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BOOKS Ft THE CULTURE I BY JOE NICK PATOSKI The Boys with the Bands EIM or 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 photowe were on a boat with a shark attacking usshe 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 postrecord 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 handsbeans, 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 continued on page 27 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 10, 2006