With SXSW over for another year in Texas, the countdown is on for the first time the event will touch down in the Southern Hemisphere. SXSW Sydney is opening its doors on October 15, bringing all the sights and sounds of the conference to Australia.
Mediaweek sat down with Hugh Forrest, co-president and chief programming officer for SXSW on his most recent trip to Australia, to chat about what made Sydney a good fit for the expansion, and what has kept him working with the organisation for so long.
Founded in 1987, Forrest has been involved with SXSW since almost day one. In his time with the event, he says that it’s evolved quite a lot – but the heart of it has remained the same.
“When I started back in 1989, it was completely focused on music. Then, we added what was then called film and multimedia in 1994, and that was the start of many pivots to slightly different content. I think that those pivots are the reasons that it’s survived and thrived for 35 years – if we only focused on music, it may not have survived. It certainly wouldn’t have grown as large as we’ve been fortunate enough to grow it.
“We cover topics like transportation, health care, food, fashion, style, sports, climate change, cannabis, psychedelics – the north star is always creativity, and bringing together creative people in a city that celebrates creativity.”
That guiding philosophy of highlighting creativity is what has led the team down under, with Forrest saying that Sydney is “a city that is also very attentive to creativity in all its forms.”
“We’ve been approached over the years by many different cities, regions, and countries about doing a SXSW event, and the conversations that we’ve had here in Australia started in 2018,” says Forrest.
“The commitment seems stronger than anywhere else, a lot of the people involved seem to have a better understanding of what SXSW is, and it’s a gateway to APAC. There’s such a strong technology industry here in Sydney, and that’s been such a big part of our growth at SXSW over the last few years. Last but not least, the fact that it’s so far away from Austin means we didn’t think it was going to pull from our current audience – there are people who would love to go SXSW from this region who have never been able to go to Texas because it’s so far, and they’ll come to this event in Sydney.”
With the introduction of SXSW Sydney, it’s not just the Australians wishing they could go to Austin anymore – Forrest says that the desire to travel to the other side of the world for the event also works in reverse.
“The group from Austin want to go, they want to come to Sydney in the fall. It’s a really neat place and we’re really, really excited about the opportunities here.
“This is what I hope will become even more of a bridge between the two regions. From a lot of our talks with people in Sydney, and people in Australia, there’s this alignment with the general vibe of this region and of Texas. There’s a spirit of independence, we punch above our weight, and that is very much in the SXSW ethos.”
When it comes to programming SXSW Sydney, Forrest says that the team have taken a very similar approach to the team in Austin.
“Sydney created something similar to the Panel Picker, which we’ve used in Austin for the last 15 years. It’s a way to involve and engage the community in the content – people send in speaking proposals, and the team received about 1,400 proposals which is great for the first year. They’ve got some really good stuff there.
“The Sydney team has followed our path, in that the bulk of the content comes through the Panel Picker session selection process, but then we’re also curating stuff at the same time.”
Despite some crossover in the programming between the two cities – Amy Webb is a star of SXSW, and is heading down under as keynote speaker for the inaugural SXSW Sydney – Forrest says that the two events will still be very separate.
“To really be clear here, Sydney should not be an exact duplication or replication of Austin. Sydney should take the best of what Austin has done and improve on that, and even more so, Sydney should emphasise what makes creativity in Sydney and in Australia compelling and unique.”
Despite the differences between the two cities and the events themselves, Forrest says that when the SXSW Sydney event rolls around in October, he hopes punters “take away roughly the same experience of people in Austin.”
“I hope they find new opportunities to collaborate, they come up with new brainstorms, they find someone who will fund their startup, they find a startup to invest in, they make a new friendship, make a new relationship – they’re inspired.
“People often ask me ‘why have you worked at this organisation for so long?’, and my response is always that it’s really hard work, and sometimes, like all hard work, it can get frustrating. But when the event happens, when people come up to you and say, ‘this event changed my life’ or ‘this is the highlight of my year’, that’s incredibly powerful. To have a small part in an event that helps change people’s lives and helps gives them hope, optimism, and new opportunities, that’s really cool.”
Top Image: Hugh Forrest