Why South by Southwest—in Its 30th Year and More Branded Than Ever—Still Matters

Conference hasn't yet 'jumped the shark'

South by Southwest's takeover of Austin starts Friday. Getty Images

South by Southwest has always been a haven for creatives who want to market themselves. And while the sorts of creatives flocking to the Austin, Texas, conference have shifted over the years and evolved—it's not just a place where musicians hungry for exposure go as it was in 1987, or where a tech brand like Twitter can blow up as it did in 2007—the question of whether SXSW is still worth the price of admission has bubbled.

The conference, which turns 30 this year and kicks off with its Interactive and Film portions Friday, is nothing if not noisy—and it will likely only get noisier this year with President Obama set to take the stage. But even as major marketers' presence at the festival has made it seem more mainstream, SXSW organizers and veteran attendees say it hasn't declined in quality. 

"I don't agree with the idea that it's still not a place for small, unknown talent to break out," said Roland Swenson, managing director of the festival. "I don't think people would keep coming year after year if it was just about the major brands marketing themselves here. Certainly that is part of it—in a way, that's how we can pay for this thing to bring together unknowns. They're being supported by the bigger companies and the bigger brands in terms of us putting this event on." 

This year, the festival's support comes from Esurance, Mazda, Monster Energy, Capital One, Bud Light, McDonald's and The Austin Chronicle. (Deloitte Digital, Ten-X, United Airlines and Samsung are sponsoring SXSW Interactive.) 

"Every year, everyone comes out and says, 'It's jumped the shark, and I'm not going.' And then it gets right down to the wire, and everyone who isn't going wishes they were," said veteran SXSW attendee Heather Meeker, head of global communications for customer service software company Zendesk. 

Fellow veteran attendee Vanessa Camones, founder and CEO of theMIX agency, agreed. "People ask me, 'Why would you still go? What's the benefit for you?'" said Camones. "The reason—part of it anyway—is that if you are a startup and you're in media or digital and you need to find partnerships and you want to get closer to brands and you want to understand how that ecosystem works, SXSW is probably the best place to do that." 

And that's the rub. Even as the festival has grown dramatically, causing problems of scale not only for the actual events and panels SXSW puts on but for the city of Austin, the networking possibilities are endless and incredibly valuable, experts say. 

"People have been reporting the death of SXSW for a long time," said veteran attendee Chris Heuer, founder of community-building site Will Someone. "But it's always going to be different because we're always going to be with different people, and it's up to us to make the most of it." 

That seems to be how festival organizers see SXSW, too. The brand takeover of the festival is "reflective of the current environment we live in and the current landscape we live in where brands have a lot of money," said Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive. "And many brands have their own in-house accelerators. They're funding startups, and so again, these are people that can make things happen for the careers of the people attending SXSW. And that's what the event has always been about. It's been about making connections that can take your career to the next level."

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