‘Spring, rebirth, inspiration’: SXSW goes virtual, ready for in-person event in 2022

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — South by Southwest kicks off its music and film portion of the festival Tuesday. This year, the event will go online for five days following last year’s cancellation just days before Austin-Travis County health leaders shut down the city.

“It was devastating, heartbreaking, tear-worthy, all of the above” Hugh Forrest, the festival’s chief programming officer recalled. “There’s that feeling of spring, of rebirth, of inspiration, of information, of people making connections of new things happening and to do the whole journey and then not get that payoff was devastating and certainly devastating for Austin as well because the event brings a ton of business to Austin.”

In 2019, the festival generated $355.9 million for Austin’s economy and brought more than 280,000 visitors to the city. No word yet on this year’s impact.

“Our task here has been to make lemonade out of the lemons that life dealt us and so many other people this year,” he said.

Forrest added they plan to return with an in-person event next year. He describes the event as “robust” because the festival’s team will take what they’ve learned this year and offer a hybrid option featuring virtual events.

This year, they’re seeing a new trend. Forrest believes the event going online has opened the festival to new opportunities.

“Since you’re not having to plan a plane trip, since you’re not having to plan a hotel room you can register the day before the event or the hour before the event and still take full advantage of what happens,” he explained.

In 2019, about one in four festival attendees or 25% came from overseas. This year, that number has gone up to 32% and still growing. Officials expect the final figures to show an additional jump with last-minute registrations.

“Being able to host these people virtually in 2021 will open us up to an even larger audience for an in-person event in 2022,” Forrest said.

For filmmakers, artists and musicians, like The Deer’s frontwoman Grace Rowland, they’re ready for the festival’s return, even if it’s online. The band was supposed to play at the annual festival last year but was faced with cancellations.

“We had five or six gigs scheduled and then a couple of them started to fall off and we thought, ‘Huh, that was strange,’ and then all of them got canceled,” Rowland said.

For the first time since last March, Rowland said The Deer recently performed at two live shows.

“We played a gig at Empire on Saturday and it was kind of a taste of the before times and it was amazing because people were dancing at their tables and being respectful,” she said.

This Saturday, they will perform via a Nine Mile Records live stream beginning at 11 a.m. For Rowland, it’s one step closer to returning to normalcy and the life she once had.

“You know, we’re here and we’re still working and we’re excited to get back out there,” she said.

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