an organization don’t get enough credit for?
RS: Nobody ever says, “Wow, look at those guys. They found a way to book three hundred bands no one’s ever heard of, one hundred and fifty movies with directors that nobody knows about.” All they do is focus on, “Oh, there’s too many big names, there’s too many famous people, they sold out,” and stuff like that. The reason we can do things like that is because we can attract the bigger names to the event, that’s what pays for the unknowns.
JS: So you don’t get enough credit for . . .?
RS: Still doing that. People say, “Ah, it use to be for Austin, now it’s not.” Well, we had more bands from Austin playing than we did the first year.
JS: I’ve lived in this town for almost twenty years, and for as long as I’ve been here I’ve heard people say that (A) Austin isn’t what it use to be, it isn’t what it was ten years ago, and (B) SXSW isn’t what it used to be ten years ago. What is your standard response when people say, “You’ve sold out,” or “You don’t care about the music anymore”?
RS: I usually just agree with them. [Laughs.] Yeah, Austin was better back then. So was SXSW. But it is what it is.
JS: Better in what way?
RS: Well, it was more manageable and it was fun. Nothing’s not manageable or not fun now, it’s just different. I grew up in Austin, and to all of these people that came here in ’95 and are bummed out, I say, “Oh, you should have been here in ’75. It was really great then.” And it was, you know? It’s really changed and a lot of bad things have come along, but a lot of really good things too.
JS: We’re sitting here in your office and we’re in the shadow of these giant apartment buildings, like something you might see in Miami, not something you would have seen in Austin before ten years ago. Do you ever look around at this and think about what sort of role you and organization have had in changing Austin?
RS: This path was laid out a long time ago. In the fifties the city fathers set a goal of, like, “Let’s find nonpolluting industries that we can encourage to come here,” so they focused in on technology. So they got IBM to come here and all of these other tech companies, and that’s why they call that road up north Research Boulevard, because they all used to be up there. This whole thing has been growing for a long time. A lot of work on the Texas Instruments pocket calculator was done here in Austin, the early silicone chips, right here. So we’ve been on the cusp of this for a long time. Even all of these buildings are by design. The city decided, like ten years ago, that they didn’t want to see the city sprawl with a ring of high rises around the perimeter of the city. They wanted a compact city. So they came up with these development codes that encouraged this kind of building, which is mixed-use retail on the ground floor, offices above that, and residences above that. So that’s what all of these buildings are. When I was in high school, they usee to roll up the sidewalks in downtown Austin at five-thirty, it was dead.
JS: Even in ’96 I remember it being sort of that way.
RS: I think back to my father, who graduated from Austin High in 1953, and the only choices he had were to get a state job or work in a shop. That was it. He didn’t want to do that, so we lived a lot of other places. Even when I got out of college there weren’t really any jobs. But I was stubborn enough to think that I could support myself working with rock and roll bands and stuff like that. Was that better before? I don’t know.
JS: I wasn’t saying, “Do you feel responsible for terrible things that have happened?” I don’t feel that way about Austin at all. I just meant you guys have put Austin on the map to a certain extent.
RS: I don’t know how much I buy into that. I think we mirrored Austin’s growth. I don’t think we caused it.
JS: You don’t think you’ve accelerated it at all?
RS: Not really, no. What accelerated it was all of these software companies that started, and all of these people from California who moved here to work for them. In the last fifteen years we’ve gotten a new airport, we’ve gotten a new convention center, we’ve gotten all of these new hotels. That didn’t happen just because of us. We were part of it, sure.
JS: I don’t know if I’m an unusual example, but I can’t imagine if I’d have ever thought to move here if a lot of my music fan friends hadn’t come for SXSW and told me what a great town it was. I just don’t think it would have been on my radar.
RS: I can’t have that perception, since I was born here.
JS: You got into SXSW as a music enthusiast 28 years ago. Is music still as essential to your life as it was back then?
RS: I was in college and my friend, my roommate—we went to the same high school—and he started a band; the band got really popular and it was getting more and more complicated. Then he said, “Hey, will you manage the band?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” That really got me into the music. So I did that for six or seven years and then got to this point where I was like, “Oh, my god. I’m trapped in the music business. How do I get out?” So I went to work for the Austin Chronicle, which had started like three years before, because that was one of my other interests—media and newspapers and stuff like that. But because I had the music background I became the guy at the Chronicle who helped put together sponsored shows and stuff like that. Then SXSW started as kind of a sponsored activity of the Chronicle. I don’t know if you asked that question but I just told you.
JS: My question was basically, Are you still as much of a music enthusiast as you were when you started?
RS: I love music. I certainly don’t listen to it as much as I used to. My daughter now is a musician, so I go to her shows and that’s really strange.
JS: What kind of music does she play?
RS: She’s kind of a neo-folkie. She fell in with this group of kids, and this is actually not my doing, but she fell in with this group of kids who sort of revolve around [the Austin musician] Jon Dee Graham’s son, William, who puts together these shows of teenage performers that play from time to time—a little bit less now that his own band is kind of taking off. So she started doing shows with them, and one thing led to another.
JS: I remember when I saw you and your daughter at a party a year or two ago; she was wearing an Elvis Costello T-shirt, and I thought, “There probably aren’t too many kids her age who know who Elvis Costello is, much less are fans.” Has it been important to you to pass on the music you loved when you were growing up?
RS: Well, sure. But also when she started listening to music she had our records to listen to. And of course her mom and I are huge Costello fans, so we were like, “Oh, you should listen to this.” It didn’t take a lot of encouragement on our part.
JS: Do you keep up with much contemporary music at this point?
RS: Contemporary? No. I don’t know anything about pop music.
JS: So you don’t have much of a say in what bands are playing?
RS: My taste in music has been completely irrelevant for over twenty years. They come to me when there’s an act from the early eighties and they want to know if they mean anything or not, and sometimes I’ll go, “Yeah,” and some of them I go, “I don’t know.”
JS: Do you ever go to a SXSW show and think, “What is this noise these kids are listening to?”
RS: No, I don’t think like that. As square as I might be, I probably know more about what’s going on than most of the parents of my daughter’s schoolmates. But not always.
JS: What’s your favorite musical memory of SXSW?
RS: Well, there’s a bunch. It’s hard not to point to the whole Johnny Cash thing, which was a real pivotal event for us because it was really the first time that a major artist came to SXSW to use it for what it was meant to be used for, a way to market yourself and a way to reposition yourself, which was what he was doing at the time. He had just been signed by [producer] Rick Rubin and was working on these records and he knew he needed to tap into the youth market, so he came here. And then that kind of became a model for a lot of other bigger acts to come to SXSW and reinvent themselves.
JS: That’s interesting that I asked you about your favorite music memory of SXSW but you didn’t talk about a show that really moved you or really knocked you out, but someone that came here and used the festival for marketing purposes.
RS: But there was the show that he did, which I saw at Emo’s, that was fantastic. I didn’t know that his band was going to be there. I thought it was just going to be him doing his new acoustic stuff, and he did it, it was great, then all of a sudden he brings out the Tennessee Three and they launch into all of the Johnny Cash hits and I was like—Johnny Cash was the first concert I ever went to; my parents took me in like 1969 to see him with the Carter family and Carl Perkins, the Statler brothers, and all of those guys.
JS: You weren’t the only one who loved that show—that stool [that Cash sat on] was up on Emo’s wall forever.
JS: If you could go back in time and give young Roland Swenson some advice in 1987 as he was starting up SXSW, what would you tell him?
RS: Hang in there, man. It gets better.
JS: Any unfulfilled wishes for who could be a keynote speaker?
RS: Oh, sure. We have a long list of people who we’re always chasing after. When we got Springsteen, everybody asked, “How’d you get Springsteen?” And I said, “Well, we asked him twenty-five years in a row, and finally he had a reason to do it”—he was launching a new tour and a new record, and Clarence Clemons had died, so a lot of his fan base were like, “It’s not really the E Street Band without Clarence.” So he needed to (1) show them that it would be and (2) also honor Clarence, which he was able to do.
JS: Is there still a fish that you haven’t caught yet?
RS: It’s obvious enough, c’mon.
RS: I’ll jinx it if I say it.
JS: Well, maybe they’ll read this interview and be moved.
RS: I don’t think so, although you never know. I read this story about the Reading Festival in England, right? So the Rolling Stones played it a couple years ago, and there were all of these stories saying, “Oh, the Rolling Stones never played Reading but now they are.” So somebody said, why did you decided to play Reading? And Jagger said, “Well, they invited us.” They never had before.
JS: So, Jagger and Richards?
RS: Hey, if they want to come that’d be great.
JS: Any questions that I didn’t ask you that I should have?
RS: Yeah, probably. But I was told not to answer hypothetical questions.