It started as a music festival. Then came the movies. Then the tech — specifically Twitter and Foursquare. The stuff that made South by Southwest, Austin’s annual music, tech and, these days, everything festival, is established legend by now.
What made the director of its interactive portion, Hugh Forrest, is a lesser-known tale.
The 51-year-old mild-mannered Texan who runs the whole thing these days isn’t a tech mastermind, a music genius, a self-proclaimed “disruptor” or anything of the sort. Rather, he’s just a guy who had a fancy computer in a city that felt more like a small town.
It’s a nine-day extravaganza that’s de rigueur for the digerati, music-minded and movie biz alike.
It was the late 1980s, and Forrest had a Mac Plus.
”It was an early lesson in having the right technology at the right time,” recalls Forrest, 26 years after he first agreed to help Roland Swenson, Nick Barbaro and Louis Black compile a computer database of registrants for the second-annual Austin festival that they decided to name South by Southwest (SXSW or ”South by” for short). Forrest had recently bought his first computer — only the third Macintosh model to hit the market.
Today, South by Southwest has morphed into a nine-day extravaganza that’s de rigueur for the digerati, music-minded and movie biz alike. Last year, more than 30,000 people attended the interactive portion alone; there were 78 world premieres at SXSW Film; and more than 2,000 Music Festival Showcase acts. This year’s event lineup has everyone from Coldplay, Pitbull and St. Vincent to Neil deGrasse Tyson, Anne Wojcicki, Lena Dunham and Chelsea Clinton. Miller, Chevrolet and Penzoil are sponsors.
There’s not such a clear line between music, arts and tech, between cool culture and the technology that makes it possible.
Forrest was the first full-time staffer for SXSW, which expanded in 1994 to include film and multimedia. Today, he’s in charge of a team of 25 as the director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, a five-day smorgasbord of tech culture that attracted people from 57 countries last year. When it kicks off on March 7, it will include everything from a video game awards ceremony to panels on indie science and app design. This is South By’s nerd-pronged counterpart to the music and film sections that originally gave it edge.
He’s from a family of science buffs — from his mother, who Forrest says always loved the sciences (well before we had to call them STEM), to his father, a DNA researcher and professor at the University of Texas. But Forrest wasn’t what we might call a tech geek. He ran an independent publication, the Austin Challenger.
These days, though, Forrest will tell you (as he did to Time) that geekdom is the norm — and there’s not such a clear line between music, arts and tech, between cool culture and the technology that makes it possible. This year, Apple will hold its first U.S. iTunes festival at SXSW, streaming it live and on demand.
But to see the splay of the festival — and Forrest’s part in particular — is to see something more like industry conferences than TED, and more like TED than Burning Man. In other words, it’s a little bit clean-cut. Much like Forrest, a low-key guy with two kids and an even-keeled manner of speaking.
The current rise really began, Forrest says, not with Twitter or Foursquare, but in 2004, with Friendster.
While Interactive might be the headliner now, the multimedia/tech portion of the conference was a hard sell at first.
“We really struggled on the multimedia end for quite a while to find our voice,” Forrest admits. ”We would not have survived if there wasn’t a music event that was thriving and able to pay the bills.”
But once the first tech boom came through the 1990s, the conference became known as a place where interesting things in tech happened. Then came the bust. Which took the wind out of the conference’s sails for a few years, since few could afford to — or bothered to — attend. The current rise really began, Forrest says, not with Twitter or Foursquare, but in 2004, with Friendster. And, yeah, Friendster didn’t make it, but the conference did.
Which means, for all the first-world criticism of South By — it’s gotten too big, it’s not so edgy, it’s getting worse — it is just an event. An event that accidents and circumstance can make or break.
Its accelerator pitch competition for startups, an old festival favorite, has awarded $587 million in funding to 71 companies since its inception in 2009. Its annual awards have pegged trends such as Pinterest well before they hit the mainstream. And while Forrest speaks the language of a good curator of entrepreneurship, ultimately he realizes he’s sitting on an accidental launchpad. In 2007, Twitter launched at South By; in 2009, FourSquare followed suit. Yet there’s plenty of luck involved in the fact that you, reading this, recognize those companies’ names.
“He’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz,” says longtime Austin entrepreneur Joshua Baer, referring to Forrest; Baer is the founder of technology incubator and workspace the Capital Factory. “He’s orchestrating this massive event, and you think it can’t get any bigger, but then it does. He’s certainly one of the most humble people in a role like that that I’ve ever seen.”
Baer, Forrest’s colleagues and the Austin crowd who see the festival put into action every year think of him as a reliable sort of dude. Indeed, the festival’s been nothing but good for the city. The premise of the festival in the first place was to make Austin a better-connected city. In the days before communities became so virtual, the city so full of aspiring artists and entrepreneurs didn’t have much of a way of linking up to the rest of the world. In that regard, Forrest has succeeded in bringing Austin to a wildly more impressive place.
If Austin were to lose SXSW, it would mean losing the most revenue-generating event the city’s hospitality industry sees each year. (It drew an estimated $218 million to the local economy last year.)
Which makes it natural that people surrounding Forrest are quick to hail him as a creator and a cultivator of communities. And for that title, he hits his marks: speaking the language of crowdsourcing and, in 2007, introducing the SXSW Panel Picker (a system for crowdsourcing programming in lieu of a traditional top-down approach, in which organizers select panelists and speakers). That process turned out to be a key factor — possibly the single most important one — in growing SXSW numbers to what they are today, says Forrest.
And he guest-lectures on community engagement and social media’s challenges for journalism at the Poynter Institute, joining its national advisory board in January.
But what Forrest is most known for is his ability to speak the language of virtual communities — the kind of language that induces optimism in some and skepticism in plenty of others. Because to build a festival that shakes up the capital of Texas is one thing. For the rest of the world to ask that it shake up the entire tech industry, too? That’s a whole other kind of demand.
Lorraine Sanders contributed reporting.
Why you should care
Because SXSW is one of those festivals that define our increasingly technological world — but the guy behind it stepped on the right wires at the right time.