In times past, the second weekend of SXSW would tilt toward anarchy. The attractions of the event’s early days—the tech conference and the film festival—would recede, the snaking lines of attendees transplanted from downtown to the security gate at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport as they made their way back to L.A. or New York or San Francisco or London or Singapore or Berlin or Sydney or Tokyo. In their place would be a younger, rowdier crowd. It would be made up of musicians from all of those cities and more, as well as their handlers, fans, and hangers-on, plus a veritable army of spring breakers drawn by an improbable premise: free performances by thousands of artists, including some of the most famous pop stars in the world, with the bar tab paid by one corporate behemoth or another, which would sweeten the pot with mountains of free barbecue and pizza.
In 2022, most of that was considerably quieter. The brand activations that popped up during SXSW’s first weekend—paid for primarily by crypto companies and streaming services—had mostly come down by Monday or Tuesday. In times past, the tiny wonderlands erected on parking lots by Amazon or Peacock would quickly be replaced by new, music-themed ones paid for by McDonald’s or Red Bull. But not this year. This year, the parking lots mostly reverted back to parking lots by the second weekend.
The pandemic throws all of this into sharp relief, of course. It’s been three years since we’ve had a real, in-person SXSW, and the dynamics of 2022 have been difficult to navigate. The omicron wave was in full swing in December and January, which was precisely the time when artists needed to make plans about whether to attend. Since SXSW is rarely a moneymaking venture for musicians on its own, many who do appear schedule the festival into their existing tour plans, which had been disrupted. As a result, both the official and unofficial music events at SXSW 2022 were significantly scaled back.
But it would be off base to attribute this strictly to the pandemic. The era of ever-expanding growth for SXSW Music began to taper off in the years before COVID. The level of hype from the mid-2010s, when the biggest stars in the world really might just pop in for a surprise set (Drake, the Foo Fighters, Kanye, Lady Gaga, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen all played the festival between 2011 and 2016), proved to be unsustainable. The headliners dropped from acts that could pack a soccer stadium on any continent to slightly more appropriate stars for a fest whose biggest venues max out at fewer than three thousand guests, such as Lana Del Rey or Solange.
This year, even those acts mostly stayed home. Beck, Dolly Parton, and rising Houston rapper Don Toliver represented the apex of SXSW Music 2022. (There were also concerts by Kygo, Shawn Mendes, and Young Thug that sold tickets to the general public.)
It wasn’t just the names that represented a change in the size from times past. The critical mass of money and talent that made it inevitable for Bud Light to set up the Roots as a house band at a bar somewhere, or for McDonald’s to foist free fries and an hour-long set by Khalid on fans, just wasn’t there this year. There was nary a Hype Hotel or a Fader Fort to be seen.
Given the slowdown from the 2016 era of Peak SXSW, it’s possible that this would have been the trajectory of SXSW Music in 2022 even without the pandemic. And that represents an interesting opportunity for the festival whose inflection point has been a long time coming: the shrinking scope of the festival may have been in motion pre-COVID, but walking around downtown Austin during the fest’s second weekend, it was obvious that pandemic-era uncertainty was responsible for the dark venues and emptier-than-normal streets. If brands and artists see 2022 as an aberration that was brought on by the uncertainty of the omicron winter, then it’s certainly easy to imagine the festival roaring back to life next year.
For an example of that, one needn’t look very far. The music portion of the event may have shrunk this year, but SXSW Film was a huge success. Big-name premieres returned with stars in tow, while the fest’s prestige among younger and independent filmmakers was undiminished. For much of its life, SXSW Film was a younger sibling to the tech conference and music festival, but its stature has shot up over the past decade—and now it might be the most successful part of the entire show.
SXSW Film head Janet Pierson personally introduced a seemingly endless stream of films over the course of nine days, bringing out stars such as Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage, Donald Glover, Dakota Johnson, and Michelle Yeoh for premieres. After years of virtual film festivals, the SXSW audience members seemed downright emotional at the fact that they were able to gather together. There may have been fewer of them at times—smaller screenings that might have sold out pre-pandemic were instead half full—but the biggest films still packed the house. Pierson choked back tears introducing opening night headliner Everything Everywhere All at Once; Johnson, introducing Cha Cha Real Smooth from Dallas wunderkind Cooper Raiff, which she coproduced, mentioned that she had never seen the film with an audience before. The lines for the biggest films snaked around the Paramount Theatre as though nothing had changed from before the pandemic.
In the years when SXSW Music was built on cultivating an endless sense of FOMO, or when the seemingly endless budgets of SXSW Interactive’s attention-hungry sponsors fueled a sense of toxic entitlement, SXSW Film was always the most grounded part of the event. The filmmakers and audiences at the film festival mostly just wanted to watch movies together. After three years away, that yearning resulted in an environment that felt downright wholesome—mostly, it seemed like everybody was just happy to be alive, to be together, to be watching movies in a room full of people who would laugh and cheer and cry together (sometimes, as with Everything Everywhere, all at the same time). SXSW Film has long cultivated a reputation as a festival that’s both filmmaker- and audience-friendly, and it’s likely that rep will only grow after its in-person return.
It’ll be hard to say if that’s the case with SXSW Interactive. The tech conference—which is also a politics/sports/health/media/food conference—was in a weird spot in 2022. Many of the tech companies that would, in times past, buy badges so their teams could use the conference as a networking opportunity are still on travel freezes because of the pandemic. Government figures who used it as a chance to grow their platforms mostly sat it out. A conference that once attracted Barack Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders topped out in 2022 with the Secretary of Transportation. And the fest’s focus on Web3 and all things crypto didn’t exactly set crowds ablaze with excitement. Mark Zuckerberg appeared, but not in person—attendees only saw his big head on a screen, a horrifying glimpse of the metaverse that awaits us.
SXSW Interactive could well rebound, perhaps even more successfully than the fest’s music portion, if and when travel budgets and in-person events return to the tech business. But it’s not quite a sure thing, simply because of the sea change happening within the industry right now. It would be hard to describe the Web3 presence at SXSW 2022 as a rousing success, which might give pause to those expecting it to represent the true future of tech. Despite spending heavily, NFT-themed activations were not the hottest tickets in town, to put it lightly—brands with names like FLUF and Blockchain Creative Labs and STOI spent big money on activations that were sparsely attended and awkwardly staged. Crypto skepticism became a theme of the conference, both officially and unofficially, as advertisers plastered their logos next to slogans like “Brunch is for cocktails, not crypto” and “NFTs are for noobs,” tapping into the mood of many of the attendees. It all raised a question: if a SXSW crowd that ought to be crypto’s chief audience isn’t lining up to early adopt, exactly who will be?
That’s the sort of question that, in times past, would get worked out, in part, at SXSW. The festival’s ability to make or break new technologies is real, at least to a certain extent. The SXSW-spurred widespread adoption of Twitter in 2007 effectively launched the app, while the festival audience’s embrace of livestreaming video in 2015 legitimately helped change the trajectory of social media. By the standards of previous SXSW darlings such as Foursquare, Meerkat, and Twitter, Web3 is so far a bit of a flop. That matters for the festival because those blockchain dollars (or Bit- and Dogecoins) will be an important part of SXSW’s financial ecosystem in the years to come, because it’s where so much tech money currently resides. If it turns out that throwing a big party and hoping everyone there will leave a crypto convert doesn’t work, companies with bloated blockchain budgets might not keep coming back.
Still, it’s hard to draw too many firm conclusions from the size and scope of SXSW 2022. The festival looked different this year, which was inevitable—the number of special-event permit applications as of early February was down from early 2020 by nearly 50 percent, as the uncertainty of omicron made it impossible for anyone to say with absolute certainty that there would even be a SXSW 2022. The fact that there was—and that it felt more or less like SXSW usually feels, with music and movies and conversations about the future happening amid a backdrop of Bel Air–themed basketball shoot-outs, Amazon Prime–sponsored burgers, Cheetos-branded parties, and endless rivers of White Claw—is impressive on its own. SXSW 2022 might not have felt normal, but what’s more normal in 2022 than that?