In 1986, Ronald Reagan was president. “Electronic mail” was used primarily by universities and the military. The Berlin Wall was standing. The Euro did not exist. Many phones used rotary dials to enter numbers. An Apple Macintosh computer with 128 kilobytes of RAM sold for $5,500 (in 2015 dollars). 40 million music CDs were made and sold worldwide.
That same year, a small group of people in Austin, Texas began a series of long discussions about the future of entertainment and media. The meetings were in the offices of The Austin Chronicle, and participants were sworn to secrecy. A fundamental opinion shared by the group was that the local creative and music communities were as talented as anywhere else on the planet, but were severely limited by a lack of exposure outside of Austin.
Music was the uniting factor, but the group had a catholic taste for art and ideas. Inclusiveness and reaching for new things were core values. The solution being discussed was an event that would bring the outside world to Austin for a close-up view.
As the key ideas were formed, recognition grew that Austin was not the only city where this was an issue. For a local event to bring the world to Austin, it needed to have value everywhere. A name was sought that was not restrictive in its concept.
Finally, in October of 1986, the announcement of the first South By Southwest was made. The SXSW group expected initial resistance from the locals, but it was quite the opposite. Almost everyone wanted to be involved. Resistance would come later.
The first event, held in March of 1987, saw an expected 150 registrants swell to 700 on the opening day. As hoped for, Austin’s charm won over the visitors, and SXSW took on a life of its own.
Growth was steady for the first seven years. For SXSW ’94, often remembered for the Johnny Cash keynote/performance, two new events – Interactive and Film – were introduced. It would mark a fundamental shift in how the world viewed SXSW. Still early in the paradigm shift created by the internet, the film and digital communities found a home in SXSW.
The event has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways since 1987, but at its core, SXSW remains a tool for creative people to develop their careers by bringing together people from around the globe to meet, learn and share ideas. (And maybe have a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences.)