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SXSW Founder Roland Swenson Says the Obamas ‘Want to Get in Front of All the Young, Creative People’ at This Year’s Fest

Roland Swenson, co-founder of music's marquee event, looks back at its three decades as he welcomes the Obamas.

South by Southwest’s annual music, film and interactive festival will ­celebrate its 30th anniversary in Austin when it begins March 11, but three decades of assembling one of the music ­industry’s ­premiere events hasn’t made the process any easier. “It gets harder every year,” says festival co-founder/managing director Roland Swenson, 59, whose event brought an estimated $317 million to the city in 2015. This year, the hard work will pay off with the first appearance by a sitting president and first lady — Barack and Michelle Obama will deliver keynote speeches — and the festival will host 72,000 registrants, more than 2,000 artists and hundreds of showcases, panels and workshops on the film, music and tech industries over 10 days. Before its 30th edition, Swenson spoke about the Obamas, brands and the evolution of SXSW.

Billboard: Any special plans to celebrate SXSW’s 30th?

Roland Swenson: Well, we’re going to have the president of the United States and the first lady come speak. (Laughs.) We’ve been talking to them for years about making an appearance here and got close a couple of times.

What made them want to come this time?

I’m not sure. I expect it was on their to-do list and they looked up and thought, “Hey, we’re out of here next year; maybe we should do this now.” But that’s just a guess. I know they want to be here to get in front of all the young, creative, energetic people who will be at SXSW.

What does an appearance by them mean for SXSW?

A lot of work. [Laughs] It’s worth it though, but it’s made things pretty crazy here at the end. But the White House has been easy to work with, and I’m sure it will all come off just fine.

Roland Swenson
Swenson Annie Ray

What else is new this year?

We’ve developed this recommendation software that is part of our phone app, so you go in and check off the acts that you want to go see, and that will help you build a schedule. Then we developed this software where based on the acts you’re scheduled to go see, it will automatically recommend some other acts. With the idea being that if you go to see this act at this small club and there’s a long line and you don’t want to wait, then your phone will tell you, “Oh, here’s this other act that you might like, and it’s two blocks away.” We’re really curious to see how that’s gonna work.

Another thing that we started doing last year and we’re doing even more this year is working with what they call beacons: little disc-like devices, and we’re gonna install like 5,000 of them all around. So if you have your app open and you have Bluetooth on, as you walk by certain areas you’ll get messages about what’s going on nearby. It’ll also tell you who’s close to you, what other registrants are nearby, particularly ones that you’ve marked as people you want to see. This is pretty cutting-edge stuff for meetings, and we’re proud to work with this company from Vancouver called EventBase, and they’ve helped us develop this new technology.

Along the way, what were some of your biggest milestones and successes?

Well, the first one I usually point to is 1994, when we were able to get Johnny Cash to come and be the Keynote Speaker and perform. That was the first time we had someone who had sold 50 million records come to our event. And what he did in terms of using it as a way to reposition himself and tap into a different market really became an example for the industry and more established artists as how they could use SXSW to further their goals. So that was a big change for us there. A lot of people used to say, “Ah, it always used to be unsigned acts,” and so forth. But that’s not really true. It was always designed for any musical act to be able to use and accomplish their goals. When I was in the music business, I worked with acts that didn’t have a deal and I worked with acts that had major label deals, and they really had the same problems and the same needs, which was, “How do I continue to reach out to a broader audience?” So that was really what we were trying to do. And in that same year was when we started the film festival and the digital media festival. So that was a real turning point.

Probably the next one would be in 2006 or 2007, when Twitter came to Austin and did this big promotion with the registrants here. They did this thing where they put up flat screens all around the Convention Center, which was still fairly new then, and the idea was that you could tweet and your comments would show up on these screens. But then the thing that happened along with that was this new kind of event where 400 people would be in a room listening to a handful of people talk on stage and answer questions. But at the same time in the room, everybody was tweeting about what they were seeing and hearing and “Why don’t they talk about this?” and “Is that guy crazy or what?” So there was this sort of two-part thing going on: there was what was happening in the physical world and there was what was happening in the digital world all at the same time in the same place. And pretty much after that, Twitter went worldwide. So then the year after that, everybody who had a new tech idea or a new app or something new, many of them came to our event to promote it.

SXSW has been criticized for too much brand involvement. Is that fair?

We’re pretty used to criticism. Every year in February we have these Saturday meetings for the staff, which is a little over 200 people right now. And one of the things I do is hold up this headline that reads, “SXSW: How Big Is Too Big?” And then I tell everybody that this is from 1991. Now as to the brands, one of the things that’s confusing to people is that you can’t always tell if it’s a brand that’s working with us or if it’s a guerilla marketing brand, and there are more brands that are guerilla marketing and getting their logo out there than the ones that are officially working for us. We’ve never shied away from sponsorships or working with brands: we think that’s just part of the deal for creative people, is to figure out a way to work with brands. It’s certainly become an important income stream for musical artists, it’s part of the film world, it’s part of the TV world, it’s the business that we’ve chosen to be in, and that’s just something that comes along with it.

Did you ever think that SXSW would last for 30 years?

You know, I hoped so, I guess. I thought it could be a large and influential event, which is why we worked so hard to get it off the ground. But of course, when we started there was no email or World Wide Web; we didn’t even have a fax machine. So it was pretty hard to imagine how that all was going to work out. When we moved [offices] in 2010, I had to take everything out of my closet and I came across hundreds of letters I’d written and mailed to people and I thought, “Wow, that was different.” [Laughs]

An edited version of this article first appeared in the March 19 issue of Billboard.