The Boys with the Bands
For the past 19 winters, Roland Swenson, Nick Barbaro, and Louis Black have spent their Friday afternoons plotting and planning South By Southwest, a cool idea they came up with based on getting a bunch of bands and music people together. That cool idea has grown into the biggest music convention in the world, a film festival, and an interactive conference. For two weeks every March, Austin becomes the center of the Alternative universe, with 10,000 registered participants and another 10,000 with similar bents hanging around. In observance of SXSW’s 20th year, the three founders talked about what it looks like from the inside looking out after all these years. Excerpts follow:
Texas Observer: Do people ever come up and ask What is South by Southwest?
Nick Barbaro: I can’t remember the last time that happened.
Swenson: When I was in Sydney [Australia] we went to the Aquarium and the girl who did one of those green screen things where they put you on a photo—we were on a boat with a shark attacking us—she saw my jacket and she knew what SXSW was. She went on at length about how excited she was.
Black: I’ll be at dinner with my sister in California and I’m talking about it and the waitress will come over and start talking about her South By experience.
Swenson: And then they bring their CD.
Barbaro: I can’t really remember the last time that happened to me. What I would tell them is, it’s a music festival and something like 1,400 bands play in clubs all around Austin and music business people come and talk music business.
Black: …and a film festival and interactive conference.
Barbaro: There’s that, too.
TO: Why did you start this?
Swenson: There was already some momentum to do something like this. The New Music Seminar guys [in New York, agreed to put on a satellite festival in Austin before backing out] At that point, I went and told Nick and Louis, this could be big.
TO: Why do it now?
Black: It’s the most fun I have all year.
Barbaro: How could we stop? I’m not sure how that would work.
Swenson: I still have a kid to put through college.
TO: How has it changed?
Black: There were 200 bands the first year, and 1,400 registrants. There will be 1,400 bands this year, and 10,000 registrants. No movies were screened the first year because there wasn’t a film festival. This year there are 90 movies. No bloggers attended the first year. We’ll probably have 1,000 this year.
Barbaro: There wasn’t even an Internet the first year.
Swenson: We didn’t have a fax machine or desktop publishing or cellphones. Reagan was president…
TO: Is there a secret to growing a business like this?
Black: Tenacity. We all really believe in this. It’s the perfect model for the post-record company world of music where the biggest labels are only interested in a very limited number of acts, so it really works for musicians.
Swenson: I think it has more to do with Austin and the fact that when people traveled here from New York or Los Angeles, suddenly they didn’t have their secretaries with them and suddenly they could talk to people, and they liked it.
Black: At Sundance, they’re not on the streets that much. They’re at private parties and private houses. You come to Austin during SXSW and those people are on the street. Two years ago, I saw five of the top film distributors walking out of the convention center to go eat barbecue. These guys had come up together, but that was probably the first time they relaxed and enjoyed each other in a long time. They certainly didn’t do it at Sundance. It’s Austin, Austin, Austin.
Swenson: This was designed for people who don’t live in New York, LA or Nashville. That’s who we initially targeted. Because it worked, people from those cities started coming too.
TO: Now the town is full of people from New York, LA, and Nashville.
Swenson: And London and Tokyo and Sydney…
Barbaro: And Houston and Kansas City and weird places. I first thought this was going to be a success when we heard a group of bookers and managers from Houston had gotten together for the first time here. They had never met each other in Houston.
TO: Any particular memories about that first year?
Black: The first morning Roland called me at home. He woke me up and said, “It’s gonna happen today.” I said, “What?” He said, “It’s today, Louis.” I said, “Yes, it is,” and I went back to sleep.
Swenson: I was very, very afraid.
Barbaro: Stubbs [the late barbecue maestro CB Stubblefield] turned up at the softball game with a trailer load of barbecue meat and no serving utensils. So he served meals to everyone at the tournament with his hands—beans, everything. He had big hands.
TO: What was the worst part of the first year?
Swenson: For me, it was this fear that okay, we’ve convinced all these people to travel here for this thing and what if they get here and they’re like, “Is this all? You got me here for this?” So, when they all got here and seemed to be having a good time, that was a tremendous relief. I had been having dreams where I’d be at the event and people would be going, “There he is! He’s the one! Get him!”
Barbaro: We really did go into it not knowing whether people would show up and whether they would have interests here when they did. So, when both of those things happened, it was all good.
Black: It was a period of time when I was psychotically depressed anyway, so it was the third or fourth year when I suddenly realized people loved this event, and they loved coming here.
TO: What was the best part about last year?
Swenson: You know, we don’t get to go to SXSW.
Black: I love watching the people who come. That’s mostly what we get to do. I just watch the faces of the people—the Scandinavians who look like they’ve died and gone to heaven, or the Japanese who are just trying to figure it out.
TO: Who are your favorite foreigners?
Black: The Uzbeks.
Swenson: We’re more famous in England than we are in the States.
TO: What are the biggest customer complaints?
Black: It’s really a drag when you’re dealing with a lot of people who want to get into something and you can’t let ’em all in it. I get fascist about it which makes it worse, but it really is a drag. You want to get everybody in. That’s why you’re doing this. The idea is not exclusion. We are not New York doormen. They wrote negative criticism about me one year on a forum about how I shouldn’t be allowed to work doors.
Swenson: There were always times when you couldn’t get in somewhere. It’s the nature of the beast. If we’re gonna do shows in these relatively small clubs and we’re gonna put out acts people want to see, then they’re gonna fill up, we can’t get around that. So what we try to do is just keep having lots and lots of shows so there’s always some place you can get in. The people who have the most fun are the ones who, if they go somewhere and can’t get in, go somewhere else. It’s the ones who stand in line for an hour and a half that get really mad [as JNP and family did last year waiting to see the Kaiser Chiefs and getting in too late]. We’ve gotten better anticipating and managing it, matching up the artist with the right size venue when we can. Frequently, it’s the artists that demand to play a place that’s too small because they want a line down the street, they want a sea out front.
Black: Sometimes they want to play a small room just because they figure it’s South By Southwest and they feel like playing a small room, and they love the line down the street. That’s part of what you’re here for, to get that buzz going.
Black: The thing most misunderstood about SXSW is that the emphasis is always on the event working as well as it can for as many people as it can. It’s never on making money. I don’t expect anybody to believe it, but it’s one of the things that makes it a pleasure.
Barbaro: I’ve got this down to where I don’t really do much during the event. I have hours where I have to sit around and wait for things to go wrong, but they don’t. Nothing ever goes wrong.
Black: You’re saying that chain mail vest you made is nothing?
Barbaro: I did have time to make a chain mail vest two years ago during the event. I go to see at least a couple movies each year and music. If the period leading up to the event were more restful then I’d feel more, more rested for going to events during it, but the lead up period is actually more work and more stressful than during the event.
TO: What do we have to look forward to this year?
Black: All the people who love music are coming back again; it’s no longer the Internet millionaires. One of the weird things that we’ve come to realize is that SXSW Interactive is a hot event. It’s the only one where I go online to read about what’s going on. I know a lot of bloggers come, a lot of next generation media people who aren’t interested in money, but in ideas.
Swenson: We’re beyond podcasting now into I don’t know what. One of the reasons we added the film and the interactive events was that entertainment is coming from those sources. The new music business is less about companies and more about artists. It’s one of the reasons we’ve grown. We’ve always had a broad base of participation. It wasn’t just about major labels or just about indie labels or just about artists or bookers or whatever. Now, artists have so many more options than they did when we first started.
Black: The evolution of technology is allowing new and different kinds of films to be made. You can make films cheaper. So people making films are younger. We always felt that docs and narratives are equal. I don’t think that we were even conscious about how different that was. I think that it was our organic training, treating docs as seriously as we did narratives. One of the real pleasures of this has been that most of the things we did because we thought they were the right things to do have turned out to be good for business.
TO: You still like each other?
Swenson: We fought a lot back in our early days. But it was over stuff that we thought was important. It was never about our personalities. Well, maybe, I don’t know.
Black: It’s been the dynamic of a marriage but there’s no sex. It took us a while.
Barbaro: It took 10 years for print media to win the softball tournament.
TO: Are you surprised how it’s turned out?
Swenson: People always say I bet you never thought it would be this big, but I did. I guess that doesn’t sound very modest. I always knew the idea was good. And it’s not even my idea. But once we got the first one under our belt, we said, okay, we got this down. We know now that we just can’t take anything for granted. I don’t take it for granted that there will be SXSW after this year. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen.
Black: I never dreamed that it could become what it is. I don’t think Nick did. But Roland did. He got what it was and how it was going to work. He always kept seeing ahead. We [Nick and I] were catching up. Roland was always the one who knew where we needed to go next.
TO: That’s the tricky part with growing a concept. You don’t usually find the same people in place this far down the line, especially considering how it has grown.
Swenson: We all complement each other. I had been involved in a lot of stuff that was good or cool, but that didn’t work out. Nick and Louis taught me how to be a businessman in the creative world, which is not easy. They had done it. They launched the Chronicle. They knew what you had to do to make that work, how to balance the integrity with making it financially feasible, which you have to do in any kind of creative endeavor.
Black: We all learn from each other. Sometimes we did it gracefully and sometimes not gracefully. But the bottom line is, we did it, even when were pissed at each other. Nick was the inspiration, the leader, I think we’re more equal now, but for the longest time and in many ways, he’s been the most anonymous of all. Nick taught Roland and I about money and the right way to do things, which was Nick’s way.
Swenson: It still is.
Barbaro: It’s unusual to see the same management in place after something has been going for 20 years. The tendency is to sell out to a conglomerate. But we can’t think of anything we’d rather be doing. There’s nowhere else to go, why sell out?
TO: When do you start work on ’07?
Black: We started two years ago.
Swenson: It takes about six weeks to mop up afterwards, pay all the bills, settle the lawsuits, then we spend a lot of time talking about what happened and what we want to do different or new. In June we start putting together the first brochures and then we start taking bands and films in August.
TO: This all sounds very interesting, but what I really want to know is, Is it too late to get a CD to you?
Joe Nick Patoski used to discuss the music business with Roland Swenson in the parking lot of Raul’s Club when both managed new wave bands in the late 1970s. He later shared office space with Nick Barbaro and Louis Black and the Austin Chronicle. He has attended every year of South By Southwest and does the play-by-play with Kevin Connor of the championship game of the softball tournament.