SXSW at 30: Much more than just a music festival | Music | DW | 11.03.2016
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SXSW at 30: Much more than just a music festival

The international music industry is once again meeting up in Austin, with more than 2,200 acts hitting the stage for South by Southwest. But the festival has also become a must for the tech community and startup scene.

Texas is perhaps the most American of all the US states. Clichés immediately spring to mind, even for those who have never been there: cowboys, pistols and conservative voters. For some parts of Texas that may be true, but in the state capital of Austin it's a different story.

Austin is a very liberal, at times quite crazy metropolis. The streets are dominated by students, small businesses and around 200 clubs and bars featuring live music. It's a record-breaking number, apparently, and since 1991 the city has been known as the "Live Music Capital of the World."

Just the right setting, then, for South by Southwest - SXSW for short. The annual music festival, which runs thorough March 20 this year, is considered to be the largest showcase festival in the world, with the most live concerts. When SXSW kicked off in 1987 it was still quite manageable, attracting around 700 fans of alternative country and rock music. But over the years the event grew: today, it attracts upwards of 30,000 participants, and has long been established as an annual meeting place for the music industry.


Obama is the keynote speaker at this year's SXSW

From Snoop Dogg to Obama

First stop is the Austin Convention Center, where the panels take place. Music professionals give talks and answer questions, with topics ranging from "Radio 411 - Do's & Don'ts of Getting Radio Airplay" to "Covering the Chinese Technology Revolution" to "Mamma Mia! Scandinavian Digital Marketing Secrets."

The annual keynote speeches are eagerly anticipated. Over the past 30 years, legends like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg have given talks. This year, President Barack Obama, a longtime champion of new technology, will be standing onstage. Another talk will feature producer and musician Tony Visconti, famous for working closely with the late David Bowie.

But over the following 10 days, the clubs and bars of Austin will belong to the next generation. Young bands from all genres will have the chance to show off for an international audience. This is what makes SXSW so exciting for newcomers - with a little luck, just the right person will be standing in the audience, ready with an invitation to a gig in Turkey or a record contract in Canada or Sweden.

Of course, no serious musical career is based on a single appearance, but talent has to be discovered somewhere. James Blunt, Franz Ferdinand, John Mayer and The White Stripes: all these artists saw their popularity soar after shows in Austin.

Sauerkraut and Krautrock

German pop singer Laura Carbone, of Mannheim, has been looking forward to the festival for weeks. "I've never been to America, and I decided that I was going to perform there the first time I visited," she says.

Carbone released her debut album, the dark, melodic "Sirens," in Germany last year. Now she wants to take the next step. In Austin, she's been booked for two club concerts and a radio show.

Carbone is one of 21 German musicians who are being supported in their journey by Initiative Musik, a non-profit organization founded in 2007 and funded by the German government to promote the country's music industry. SXSW is one of the most important dates in its calendar.

In Austin the German delegation meets up in its headquarters, Lucille Bar. A highlight is the so-called Wunderbar Lunch, with its discussions and concerts. This year's theme is Krautrock, the classic German style of rock and electronic music that has influenced musicians worldwide since the 1970s. Three representative bands from different generations - Faust, Kreidler and Stabil Elite - will be onstage, proving that their music has lost none of its momentum and relevance.

Austin City Limits music festival Texas USA EPA/Ashley Landis

Austin's festivals attract music fans from all over, 30,000 to SXSW alone

Searching for the next big thing

But SXSW has long been known for more than just music. In 1994, it inaugurated side conferences devoted to film and interactive media, with the latter playing an increasingly important role. The golden age of the music industry may be long gone, but the startup sector is very much in demand.

In an effort to appear as a serious competitor to Silicon Valley, Austin has developed a well-functioning infrastructure for the IT sector. Companies like Dell, IBM, Google and eBay all have outposts here, with the renowned University of Texas supplying the necessary personnel. The industry is hungry for innovation.

In 2009, SXSW launched its startup competition, SXSW Accelerator, to give new startups the chance to present their vision to the general public and an expert jury. Those able to attractively present their ideas may get an opportunity for global exposure - and support from big-name investors.

A man running jumps between people performing in the middle of sixth street picture alliance/robertharding/G.Hellier

SXSW also features sideshows and street festivals

"The Germans have developed a very good reputation," explains Mirko Whitfield, who manages the European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian participants at SXSW. He thinks the German startups stand a good chance at this year's SXSW Accelerator, not least because of the success of Tinnitracks.

In 2015, the Hamburg-based company won with its pitch - a smartphone app to help people treat tinnitus. After its victory in Austin, Tinnitracks was mentioned in more than 100 news reports and was able to launch its app in the European Union.

Such success stories are, of course, a great incentive. Two German startups are competing in the virtual reality category this year, one of the digital sector's hottest areas. Spherie, from Hamburg, plans to present its special virtual reality drone, while Splash wants to show how to convert regular smartphones into virtual reality cameras.

But music won't come up short at SXSW Accelerator: Berlin-based startup Rescued Ideas will present Basslet, a red bracelet that allows users to feel the beats and bass of their music. No matter the event at SXSW over the next 10 days, one thing is clear: in Austin, music is king.

DW-TV programs PopXport and Shift will report on SXSW in the coming weeks.