Hugh Forrest has high hopes for the continuing development of a festival that is -barely recognizable from its early days.
Hugh Forrest has high hopes for the continuing development of a festival that is -barely recognizable from its early days.


The man with a SXSW plan

Since its humble beginnings as an outsider's music event in 1987, SXSW has grown into a behemoth that requires an all year round staff, some of who've been there right from the beginning. Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest has come a long way since the early days of moving boxes and loading crates.

The addition of an interactive element, then labeled multimedia, to the iconic SXSW festival provided a welcome, if not obvious, opportunity for Hugh Forrest, who had been part of the team from the then fledgling festival’s earliest days. He freely admits he was hardly the most qualified person to head up the launch. “I was in the right place at the right time. My experience didn’t stretch too far beyond the fact that I actually owned a computer, but you have to remember that this was at a time when programming and CD-ROMs were still at the infancy stage.”

It would be a steep learning curve for the Austin local who had already been working with SXSW in one form or another, moving boxes, loading crates, doing what needed to be done, since 1989. -Although much has changed since, one thing has remained constant – having Austin as its base and beating heart.

An artist you (probably) don't know - the heart of the SXSW philosophy. Photo: Andrea Dane.

“I think one of the reasons SXSW happened in Austin and has grown up and survived and thrived here is because it has always been one of the most creative cities not just in the US, but the world,” Forrest says. “On top of its creativity, there are a lot of big universities in the town, so there are lots of interesting, young and not-so-young ideas. Austin has always been a blue dot in a red state, with a much more liberal attitude than the rest of -Texas and creativity is the main ingredient of SXSW – that mirrors what is one of the main ingredients of the city of -Austin.”

Photo: Samantha BurkardtWhile it’s tempting to think that the rise to prominence of SXSW has been an uninterrupted upwards curve, the truth is somewhat different, according to the -director, especially for the interactive element of the event.

“We really struggled the first eight to ten years. I felt it wasn’t quite the right fit alongside this music and film event – there were rock stars and film stars coming into the town, while on the other side, there were the geeks. It didn’t feel like they fit in at all. But what has radically changed in the world since then is that the geeks have become the rock stars! With the rise of the start-up movement, Silicon Valley and social media, we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”

The bigger the event grows, paradoxically the harder it becomes to maintain its “indie” edge. It’s a pleasant problem in one sense, but nevertheless it still represents a challenge to the organizers, says Forrest, who lists meeting Barack Obama, then US President, among his many highlights over the years. Obama’s presence underlines the dilemma. 

“Whether it be music, film or interactive, SXSW is primarily about up-and-coming bands, films, tech innovations and people you haven’t heard of yet, but you will in a few years. We’re lucky to get big names coming to the event now, but most are people you probably don’t know. Maybe we’ll have the developer of the next killer virtual reality app or one of the many others looking to change the world for the better.”

'Twitter kind of launched at SXSW. They had released it previously, but they used SXSW as an -official launch event'

The power of SXSW as a launchpad could not have been better illustrated than by Twitter, which was released in the summer of 2006 but reached a serendipitous tipping point at SXSW the following March. This tipping point proved to be mutually beneficial, Forrest says.

“Twitter kind of launched at SXSW. They had released it previously, but they used SXSW as an official launch event. This was one of the first places that people began to understand what Twitter and social media were capable of. Having said that, I don’t think in our wildest dreams we would have the leader of the free world tweeting daily in years to come, broadcasting US foreign policy. It just got a big bump in 2007. People saw that it was a valuable service and told others that they had seen it at SXSW – it really pushed us.”

All of which begs the final question – what will be this year’s SXSW Twitter? “I hope we have another breakout hit like this in 2018,” Forrest says. “But the main focus of SXSW is the small connections between creative people that lead to amazing things that the rest of the world doesn’t hear about for a few years.”  

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