Expanding Austin’s South by Southwest Experience with Hugh Forrest

Expanding Austin's South by Southwest Experience with Hugh Forrest

I’m joined by Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer at South by Southwest (SXSW), to talk about the relationship the festival has with its host city, Austin. Founded in 1987, South by Southwest welcomes music, film, and technology creatives from around the globe to downtown Austin every March. More recently, SXSW has announced an expansion project in Australia and has hinted at incorporating more of Texas in its yearly festival. I interviewed Hugh to learn more about what the future of SXSW looks like.

Timecoded Guide:

  • [00:00] Introducing Hugh, Chief Programming Officer at South by Southwest
  • [08:27] Putting on the 2021 South by Southwest during COVID
  • [14:39] Austin affordable housing & Texas’ starving artist problem
  • [21:31] Securing against violent situations during festival events
  • [25:46] Expanding SXSW with South by Sydney, Australia


Has growth been steady for South by Southwest during its over-30-year history? 

Joining SXSW in 1989, Hugh has been with the festival almost since the beginning— he even provided the first computer ever used in the South by Southwest office. A lot has changed since the humble beginnings as a 3-day music festival, but Hugh has credited the addition of film and technology as massive sources of popularity growth for SXSW. Expanding now to 9 days, Hugh explains that the goal for the SXSW team is to continue to push the envelope of what’s new in creative spaces and stay ahead of the curve for upcoming event ideas.

“In 1994, SXSW added what was then called Film and Multimedia. Adding this film component to the event was very much one of [the founding] dreams. It made sense because you had this burgeoning, emerging film scene in Austin, with Linklater and Rodriguez and other folks.”


How has COVID affected the current version of SXSW?

One of the first event casualties of the COVID lockdown was the 2020 South by Southwest, which was unfortunately canceled due to safety concerns. Since that cancellation, Hugh explains that SXSW has looked different from 2018 and 2019’s meteoric successes. Crowds have been smaller, staffing has been limited, and the festival has incorporated more virtual options. Thankfully, Hugh was encouraged by 2022’s success and hopes 2023’s SXSW puts pandemic woes behind them.

“The dynamic of the event is you work on this for 9 months, it’s a long slog and the payoff when the event happens is you think, ‘Wow, this was worth all the tough stuff.’ In 2020, when we didn’t have that event, you actually had a negative payoff of having to lay off your friends.”


Has the higher cost of living in Austin impacted South by Southwest? 

Anyone who listens to the show knows that affordability in Austin is a huge concern of mine, and Hugh matches my concern. Inflation and rising costs of living have been negatively impacting Austin’s community, especially in relation to lower income creative careers. SXSW has had to raise prices and festival attendees have expressed concern about Austin’s expensive hotel rates. Hugh hopes for stronger support for lower income communities and advocates for a better public transportation system to offset rising costs.

“15 years ago, South by Southwest was a fairly cheap event to attend. That has completely flipped on its head in recent years. We’ve raised our ticket prices, and it’s harder for people to attend that way. Plus, if you’re wanting to get a downtown hotel room, it’s fairly pricey.”


What are the next steps SXSW is taking to expand beyond the city of Austin?

We throw around a lot of ideas for future SXSW expansions in this episode, including potentially reaching out to other communities and cities in Texas and throughout the US to host events. However, all hypotheticals aside, South by Southwest has already taken the “South by” brand on the road— all the way to Sydney, Australia. In 2023, South by Sydney will have its first festival, similar to Austin’s fest and brand new to Australia’s incredible independent audience of amazing creatives.

“We announced that we are doing an event in Sydney, Australia in October 2023. This is called South by Sydney. This is the first time we’ve ever licensed our name to another event. We’ve done events elsewhere, but they haven’t been called ‘South by,’ so this is a big deal.”


Keep up with Hugh Forrest on LinkedIn

Learn more about South by Southwest and buy tickets for 2023’s event on SXSW.com

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