Hugh Forrest, the Force Behind SXSW Interactive.
By Andy East, Photos by Andrew Chan
As the South By Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi) gears up for its 21st installment, tens of thousands of übercreatives, up-and-coming tech tycoons and venture capitalists are set to once again turn the Live Music Capital in to a launch pad for tomorrow’s movers and shakers of the tech world. Although more than 30,000 people attended SXSWi last year, the annual “spring break for geeks” has not always been the headline grabber it is now. Buckle up as ATX Man winds back the clock to give you an inside peak at how Hugh Forrest, the director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, transformed a conference for geeks in to the hottest ticket in town, as we preview this year’s slate.
The Right Technology at the Right Time
Landing a job is never easy, and landing a job directing a tech conference with Texas-sized ambitions sounds like no exception. It would be no stretch of the imagination to envisage fierce competition and an arduous interview process before being handed the reins of a conference like the South By Southwest Interactive Festival, but as Hugh Forrest, the director of South By Southwest Interactive Festival, recounts, his path to heading up SXSWi could not have been more different. In fact, according to Forrest, he got the job simply because he owned a computer. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from Kenyon College in Ohio, Forrest, a native Austinite, returned to Austin in 1984 and founded The Austin Challenger, an alternative newspaper that competed with The Austin Chronicle.
“I always joke that it was mainly alternative because it never really came out when it was supposed to come out,” Forrest says. “But if you remember what the print industry was like 30 years ago, in the mid-80s, one of the biggest expenses of doing a newspaper or a magazine was typesetting.”
Typesetting is the art of creating and arranging text to later be printed, often in mass quantities for publications like newspapers or magazines. Although it may be hard to imagine what the typesetting industry was like before the click-type-and-print days of ubiquitous desktop publishing software, typesetting was often viewed as an expensive, tedious and painstaking process.
“Typesetting machines took up entire rooms and you had to go to a typesetting shop and they would output your copy and you would get back these galleys and you would wax them down,” Forrest says. “And my dad had at one point said to me, ‘There is this new thing called a LaserWriter that will output fairly printfriendly copy.’ My dad said this because I was borrowing a lot of money from him for the newspaper and I think his idea was that maybe this would make it cheaper and I wouldn’t be borrowing so much from him.”
“But I was in my early 20s and, of course, I said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” Forrest continues. “But after two or three months, as most things happen, you realize that your dad probably understands more about this stuff than you do. We ended up getting a LaserWriter and a Mac Plus computer, and that was my entry in to South By Southwest.”
The year was 1988 and Austin, much like the U.S. technological landscape, was very different. The population of the Capital City had just eclipsed 460,000, less than 15 percent of American households owned a computer and SXSW was a nascent music festival, showcasing nearly 200 bands and attracting about 700 registrants in its inaugural year. Even though attendance had surpassed expectations, SXSW was a far cry from the three-fold spectacle it is today, as SXSW Interactive and Film were not yet on the drawing board.
“South By Southwest was using The Austin Chronicle’s typesetting machine for storing all of their records,” Forrest says. “I knew the folks at The Austin Chronicle. Our publications were friendly competitors, and about 10 days before the second South By Southwest, I got a call from them. ‘Can we put our database on one computer?’ they asked. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what computers are for.’ Then there was a pause in the phone conversation and they say, ‘How about your computer?’ “I got hired more because I had the computer and the Laser- Writer than for other stuff. At that point, there was this one Mac Plus computer that was essentially powering all of South By Southwest. I often say that was our early lesson in the importance of having the right technology at the right time.”
Released in 1986, the Mac Plus was a revelation in the computing world. It sold for $2,599 and boasted an 8-megahertz processor, a 3.5- inch floppy drive and one megabyte of RAM. Although at the time it was cutting-edge, it contained approximately 162 times less processing power than the iPhone 5.
“I remember walking in one day and there was smoke coming out of the top of the thing,” Forrest says. “But we somehow recovered from that and despite the smoke coming out of the top of the machine, I guess I had impressed Roland Swenson [co-founder of SXSW] enough that he wanted to bring me on full time year round.”
“By nature of me having this Mac Plus and this LaserWriter, I got tagged as the tech person, which is a complete misnomer because I can barely turn my computer on. And in ’94, when we added on to the music event what was a combined film and multimedia conference, I was tapped to help lead the multimedia portion of this event.”
This offshoot of the music festival, christened the SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference, marked a turning point in the history of SXSW, and would later blossom in to one of the largest tech conferences in the world.
Rise of the Geeks
On March 16, 1994, nearly 300 registrants descended upon the halls and conference rooms of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on the corner of Barton Springs Road and South Congress Avenue to attend the inaugural SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference. Registration was $125 for the three-day event and there were eight panel discussions and 36 speakers on topics ranging from CD-ROMs, to the future role of multimedia in creative industries.
“We were very focused on how this new, burgeoning field of multimedia was going to improve education. A lot of those early panel sessions and presentations were focused on how technology and how specifically multimedia and how specifically CD-ROMs, which were the most cutting-edge at that time, were going to make education better,” Forrest says. “In some ways, we were very far ahead of our time by combining multimedia and film in to one event. In fact, so far ahead of our time that after one year, we split them off in to two separate events.”
The next year, the geeks reappeared under a new name, the SXSW Multimedia Conference, and showed immediate potential for growth, with attendance more than tripling from 300 more than 1,000. Nevertheless, the noobs on the SXSW scene were still third string behind the rock and film stars. But the sagely patience of SXSW management to let SXSW Multimedia find its groove would pay dividends, placing SXSW at the epicenter of an unprecedented tech revolution just a few years later.
“When we were really struggling to grow and find our voice, I remember telling people on my staff, my friends and my family, ‘There’s no way. We can’t even compete against ourselves,’ ” Forrest says. “SXSW Music brings in rock stars. Film brings in film stars. All I have got are these geeks and who cares about geeks? “There have been many, many factors for our success. One of which was that we didn’t have the pressure in that first year of ‘it’s got to fund itself.’ If it was a standalone event, I don’t think it ever would have survived. SXSW Music was essentially paying the bills for many, many years for Interactive.”
As the SXSW Multimedia Conference continued to shuffle through names before settling on the SXSW Interactive Festival in 1998, the conference continued its surge in to a new millennium, echoing the meteoric rise of the Internet and the incipient convergence of once disparate creative industries, until 2004, when SXSWi ventured in to a new arena: social media.
“The first big push in to social media was in 2004,” Forrest says. “We were very lucky that we became an epicenter for social media. Jonathan Abrams was one our keynote speakers in 2004 and founder of this website called Friendster, a precursor to MySpace and Facebook.”
Founded in 2002, Friendster is often touted as the first modern social networking website. Although it has since been supplanted by social network juggernauts like MySpace and Facebook, Friendster is still around, having made inroads in Southeast Asia after being bought by Malaysian e-payment firm MOL Global, and later revamped in to a social gaming platform. While the names and faces have changed, once ignited, the social media revolution was implacable, and in the early 2000s, it was just beginning to rev its engines.
“Our ultimate tipping point was in 2007 when Twitter essentially launched here. You have said ‘essentially’ because they didn’t really launch here. They had been out for eight months beforehand but they hadn’t achieved much usership at that point,” Forrest says. “When they came to SXSW, they had a big spike in usership and, given what Twitter has become years later, I think that the history of Twitter finding its mojo and audience at SXSW has been a huge factor in our growth. “For the people who were there in 2007 when Twitter made their mark, it was a really neat thing, but I would say that no one in 2007 could have possibly imagined what Twitter would eventually grow to, and that’s fairly typical of an event like SXSW, meaning that there will be a technology that catches on with the registrants here and registrants think it’s the coolest thing in the world, but maybe it never catches on with the outside world. And I think the same thing can be said on the music and film side. There’ll be a band that plays here and they’re the greatest band in the world and they are going to go out and conquer the world but for whatever reason, it doesn’t happen. This is one of the cases, with Twitter, that wow, it did happen.”
During the 2007 SXSWi, Twitter reported that its web traffic increased three-fold from 20,000 to 60,000 messages (or Tweets) per day. By 2010, the Twittersphere was buzzing with more than 50 million Tweets per day, and as of last year, that number had mushroomed to more than 500 million (about 5,700 Tweets per second). By 2008, the social media pandemonium was hitting its stride, sparking a hodgepodge of new innovations, ideas and startups, many of which would appear at SXSWi and rival some of the defining moments in the conference’s history, even though not all of these moments turned out as planned.
“There have also been some defining moments that haven’t been necessarily great. Mark Zuckerberg [co-founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook] was our keynote speaker in 2008,” Forrest says. “And unfortunately, it didn’t go as well as anyone would have liked it to go. But for better or worse, it got a ton of attention and helped get the SXSW name out there.”
“What was fascinating about this from a cultural and technological perspective was that it was an early and powerful demonstration of how connected devices can change a crowd dynamic. And what I mean by that is that in previous years and previous decades, you might have gone to the speech and said, ‘This is kind of boring, but maybe it is just me.’ But with the Zuckerberg keynote, what was different was that people were communicating in real time via their smartphones, saying, ‘This isn’t good.’ All of a sudden, you had people in the audience talking to each other via smart phone or computer realizing that it’s not just me, it’s them. About halfway through the talk, a lot of the audience got up and left. We’ve been lucky enough to grow a lot in the last decade, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have lots and lots of improvements we have to make. South By Southwest is a work in progress.”
While the Zuckerberg keynote may have disappointed, it did not dissuade the growing base of dedicated attendees from returning, and with tech startups springing up like Starbucks, SXSWi was able to cast an increasingly wider net and reel in even more high-tech innovators.
“In 2009, Foursquare and Gowalla did actually launch at South By Southwest. Those were big things. I don’t think that Foursquare has achieved the same mass adoption that Facebook or Twitter has, but it made a fairly large dent and continues to have lots of possibilities,” Forrest says. “That startup mythology has such a powerful message in our society. Who is going to be the Mark Zuckerberg? Who is going to be this teenager who develops a new technology that changes the world? We have benefited very strongly from the power of that message.”
Since 2009, word-of-mouth has kept spreading and attendance has kept soaring. In 2010, the geeks reached the apex of SXSW, surpassing SXSW Music and SXSW Film in attendance for the first time, with more than 14,000 registrants. Since then, attendance has doubled, with more than 30,000 registrants from 57 countries attending SXSWi last year.
“Geeks have become cool,” Forrest says. “There has been this complete shift in the last 10 or 15 years in which people like Mark Zuckerberg, the founders of Twitter, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs have become cultural icons that so many people look up to. Fifteen years ago, I would have never imagined this popularization and romanticization of geek culture.”
All Tomorrow’s Party
If the sky was once the limit, SXSW Interactive must have stormed past it years ago. While the conference’s rise to prominence has made headlines throughout the world, its precipitous growth has also prompted debates on the event’s size and speculation on what the future has in store.
“We’ve begun to hit some real limits in terms of our growth. When I say that, I just mean hotel and lodging capacity. But you also have to say, wait a second, in 2015, we have this new JW Marriot opening up downtown, and we’ve got the Fairmont that will be theoretically online in 2016. The city is growing in part due to events like South By Southwest, Circuit of the Americas or ACL Fest. In the long term, I think there can be a little more growth,” Forrest says.
“But I think the challenges, problems and issues that we have in terms of growth at South By Southwest Interactive are kind of a microcosm of Austin in terms of growth. Austin is this great city, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. and everyone wants to move here, but how much does that rapid growth decrease the things that made Austin special? Those are the same questions we have at South By Southwest Interactive. When you continue to grow, does that in any way weaken the experience that people have at South By Southwest?”
“Personally, I think that Austin and South By Southwest Interactive have scaled pretty well. As crowded as it can be at times and as difficult as it can be to get around the city during South By Southwest, what the city has at that time of the year that it doesn’t have as much of at other times of the year is a factor of density. And that is what all of these startup and tech companies want. They want to be able to every 15 feet run in to another [venture capitalist]who can potentially fund them, or a developer who may want to help work on their startup or their nonprofit.”
During its 21-year history, SXSWi has constantly been in flux, adding an ever-evolving slate of festivities under its auspices, including the SXSW Web Awards in 1998, SXSW Gaming Expo in 2006 (originally titled SXSW ScreenBurn), the SXSW Startup Village in 2012 and this year’s inaugural SXsports programming track. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Forrest is constantly on the hunt for ways to expand and improve, but he has his eyes set on not only expanding the event physically, but also virtually.
“We have to become more of a virtual event and allow more people to experience the event virtually. We’re doing some of that now. We tend to stream some of the keynotes and some of the other sessions, but probably not as much as we need to move to. In some ways in the future, it will be easier to attend and participate in events like SXSW virtually,” Forrest says. “With that said, there is no small degree of irony that as much as we are an event that focuses on new technologies and gadgets, we are in many ways, totally old school. While it’s great to see this new technology, what people really like about it is the chance to have face-to-face meetings with people who can help their career move forward. As much as there is value being able to Tweet or email someone, to date there is no technology that replaces the value of having coffee, a beer or dinner with someone. Those types of connections are what an event like South By Southwest is all about.”
Visit sxsw.com/interactive for more information and to register for the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival.
History of SXSW
1994 SXSW Film and Multimedia Conference
Attendance: 300 people, no keynote speakers
Topics ranged from CD-ROMs to the effect of multimedia on creative industries. Many of the companies showcased were based in Austin, including Human Code.
1997 SXSW Multimedia & Interactive Festival
Attendance: 1,400 people
Dell, Macromedia, Yahoo! and Apple Computers Inc. are showcased at the conference. Pioneering computer scientist Jaron Lanier is among the keynote speakers.
1999 SXSW Interactive Festival
Adobe PhotoShop and eBay are featured in sessions for the first time, and Mark Cuban and musician Phillip Glass are among the keynote speakers.
2000 SXSW Interactive Festival
Mp3.com is showcased, as well as the future role of the Internet in political campaigns with georgebush2000.com. The NASDAQ dot-com bubble bursts on Monday of the conference and Rob Burgess and Kevin Lynch of Macromedia are among the keynote speakers.
2001 SXSW Interactive Festival
Larry Page, the co-founder of rising star search engine Google, is featured in a session. At the time, the future tech giant had just moved out of its original office—a friend’s garage—two years prior. Musician DJ Spooky and Ian Clarke of the Freenet Project shed light on the art of remixing.
2004 SXSW Interactive Festival
Social-network pioneer and founder of Friendster, Jonathon Abrams, marks one of SXSWi’s first dabblings in social media. Legal music downloading service, iTunes, and Sun Microsystems make their first appearance at the conference.
2005 SXSW Interactive Festival
Tom Anderson of MySpace (he was probably your first friend on MySpace) stops by. Happy Cog founder Jeffery Zeldman and author Malcolm Gladwell are among the keynote speakers.
2006 SXSW Interactive Festival
Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia interviews Craig Newmark of Craigslist. Squidoo and Flickr are also at the conference for the first time.
2007 SXSW Interactive Festival
Twitter, a new messaging app, surges in popularity among registrants. Dan Rather is a keynote speaker and last.fm. Pandora Internet Radio, Mozilla and WikiTravel are also at the conference for the first time. SXSW Multimedia Conference Attendance: 1,000 people The first ever keynotes are musician Todd Rundgren and Richard Garriot, video-game designer and astronaut who created the Ultima role-playing game series in the early 1980s and is credited with popularizing the phrase “massively multiplayer online role playing game.” Microsoft also made its first appearance.
2008 SXSW Interactive Festival
Facebook Co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is among the keynotes, nearly ending in a smartphoneinduced riot after disappointment in the crowd due to an awkward interview dynamic. Doubleclick and Island Def Jam Music Group were also present at this year’s SXSWi.
2009 SXSW Interactive Festival
Location-based social networks Gowalla and Foursquare launch. DC Comics and Xbox are also featured in SXSWi sessions.
2010 SXSW Interactive Festival
Co-founder of Twitter, Ev Williams, and Daniel Ek, the founder of music streaming service Spotify, are among the keynote speakers. Pixar Animation Studio, Youtube and Netflix are also showcased during this year’s sessions.
2011 SXSW Interactive Festival
Apple releases the iPad 2 in an impromptu store on Congress Avenue, and innovative accommodation website AirBnB and Rebox are also at this year’s conference.
2012 SXSW Interactive Festival
Startups get their own home for the first time at the inaugural SXSW Startup Village.
2013 SXSW Interactive Festival
Attendance: 30,000: The 2013 installment includes more than 1,800 speakers and 1,000 sessions. Shawn Fanning, co-founder of Napster, is featured at the conference. Founder of SpaceX and TESLA Motors, Elon Musk, athlete Shaquille O’Neal and television host Rachel Maddow are among the keynote speakers. SXSW reaches new heights, giving Austin’s economy a $218 million boost (approximately $11,000 per minute).
2014 SWSW Preview
March 8, Exhibit Hall 5, Austin Convention Center, 2 p.m.
Hitchhike the galaxy and the vast depths of the Universe with People Magazine’s Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive. A regular guest on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Jeopardy!, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and the author of several books, including the New York Times best-seller Death by Black Hose and Other Cosmic Quandaries. With 19 honorary doctorates under his belt (and a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1983), Tyson is sure to impart his knowledge and infectious passion for the mysteries of the cosmos.
A Conversation with Julian Assange
March 8, Exhibit Hall 5, Austin Convention Center, 11 a.m.
With the rise of the Internet during the last 20 years and recent leaks detailing global infringements on communication privacy, never have transparency, privacy and online rights been so important. Don’t miss Julian Assange, the founder of controversial international nonprofit organization WikiLeaks, as he discusses some of the most pressing issues of our times. Assange will speak via video conference from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been holed up for the previous 19 months in an effort to avoid extradition to Sweden out of fear of later being extradited to the U.S. to face charges stemming from the role of WikiLeaks in the release of nearly a quarter million classified U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010.
March 11, Exhibit Hall 5, Austin Convention Center, 2 p.m.
Be sure to join the ex-first daughter and current vice chair of the Clinton Foundation as she brings the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival to a rousing close with the goal of inspiring creatives in attendance to use their world-changing ideas to change the world for the better. Clinton’s work at the Clinton Foundation includes the Clinton Health Access Initiative and Clinton Foundation Day of Action program.
March 10, Exhibit Hall 5, Austin Convention Center, 2 p.m.
Don’t miss out on special-effects artist and executive producer and co-host of Discovery Channel television series Mythbusters, Adam Savage, as he delivers a riveting talk on the scientific method and the creative process. Besides Mythbusters, Savage has also worked on several feature films, including Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and The Matrix Reloaded.
Breaking Great Art Requires Breakthrough Thinking
March 13, Austin Convention Center Room 12AB, 2 p.m.
The times, they are a-changing. The music industry certainly is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Join a panel featuring Steve Savoca, the head of Spotify’s label-relations team, Gerald Casale of new wave band Devo and several others as they discuss how to make money in this brave new world of music.
March 14, Parish Underground
The Music City meets the Live Music Capital in this rollicking lineup of musical acts from the Volunteer State. The famed 500-seat Nashville venue Exit/In has been regaling audiences for decades with acts including Johnny Cash and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and will continue to do so with a SXSW Music Showcase featuring the next generation of musicians from the Athens of the South. The lineup is chockfull of punk and garage rock acts, including The Sword, Dum Dum Girls, Diarrhea Planet, The 1975 and many more.
Lou Reed Tribute Concert
March 14, Paramount Theatre
Come out and take a walk on the wild side in honor of the late Lou Reed. Although Reed lost his battle with liver disease in October, his music and influence will undoubtedly live on, and SXSW Music’s tribute to the former Velvet Underground front man and 2008 SXSW Music keynote speaker is sure to capture the spirit of a true rock-’n’-roll legend.
March 12, Austin Convention Center Room 18ABC, 12:30 p.m.
Don’t miss the chance to learn about the art of crafting songs with the frontman of famed Britpop band Pulp as he sheds light on the art of songwriting.
From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series
March 8, the Vimeo
Don’t miss the chance to catch a prescreening of Robert Rodriguez’s new horror television series based on the 1996 cult classic From Dusk Till Dawn. The series is set to debut on Rodriguez’s English-language television station, El Rey Network.
March 8, Paramount Theatre
Be sure to check out the world premiere of the highly anticipated comedy starring Seth Rogan, Zac Efron and Rose Byrne. Director Nicholas Stoller’s (Fun with Dick and Jane, Get Him to the Greek) new film is sure to be all laughs as a fraternity moves in next door to a couple with a newborn baby.
Jason Blum: CEO of Blumhouse Productions
March 9 and March 10, 11:30 a.m.
Come out and meet the man behind some of the most successful thrillers and horror films in recent years. From Paranormal Activity and Insidious to The Purge, Blumhouse Productions has mastered the art of producing commercially successful films on a tight budget. Paranormal Activity cost a mere $15,000 to make and grossed nearly $193 million worldwide, and several other films from Blumhouse Productions have followed suit.
March 7, Paramount Theatre
Boldly go where no man has gone before, as host Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson takes you on a spellbinding journey through the history of space and time, covering nearly 14 billion years in 13 episodes.
Clinton photo courtesy of Chelsea Clinton. Assange photo by Allen Clarke. Tyson photo by Roderick Mickens. Savage photo courtesy of Adam Savage. Savoca photo by Diana Levine.