South By Southwest: Southern Comforts

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As Creative Director for South by Southwest, Brent Grulke has seen a lot of change come to the Austin, Texas music festival since it started in 1987. He’s been there from the beginning, working as a stage manager in that inaugural year, and has witnessed the event grow from a homegrown street party to the country’s largest music festival of its kind; SXSW now spreads across two weeks each March, and includes film and interactive-arts portions. But bigger doesn’t always mean better–with SXSW’s growth has come new concerns, which we discussed with Grulke before this year’s installment.

XLR8R: How have you seen the festival change over the years?

Brent Gulke: It's gotten bigger, with more people attending, more artists performing, more venues, more people working on SXSW, and more of the hassles that that growth creates. We also now have a film and interactive conference, and they two have contributed to the growth. But size doesn't matter–does it? The change that I find interesting is the greater diversity of people and music that are now at SXSW. We have artists from all over the world creating almost every style of music you can name. That wasn't the case in the early years, and I definitely find that a change for the better.

When and how did the idea to bring in the film and interactive portions come about?

The organizers of SXSW love film every bit as much as they love music, so having a film festival was discussed from almost the very beginning. The interactive portion was mostly the brainchild of one person, Dewey Winburne, who walked into the SXSW offices in 1993 and convinced us that this is something that needed to be done. [The response has been] overwhelming, in every sense of the word.

What are some of the hardest things about putting together the festival each year?

It's never enjoyable to reject as many artists as we do each year. Everyone who attempts to make music for a living should be celebrated; it's a noble calling. It hurts to not be able to include everyone who wants SXSW to include them.

Interacting with as many people as we do is a big challenge. It's hard to ensure that communication is prompt and clear, and that all parties' voices are heard and responded to. You certainly can't please everyone, but it's important to listen, attempt to explain, and to never assume that what's worked before will continue to work in the future. And like anyone who has work that essentially continues day and night for weeks and weeks on end, it's difficult to not damage one's personal life. Families can take a heavy beating around here when one or more members are gone much of the time.

How have other after-parties and non-SXSW-sanctioned events affected SXSW?

Sometimes in good ways, sometimes not so good. Some people work to complement SXSW and others work to exploit it. Fortunately, most people see that supporting what we do is best for everyone's long-term interests, and we're able to find ways to work together. Too many events have eventually been taken down by their "fringe" events, and no one benefits when that happens, because those competing events go away when the host event dies.

What does it take for a festival like SXSW to go carbon-neutral?

Becoming aware of how an event uses energy and other precious resources and how to minimize that use are the first steps. It's a jigsaw puzzle, with every one person's use connected to another's. We're all interconnected, so it's vital that each individual address what he or she can do to reduce their carbon footprint.

It's hard to even accurately measure how much energy usage you're responsible for–and the formula needs continuing adjustment–but it's easy to see that you have to try to address it and make changes. SXSW studies what the best thinking currently is regarding the environment, and seeks to adopt more responsible behavior as a result of that knowledge. It can be expensive and time consuming to become more "green," but the cost of not doing so is frightening. I hate to even address this issue much, as it's easy to use the environment as a P.R. stunt these days, and easy to "greenwash" your environmental impact without doing the hard work of conservation and individual sacrifice. Suffice to say, I need to get my own house in greater order before I crow about what a good job SXSW is doing.

With SXSW’s growing importance and popularity, it seems like many unsigned musicians grumble that they can't seem to get booked anymore.

The best I can do is say this: It's not true. The number of acts performing at SXSW has steadily climbed, the percentage of acts without any deal, or with an indie deal, has remained more or less constant since day one. That means that more unsigned and indie acts perform at SXSW every year. Every year about 10% of the acts have major label deals, about 40% have indie deals, and fully half have no label deal, or release their music on their own.

It seems that more electronic music is having a presence on the schedule. Is that by design? Is there a larger programming demand to meet, and do you see that growing in the years to come?

It is by design. I have always wanted more electronic music at SXSW, but for a variety of reasons–not least of which, the inability to secure appropriate venues–it's taken some time to make it work at SXSW. Luckily we can [include more electronic music] now, and more and more people are producing electronic music, or incorporating electronics into other forms of music, so I look forward to SXSW featuring lots more of it, whatever forms it takes, in the future.