History of SXSW

Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, SXSW has emerged as the premier destination for creatives across the globe. Travel back to its origin and flip through the years of speakers, artists, filmmakers, and more in our interactive history timeline.

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Governor Ann Richards and the SXSW Directors photo by Martha Grenon

Governor Ann Richards and the SXSW Directors photo by Martha Grenon

History Intro


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.)

– Roland Swenson, CEO of SXSW



Huey Meaux and Doug Sahm
Huey Meaux and Doug Sahm

First Music Keynote Speaker: Huey Meaux

15 Panels, Workshops & Sessions | Notable Speakers: Jody Denberg, Jim Dickinson, Kevin Wommack, Joe Nick Patoski, Kim Buie, Mark Josephson, Ernie Gammage, Jeff Whittington

1987 SXSW Music Festival Schedule

Inaugural Music Festival: 177 Artists & 15 Stages

Notable Showcasing Artists: Reverend Horton Heat (Dallas TX), King’s X (Houston TX), Little Joe y la Familia (Temple TX), Bad Mutha Goose (Austin TX), Butch Hancock & Jimmie Gilmore (Austin TX), Dash Rip Rock (New Orleans LA), Lonesome Strangers (Los Angeles CA)

Bob Guccione Jr.

Keynote: Bob Guccione Jr. (SPIN Magazine)

32 Panels, Workshops & Sessions | Notable Speakers: Frank Riley (Venture Booking), Terry Lickona (Austin City Limits), Mark Williams (Virgin Records), Dave Margulies (CMJ), Jefferson Holt (R.E.M. manager), Cary Baker (IRS Records publicist), Joe McEwen (CBS Records), Joel Webber (Island Records)

True Believers

415 Showcasing Artists & 27 Stages

Notable Showcasing Artists: Kelly Willis (Washington DC), American Music Club (San Francisco CA), Billy Ray Cyrus (Nashville TN), Poi Dog Pondering (Austin TX), Material Issue (Chicago IL), Jayhawks (Minneapolis MN), Ten Hands (Dallas TX), Dangerous Toys (Austin TX), Robert Earl Keen (Austin TX)

Miles Zuniga, Bill David, Mojo Nixon & Ricky Gelb at SXSW 1989.

349 Showcasing Artists: Gin Blossoms, Mojo Nixon & Ricky Gelb, Miles Zuniga & More

26 Venues & Stages | Notable Showcasing Artists: Doug Sahm (San Antonio TX), Alex Chilton (Memphis TN), Alejandro Escovedo (Austin TX), Gin Blossoms (Scottsdale AZ), Toni Price (Nashville TN), Giant Sand (Tucson AZ), Sara Hickman (Dallas TX), Walter Hyatt & Champ Hood (Austin TX), Ray Wylie Hubbard (Austin TX), Marcia Ball Band (Austin TX), Lucinda Williams (Los Angeles CA), Miles Zuniga (Austin TX), Rhett Miller (Dallas TX), Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper (San Diego CA), Timbuk 3 (Austin TX), Tracy Santa (Berlin WEST GERMANY), Justice Hahn (Berlin WEST GERMANY)

Robert Christgau at SXSW 1989. Photographer unknown.

SXSW 1989 Keynote Speaker: Robert Christgau (Village Voice rock critic)

39 Panels, Workshops & Sessions | Notable Speakers: Larry Hamby (CBS Nashville), Jay Boberg (IRS Records), Guy Clark (Texas songwriting legend), Ken Irwin (Rounder Records founder), Elliott Mazer (Neil Young producer), Rosemary Carroll (Kurt Cobain & Courtney Love attorney), John Kunz (Waterloo Records owner), Mark Proct (Fabulous Thunderbirds manager), Bill Wyman (Chicago Reader journalist), Wolfgang Doebeling (Berlin Independence Days), Geoff Travis (Rough Trade Records)

Kinky Friedman at SXSW 1990

Keynote Speaker: Kinky Friedman

Notable Speakers: Tony Brown (MCA Records), Robert Palmer (The New York Times), Jonathan Poneman (Sub Pop Records), Jack Emerson (Jason & the Scorchers manager), Buck Williams (FBI Booking), Nigel Grainge (Ensign Records), Radney Foster & Bill Lloyd (hit country songwriters), Paige Levy (Warner Bros. Nashville), Clifford Antone (Antone’s), Robbie Robb (Tribe After Tribe), Carol Schutzbank (B-Side magazine), Bob Johnston (producer)

Mano Negra at SXSW 1990

424 Showcasing Artists & 23 Stages | First Hip-Hop Showcases at SXSW

Notable Showcasing Artists: Joe “King” Carrasco (Austin TX), Vic Chesnutt (Athens GA), Del-Lords (New York NY), Big Head Todd & the Monsters (Denver CO), Let’s Active (Winston Salem NC), Trip Shakespeare (Minneapolis MN), Jon Ims (Denver CO), Blake Babies (Boston MA), Ultramagnetic MC’s (New York NY), Def IV (Houston TX), Ed Hall (Austin TX), The Grey Ghost (Austin TX), Townes Van Zandt (Nashville TN), Mano Negra (Paris FRANCE)

Jimmie Vaughan & Joe Ely at SXSW 1991

Dixie Chicks, Guy Clark, Barenaked Ladies & More SXSW 1991 Showcasing Artists

512 Showcasing Artists & 27 Stages & Venues | Notable Showcasing Artists: Dixie Chicks (Dallas TX), Bob Mould (Brooklyn NY), David Ball (Nashville TN), Spanic Boys (Milwaukee WI), Uncle Tupelo (Belleville IL), Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ (Atlanta GA), Barenaked Ladies (Toronto CANADA), Pariah (Austin TX), Kolumbus Kris (Estonia USSR), Texas Tornados (San Antonio TX), Shoulders (Austin TX), Guy Clark (Monahans TX), Two Nice Girls (Austin TX), Bela Fleck & the Flecktones (Nashville TN), Southern Culture on the Skids (Chapel Hill NC)

Rosanne Cash at SXSW 1991

Keynote Speaker: Rosanne Cash (chart-topping country artist)

84 Panels, Sessions & Workshops | Notable Speakers: Mike Greene (NARAS), David Bither (Elektra Records), David Fricke (Rolling Stone), Bill Bentley (Warner Bros. Records), Rufus Thomas (pioneering Memphis artist), Moira McCormick (Billboard), Barry Poss (Sugar Hill Records), Dennis Constantine (KBCO-Boulder), Mirko Whitfield (Deutsche Schallplatten), Shannon Vale (Benson/Vale Management), Hugo Burnham (Imago Records), Sims Ellison (metal band Pariah)

Michelle Shocked at SXSW 1992

Keynote: Michelle Shocked

Notable Speakers: Henry Root (attorney), Casey Monahan (Texas Music Office), Gary Stewart (Rhino Records), Charles Shaar Murray (English journalist), Bernie Leadon (Eagles), Greg Ginn (SST Records), Ken Levitan (Vector Management), Rick Gershon (A&M Records), Gary Smith (Pollstar), Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers), Richard Linklater (filmmaker)

Little Village at SXSW 1992

First Outdoor Stage Performance

Notable Showcasing Artists: Willie Nelson (Austin TX), T Bone Burnett (Fort Worth TX), Helmet (New York NY), L7 (Los Angeles CA), Limpopo (Moscow RUSSIA), Bruce Robison (Austin TX), Little Village (Los Angeles CA), Delaney Bramlett (Los Angeles CA), Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet (Toronto CANADA), Paw (Lawrence KS), The Beat Farmers (San Diego CA), Cracker (Redlands CA) Dave Alvin (Los Angeles CA), The Toadies (Dallas TX)

Governor Ann Richards and the SXSW Directors at SXSW 1993

Keynote Speaker: Ann Richards (Governor of Texas, 1991-1995) | First Year of conference programming in Austin Convention Center

81 Panels, Sessions & Workshops | Notable Speakers: Tony Brown (MCA Records), Joe Boyd (Hannibal/Ryko), Frank Riley (Monterey Peninsula Artists), Lisa Shively (The Press Network), Keith Moerer (Request magazine), Exene Cervenka (X), Jon Kertzer (Microsoft), Ruben Ramos (Tejano musician), Elliot Cahn (manager), Faith Henschel (Elektra Records), Donald Passman (attorney), Stephen Bruton (producer)

Roky Erickson at SXSW 1993

468 Showcasing Artists including Lisa Loeb, Everclear & Roky Erickson

Notable Showcasing Artists: Lisa Loeb (New York NY), Meat Puppets (Phoenix AZ), Everclear (Portland OR), Toadies (Dallas TX), Roky Erickson (Austin TX), Robyn Hitchcock (Los Angeles CA), Blue Rodeo (Toronto CANADA), Freedy Johnston (Lawrence KS), R.L. Burnside (Oxford MS), Grant Lee Buffalo (Los Angeles CA), Chris Whitley (New York NY), Pete Droge (Seattle WA), Love Battery (Seattle WA), Kevin Welch (Nashville TN), Cindy Bullens (Chicago IL), Cherubs (Austin TX)

Flaco Jimenez at SXSW 1994

Ben Harper, Flaco Jimenez, Beck & More SXSW 1994 Showcasing Artists

482 Showcasing Artists & 30 Venues & Stages | Notable Showcasing Artists: Rodney Crowell (Nashville TN), The Mavericks (Nashville TN), Flaco Jimenez (Austin TX), Johnny Cash (Nashville TN), Beck (Los Angeles CA), Veruca Salt (Chicago IL), Mojo Nixon & the Toadliquors with Jello Biafra (San Diego CA), Charlie Sexton (Austin TX), Carolyn Wonderland & the Imperial Monkeys (Houston TX), Sir Douglas Quintet (Austin TX), Hanson (Tulsa OK), Ben Harper (Claremont CA), Toad the Wet Sprocket (Santa Barbara CA)

SXSW 1994 Poster

Inaugural Film & Interactive | Keynote: Richard Garriott

The inaugural offering features eight panel sessions with 36 total speakers and two world premieres and is called the SXSW Film and Media Conference (SFMC). Notable Speakers: Jim Butler (Texas Governor’s Office of MF&TV), Dallas Snell (ORIGIN), George Cummings (AVCA), Gary Gattis (Human Code), Debby Kalk (Cortex Communications Inc), Pam Knight (ISIS Multi-Media)

Johnny Cash at SXSW 1994

Music Keynote: Johnny Cash

Notable Speakers: Teresa Ensenat (A&M Records), Jackson Haring (manager), Bushwick Bill (Geto Boys), Jello Biafra (Alternative Tentacles), Tom Zutaut (Geffen Records), Steve Berlin (Los Lobos/producer), Liz Garo (Restless Records), Kid Leo (Columbia Records), Ben Vaughn (musician/producer), Erik Flannigan (ICE Newsletter), Bill Narum (graphic artist), Wiley Wiggins (actor), Marilyn Manson (musician)

Bob Mould at SXSW 1995

Music Keynote Speaker: Bob Mould (leader of iconic ’80s trio Husker Du)

68 Panels, Sessions & Workshops | Notable Speakers: Ian Copeland (Frontier Booking), Susan Silver (manager), Al Kooper (musician), Bill Holdship (BAM Magazine), Brett Gurewitz (Epitaph Records), Rob Bleetstein (Gavin Report), Matthew Sweet (musician), Frank Callari (manager), Michael Gallelli (Private Music), Michael Morales (musician), Peter Jenner (manager)

SXSW 1995 Brochure

467 Showcasing Artists: Cake, Soul Asylum, Todd Snider & More

35 Venues & Stages | Notable Showcasing Artists: Cake (Oakland CA), Guided By Voices (Dayton OH), Billy Joe Shaver (Nashville TN), Blues Traveler (New York NY), Yo La Tengo (Hoboken NJ), Ian McLagan & Monkeyjump (Austin TX), Irma Thomas (New Orleans LA), Rebirth Brass Band (New Orleans LA), Soul Asylum (Minneapolis MN), Wilco (Chicago IL), The Presidents of the United States of America (Seattle WA), Ani DiFranco (New York NY), Squirrel Nut Zippers (Chapel Hill NC), Victoria Williams (Los Angeles CA), Little Milton (Chicago IL), Sixteen Deluxe (Austin TX), Todd Snider (Memphis TN)

Richard Linklater at SXSW in 1994.

SXSW Film and Media Conference splits into two separate events

SXSW Film World premiere films included: The Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A More Perfect Union, The Man With The Perfect Swing and The Underneath, while conference programming was highlighting by speakers Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater.

Todd Rundgren at SXSW 1995. Photo by George R. Brainard.

Inaugural SXSW Interactive | Keynotes: Todd Rundgren (musician), Richard Garriott (video game developer, astronaut & entrepreneur)

Notable Speakers Melinda Price (Monsterbit Media), Debbie Richards (ANIMATRIX Computer Arts), Mark Rolston (Virtual Studio), Joseph C. Aragona (Austin Ventures), Nicholas Butterworth (SonicNet), Dave Evans (Digital Voodoo), Joel Greenberg (Multimedia Developer) Notable Sessions: 3D World; The Internet and Online Music

Fugees at SXSW 1996

664 Showcasing Artists Including Iggy Pop, Fastball, Blink-182, Spoon & More

41 Venues & Stages | Notable Showcasing Artists: Iggy Pop (Ann Arbor MI), Fugees (East Orange NJ), George Clinton & the P-Funk All Stars featuring Parliament & Funkadelic, Fastball (Austin TX), Joan Osborne (New York NY), Golden Smog (Minneapolis MN), Whiskeytown (Ryan Adams) (Raleigh NC), Old 97’s (Dallas TX), Spoon (Austin TX), Liz Phair (Chicago IL), Blink-182 (San Diego CA), Ron Sexsmith (Toronto CANADA), Wayne Kramer (Los Angeles CA), Ben Folds Five (Chapel Hill NC), Plimsouls (Los Angeles CA), The Gourds (Austin TX) Milestones & Highlights: First annual Japan Nite Showcase

Krist Novoselic at SXSW 1996

Music Keynote Speaker: Krist Novoselic (former Nirvana bassist)

60 Panels, Sessions & Workshops | Notable Speakers: Allen Toussaint (musician/producer), Anthony DeCurtis (VH1), Arthur Brown (musician), Brendan O’Brien (producer), Vic Chesnutt (musician), Paul Williams (Crawdaddy), Greg Sowders (Sweet Relief), Craig Stewart (Trance Syndicate), Chris Willman (Entertainment Weekly), Grant Alden (No Depression), Eddie Gomez (Bug Music), Kim Fowley (producer)

SXSW 1996 Poster


Sterling’s gold: In Dante Harper’s Delicate Art of the Rifle, Bruce Sterling plays a “Non-Linear Weatherman” who tries to impart the complex, unpredictable and chaotic nature of weather, while John Sayles treats SXSW Film to a sneak preview/world premiere of Lone Star.

SXSW 1996 Brochure

Interactive Keynotes: Hal Josephson (MediaSense) & Bruce Sterling (author)

Notable Speakers: Jim Hightower (Hightower & Associates), Bill Narum (Go-Go Studios), Tim Nye (Sunshine Interactive Network), Josh Pearson (Emergency Broadcast Network), Paul Pugh (Texas Monthly), Andrew Rasiej (Macintosh New York Music Festival), George Sanger (Team Fat) Notable Sessions: 3D Shoot Out; Marketing to the Interactive Channel; Gaming and Gaming Development

Carl Perkins at SXSW 1997

Carl Perkins, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Eat World & More SXSW Showcasing Artists

788 Showcasing Artists & 40 Stages | Notable Showcasing Artists: Carl Perkins (Nashville TN), Tony Bennett (New York NY), Jazz Passengers (featuring Debbie Harry) (New York NY), Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips Parking Lot Experiment #4), of Montreal (Athens GA), Jonny Lang (Minneapolis MN), Buddy & Julie Miller (Nashville TN), Jimmy Eat World (Mesa AZ), Less Than Jake (Gainesville FL), Abra Moore (Austin TX), Derailers (Austin TX)

SXSW 1997 Poster

Music Keynote: Carl Perkins (preceded by a DJ set from GusGus)

Notable Speakers: Tony Bennett (“Celebrity Interview”), Cameron Randle (Arista Records Austin), Jeff Kwatinetz (then at Gallin Morey Associates, but about to found The Firm), George Huang (film director), Matt Pinfield (MTV), Moby (on “New Wave of Electronica” panel), Dr. John Hipple (Texas Center for Music and Medicine, University of North Texas)

Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino & Richard Linklater at SXSW Film 1997

Mike Judge, Richard Linklater & Quentin Tarantino at SXSW Film

Notable Speakers: George Huang, Mike Judge, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino – all on the same panel! World Premiere Film Festival Highlights: Full Tilt Boogie (Sarah Kelly), Purgatory County (George Ratliff), Still Breathing (James F. Robinson), Traveller (Jack Green). Memorable Film Festival Screenings: Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith), Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobson), Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh). Notable Talent: Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser, Julianna Margulies, Bill Paxton, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Forest Whitaker

Jonathan Demme at SXSW Film 1997

Keynotes Thomas Dolby (musician) & Jaron Lanier (computer scientist / father of virtual reality) at SXSW Interactive

Notable Speakers: Mark Hosler (Negativland), Andrew Busey (ichat), Charles Ostman (Mondo 2000), Mark Pauline (Survival Research Laboratories), Chris Romero (Radical Media), Douglas Rushkoff (Author). Notable Sessions: Online Communities; Artificial Agents; Global Pillage

SXSW November 1998 Brochure

Total Film submissions grow from 638 to 1015

Notable Speakers: Elizabeth Avellan, Jason Blum, Atom Egoyan, Trevor Groth, Bob Hawk, Lisa Heller, Mike Judge, Scott Macauley, Charlotte Mickie, Mark Mothersbaugh, Todd Phillips, John Pierson. World Premiere Film Festival Highlights: American Cowboy (Kyle Henry), Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 (Tim McCanlies), Letters Not About Love (Jackie Ochs), Men Cry Bullets (Tamara Hernandez), The Newton Boys (Richard Linklater), Olympia (Bob Byington). Notable Talent: Sandra Bullock, Mike Judge, Matthew McConaughey, Michael Moore

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