In 1986, the organizers of a New York music festival contacted The Austin Chronicle, a hip “alternative” weekly newspaper, back in the days when things that were alternative were still on dead trees and not electrons. They knew of the Texas city’s growing reputation as a music capital and had an idea: How about a music festival that would showcase Austin’s music scene?
The idea fell through – many do – but the people at the Chronicle thought it was such a good idea, they did it anyway the following year. That first year, they expected 150 people. They drew more than 700 instead.
And that’s how South by Southwest was born.
Today South by Southwest has grown – well, even the word exponentially doesn’t seem strong enough. In 2019 – remember before the pandemic? – South by Southwest drew more than 280,000 attendees and generated an estimated economic impact on Austin of $355.9 million. (This year’s Super Bowl was estimated to have an economic impact of about $500 million.)
It’s also no longer just a music festival. In fact, music seems to be only a secondary part of the action. It’s now a wide-ranging conference that deals with technology, art and pretty much anything deemed futuristic. The official program for this year’s South by Southwest – which kicks off Friday – lists 15 “tracks” that you can follow over 10 days: 2050 (big-picture thinking that looks decades ahead), advertising and brand experience, civic engagement, climate change, culture, design, film and TV industry, future of music, game industry, health and med tech, making film and episodics, media industry, startups, tech industry and transportation. Keynote speakers include Lizzo (she’s a musician, if you don’t know), Beck (ditto), the author Neal Stephenson and director Celine Tricart. Politicians often show up (usually Democratic ones, but Republican readers should stick with me here – House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was a speaker in 2019). And lots and lots of businesses, investors and entrepreneurs. There are pitch competitions, film premieres, policy discussions. President Barack Obama showed up in 2016 to give a speech calling on the tech industry to help solve many of America’s problems. The point is: This is, as USA Today once said, “one of the biggest and most influential gatherings on the planet.”
And it all started with the idea of a music festival that might draw 150 people.
Some of you sharp-eyed readers might have already figured out where I’m going with all this: Why can’t we do this here?
I’m not suggesting we imitate South by Southwest exactly. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery but that’s only part of the original quote. What Oscar Wilde really said was “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Ok, we don’t want that. Instead, let’s go with what Voltaire said: “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” That sounds a lot better.
So let’s reframe the question: Austin has created something that uses its culture to make it a magnet for businesses to come pitch their wares (let’s not worry about the politicians, shall we?).
Using those broad strokes, what would a Southside by Southwest version of SXSW, as it’s known, look like? I’m jealous of the name, but it’s copyrighted, so no, we can’t use Southside by Southwest. Roanoke’s Down by Downtown music festival – which this year features The Wallflowers as headliners – is about as close as we can come. But let’s not get hung up on the name. (When I was in high school, I was in a rock band. We spent more time changing our name than we did practicing, which is why today I’m here writing this for living and not living in a mansion in Malibu, living off my royalty checks.)
The point is, let’s imagine what Southside and/or Southwest could do to create something that’s similar – but also unique to our part of the world. Let Austin have its hipsters and celebrities. What do we have that we could naturally grow? What if we married our region’s rich musical heritage with our economic aspirations? The Crooked Road meets … the emerging life sciences cluster in the Roanoke and New River valleys … the transportation cluster and robotics of the New River Valley … the advanced manufacturing hub of Danville … the energy transition taking place in coal country? What if we combined all that? I’ve long advocated that all the localities from Lynchburg to Lee County should convene an energy summit to talk about how this part of the state can position itself to cash in on the transition from fossil fuels to renewables; let’s not look on that as a liability but as an opportunity. We have the nuclear industry in Lynchburg, a solar boom across much of Southside, a coal country that’s now looking at how it can position itself as part of the supply chain for the wind industry. Why can’t we connect those dots in much the same way the Crooked Road connected a lot of previously disconnected venues to create a national brand – and, in this case, an event to highlight that?
There are lots of ways to imagine this. Here’s the big picture to remember: All these places are often trapped in stereotypes. All these places are also in the process of reinventing their economies. That’s a pretty powerful story to tell, one that helps bust those stereotypes wide open. Why not figure out a way to tell it to the wider world – invite outside expertise to share a global perspective – and then dress it all up with some of our culture?
Or, perhaps I should say, who wants to make this happen?