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Why SXSW Still
Matters As It Turns 30

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Domnhall Gleeson (left) and Oscar Issac promote their film "Ex Machina" at the 2015 South by Southwest Festival, held in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images; courtesy of SXSW.
Wynonna Judd at the 2015 South by Southwest Festival held in Austin, Texas.
Photo by Amy Price/Getty Images; courtesy of SXSW.
Over The Past Three Decades, South By Southwest Has Transformed From An Indie Music Festival Into a Cultural Icon Filled With Music, Film And More

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By Karen Weil
Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 17, 2016 — What began as a regional festival in Austin, Texas is now an alternative cultural juggernaut: South by Southwest (otherwise known as SXSW) is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Starting March 15, the six-day event will celebrate its third decade with performances and events in numerous venues around Texas’ state capitol.

SXSW is so much more than just a music festival as it features hundreds of musicians, famous or just starting out; artists from the movie world; panels on music and interactive media; and dozens of films, both long and short, offering “a fresh dose of weird, wild, inventive stories from both veteran directors and emerging filmmakers ready to burst onto the scene,” according to festival organizers.

A diverse range of speakers is scheduled, including famed chef Anthony Bourdain, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and director J.J. Abrams, fresh off his directing triumph Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Showcasing artists — 550 in all — include country music legend Loretta Lynn, who has worked with alt-music legend Jack White.  

Texas, of course, is well represented when it comes to musical artists appearing at this year’s festival — but bands come from across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Japan and even the Republic of Mauritania to participate in SXSW.

In what could be a fitting if bittersweet choice, Tony Visconti — the lauded producer and David Bowie confidant who produced Bowie’s last album Black Star — is the keynote speaker.

Along with Bowie’s last opus, Visconti produced his other classic albums Heroes and Young Americans.

Visconti’s work with Bowie alone has cemented his legacy as one of rock’s most important producers, but he has also worked with U2, Thin Lizzy, Luscious Jackson and Morrissey.

Two Arizona artists are also scheduled to appear at the “official” SXSW: Mega Ran (date TBD), a rapper whose latest album is RNDM, and Qais Essar (performing March 17), who specializes in classical Afghan music. Others will be playing many of the “not official” clubs and nightspots.


Over the years, SXSW has also become an important film showcase. The opening night film will be Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some, a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused that focuses on a group of college baseball players in the 1980s facing adult responsibilities.

Other notable films, some of them world premieres, are:

  • Midnight Special, a sci-fi thriller (directed by Jeff Nichols) about a father on the lam to protect his son and learn the truth about his special powers. The film features Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon.
  • Pee-wee's Big Holiday starring — who else? — Paul Reubens, who also co-wrote the screenplay. In the latest film featuring the quasi-subversive pop culture icon, Pee-wee Herman decides to take his first holiday after meeting a mysterious stranger. Directed by John Lee, the movie also stars, Joe Manganiello, Jessica Pohly and Alia Shawkat.
  • Preacher, directed by Seth Rogen and  Evan Goldberg, is a supernatural dark comedy about a West Texas preacher named Jesse Custer, who — along with his ex-girlfriend Tulip and an Irish vagabond named Cassidy — is thrust “into a crazy world, much bigger than he is.” Dominic Cooper, Ruth Negga and Joseph Gilgun star.
  • Beware the Slenderman, directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky, centers around a Boogeyman lurking on the Internet and two 12-year-old girls who would kill for him (which actually did happen in real life).
SXSW is now, undoubtedly, a cultural icon that attracts stars and bigwigs from across music, film and other hot industries. But that wasn’t always the case.

The festival first started in 1987 and only had 700 attendees. By last year’s figures, that number had risen to 51,000.

During that first festival, there were a total of 10 workshops, some of which seem quaint in the age of online music, which included discussion on alternative radio and dealing with major record labels.


Formerly unknown or struggling artists who appeared at earlier SXSW confabs include Billy Ray Cyrus, the Dixie Chicks, Ben Folds Five, Barenaked Ladies and Queens of the Stone Age.


The film world also began paying more attention: By the late 1990s, SXSW played host to Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Matthew McConaughey and Guillermo del Toro, among others.


For more information on the entire SXSW lineup or to attend (packages start at $495), go to sxsw.com.

FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT GET INTO SXSW (or interested in something different):

There is the ninth annual SoWhat? Music Festival, happening March 19 and 20 at QuikTrip Park in Grand Prairie, Texas.


If SXSW is the bridge between mainstream and cutting edge artists, SoWhat? Falls on the very far edge of alternative music. It is also a response to what some critics say is corporatization of SXSW.

Some of the bands scheduled to appear are Bayside, Neck Deep, State Champs, Real Champs, Underoath, Dance Gavin Dance and Beartooth. Ticket prices range from $50 to $350. For more info, go to http://sowhatmusicfestival.com/.
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