For what started as a music festival, SXSW has evolved in a number of directions—but none may be more surprising than its new identity as a top-tier destination for politicians and presidential hopefuls. When the festival announced its “Conversations About America’s Future” series in late February, the reveal came with big news: more than half of the announced candidates for the Democratic nomination for president would be in attendance. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, John Hickenlooper, and Julián Castro were all announced as speakers, along with Republican candidate Bill Weld, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and 2016 candidate and former Ohio governor Jon Kasich. Other Democratic hopefuls like Tulsi Gabbard and John Delaney were scheduled for a CNN Town Hall event, and likely third-party candidate and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is scheduled for an event early on in the festival’s lineup. Add to that the expected presence of Beto O’Rourke—one of the biggest question marks of the Democratic field—at the screening of the documentary film Running With Beto at the Paramount Theatre, and the documentary and panel with freshman congresswoman and social media superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and it seems clear that, at SXSW, politicians are the new rock stars.
At least, that’s the festival’s hope. We caught up with SXSW chief programming officer Hugh Forrest to talk about how the festival’s focus moved in this direction, the challenges with recruiting speakers of both parties, and why he’s treating 2019 as a test case for whether the SXSW audience really wants to watch a bunch of politicians speak.
Texas Monthly: You’ve managed to attract most of the Democratic primary field. How did that come together?
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Hugh Forrest: We found ourselves with a big room in ACL Live that we didn’t have content to fill, and it seemed like a pretty intriguing idea, if we could pull together some of the candidates. We put that against the context that January, February, and early March was when candidates have typically started declaring in the past. Someone pointed out that Obama declared on February 12 when he first ran. So it seemed like a good fit, and I’m excited about some of the candidates we’ve been able to pull together.
TM: How early into the process did you start thinking about bringing together the primary candidates at SXSW?
HF: There were bits and pieces coming in. For instance, we’d been talking to Howard Schultz’s people for quite a long while, and then some of the other ideas started to come together, and it became a little more obvious that we should try to pull it all together. One of the ironies is that Schultz doesn’t want to go over to ACL, so he’ll be on his own at the Convention Center, I believe.
TM: When did the partnership with the Texas Tribune come together?
HF: We’ve worked with the Tribune for many years, and we’ve always had a strong relationship there. Given how much growth we saw at the Tribune Festival this year, and some of the candidates they were pulling in, it made sense to work with them on this. Evan has a huge passion for this kind of content, and he really enjoyed helping out. We’ve enjoyed having him and his database to pull from.
TM: A lot of the candidates hadn’t announced until last month. Were you saving space for candidates, depending on who announced, with the plan that you’d try to get 60 percent of the Democratic field to Austin?
HF: Doing [the booking] relatively late in the game is consistent with a lot of the other big-name speakers that we bring in. To take that to the nth degree, the biggest speaker we had at last year’s event, 2018, was Elon Musk, who fell into our lap the week of the event. That was neat. I’m not sure anything like that will happen this year, or ever again, but the whole idea of trying to plan for SXSW ten months in advance is that you clear space late in the game in case someone like that falls into your lap, whether it’s Elon Musk or a presidential candidate who hadn’t expressed interest before, or who was on the fence about running. You want to be in a position to capitalize on that if it happens late in the game.
TM: ACL Live isn’t doing much with SXSW’s music lineup this year—it’s mostly ticketed shows outside of the festival that week. Venues that used to be music venues for SXSW in the past aren’t this year, and government and politics are moving into those spaces. Does that reflect an evolution of SXSW to you?
HF: I think you phrased that pretty eloquently, yes. We ended up putting Elon Musk in ACL last year, which worked because the space was empty, and worked because it was the biggest space we could put someone [for whom] there was a ton of demand. ACL Live is a beautiful venue, and I think they like to be showcased during SXSW. Whether Elon Musk or presidential candidates or CNN debates sell the same amount of beer that you’d get for the Flaming Lips, that’s a question you’d have to ask them.
TM: Are there hopes around making news because of this? I imagine it would be pretty great for you if Beto O’Rourke shows up for the screening, and then tells the moderator that he’s running for president. Is that something you get the opportunity to do because you’re involved in this space?
HF: If something like that happens, fantastic. That creates real news that comes out of SXSW and helps keep us relevant to a lot of the crowd. The politics stuff interests me, but I’m still not entirely convinced that all of our audience is fascinated by it. It will be interesting to see how well this stuff draws. The politicians who’ve spoken at SXSW before were still kind of hit-or-miss. One of the ones on the schedule last year, Senator Mark Warner, was right in the middle of the Russia investigation, and he did a session that was way underattended. He spoke to about fifty people in a room that could hold three hundred. Part of that is that he had spoken at ten events before then, and a lot of people had seen it, but it’s also indicative that this audience, if you say that it’s a little more tech-focused than the standard audience, how much of that translates over to politics?
TM: Someone like Beto O’Rourke, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, feels very much like a SXSW figure. They’re younger and hipper—you can imagine them doing a DJ set. As far as politicians go, do you think about whose brands are compatible with SXSW?
HF: Yes, definitely. Beto, certainly, and the fact that he’s doing the documentary is further evidence of that. Even more so with AOC, because she has such a social media presence, and SX’s tech rise has been synonymous with social media, so she’s a perfect fit for the event in that sense. So those two make perfect sense for the event. I’m not worried that they’ll be able to draw crowds. It’s a little more challenging with someone like John Kasich.
TM: In the past, there’s been criticism about the lack of Republicans at SXSW. This year, you’ve got some prominent ones. Was that a focus?
HF: We titled the ACL stuff “Conversations About America’s Future,” and the idea was to give us enough room that we could bring in Republicans that had not announced as candidates and may not, but nonetheless have an interesting and relevant viewpoint on this. Overall, there is still a challenge in getting more Republican leaders here. I was talking with Monica [Sack], who runs our government track, before this call to ask her if she wanted to be on it, so she could tell you all the Republicans who turned us down. We continue to try to reach out in a non-partisan way. It is definitely harder to get Republicans here.
TM: Is it easier to get Republicans to participate during a Democratic administration?
HF: I don’t think we had any more luck when Obama was in office. The big win there was, what, four or five years ago at this point, when we had Rand Paul. But we really haven’t had someone of that level since then. It’s frustrating, because we see a lot of criticism that we don’t invite more Republicans. We’d like to see that, but we can only twist their arms so much to get them to come here. That has not worked as well as we’d like. But I hope that if 2019 is successful with the candidates we’re working on at ACL Live, maybe that opens up a door for more of this in 2020, as we get even closer to the November general election, and if Kasich, Bill Weld, and Kevin McCarthy are well received, maybe that opens up the door.
This interview has been edited and condensed.