For nearly 35 years now, the hugely popular South by Southwest festival has celebrated the arts, tech, culture and all things creative in Austin, Texas. This opportunity for sensory overload takes over the town each March.
But this year-
“It’ll be really weird, really different,” said Hugh Forrest SXSW Chief Programming Officer.
He’s helped produce South by Southwest Online a digital experience featuring 300 bands, 200 films and 500 different conference sessions, all available live or on demand on your computer and mobile device.
“Ultimately the focus of the event is the same as it’s always been which is we try to pull together people who are doing very very creative things or very very innovative things from all over the world,” Forrest said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Austin’s mayor to declare a local disaster, the music stopped and the festival was canceled for 2020. Now the festival is back in a virtual sense.
$399 buys you five days of content, as opposed to the somewhat longer events of the past. Jumping from session to session will be no problem.
“So you can see a great panel about artificial intelligence, then go to a comedy showcase immediately thereafter just by clicking your mouse,” Forrest said.
No crowds, no waiting in lines. No need to fly to Austin. Among this year’s speakers: businessman Richard Branson, singer Willie Nelson, politician Stacey Abrams and AI expert Dr. Kai-Fu Lee.
“Excited,” said Dedan Bruner. “A little bummed out that I can’t have the whole Austin experience.”
Bruner, a South by Southwest first-timer, is part of a panel on fatherhood.
One-third of this year’s 40 to 50,000 event registrants come from outside the U.S. as opposed to one-quarter in 2019.
“The possibility that people from all over the world can tune in as opposed to those that just happen to be in the area or are lucky enough to get a ticket that part makes it extraordinary,” Bruner said. “I think it can be a whole new experience that has a depth and a reach that we never even anticipated.”
Chance encounters with people, important our not, a feature of past festivals, will be replaced by more strategic online networking. Forrest said the software has been stress-tested. They’re ready to go.
“For every challenge there is with going virtual, there are a lot of opportunities and we’ve tried to always keep that north star in mind,” he said.
One of the festival themes this time around is the post-COVID world. A more hybrid version of this annual collision of people and ideas could be in the future. In that way, 2021 is a trial run.