Too Big And Too Commercial? SXSW's Chief Logistics Officer On Austin, The Festival
Mike Shea moved to Austin in 1975 to be a singer-songwriter, then drifted into a serious day job as a partner in a convention and trade show planning company. When the Austin Chronicle launched SXSW in 1987, Shea offered his services and never left. He says it is because the idea of having a job where he didn’t have to wear a suit and tie was too good to resist.
But Austin and SXSW are increasingly accused of outgrowing their unique edge. Shea will be tackling the subject in an interactive Q&A titled "I’m Not From Here But It Was Better Before" at Bisnow's Austin Hospitality and Tourism event June 19.
Certainly SXSW has expanded, just as Shea’s role has. Attendance at the first SXSW was 700. Today it is estimated at almost half a million, although only 70,000 carry credentials. Shea now serves as chief logistics officer and partner. It is a big and sometimes thankless job.
"Being in charge of logistics for SXSW is like building a fleet of passenger jets. Lots of heavy lifting for someone else's vacation in Tahiti," Shea said.
Bisnow: From what I've read, you've been with SXSW almost from the beginning. I don't think any of us in Austin get tired of hearing how SXSW started. Can you tell us one of your earliest memories of the event?
Shea: I came on board for SXSW in 1990 so 2019 will be my 30th year. Apparently I’m a lifer. In retrospect, it’s amazing we produced a relatively big conference and festival with such a tiny budget and staff. Most of my memories for the first 15 years are lost in a blur of panic and exhaustion.
Bisnow: Which year did you think "This is really a lot bigger than Austin ..."? What was the year SXSW got its own trademark?
Shea: Despite the “Southwest” moniker, the goal was always to be a national and even international event. In the 1990s, when I started seeing SXSW tote bags on the streets of Toronto and Berlin, it was obvious word had gotten out.
Bisnow: What was the biggest challenge to the festival in the early years? How did you decide to expand from music to the other topics? And when do you decide to add more tracks for, say, gaming or technology, on top of the traditional film, music and interactive?
Shea: Film and music were the driving passions for our founding directors so adding the film festival in 1994 was inevitable from the start. Technology was a little less obvious, but we had unused meeting space in our hotels and convention center so it was pretty easy to program some geekier sessions to see if there was interest. From that point on we listened closely to what our attendees asked for and tried to give them what they wanted.
Bisnow: Is there a point where you have to limit SXSW? Is the festival ever going to be too big?
Shea: People have been asking that question for 25 years, but we haven’t collapsed under our own weight yet. The huge schedule definitely provides some challenges for our folks — rifling through thousands of events to locate the stuff they’re really interested in. But once they identify their tribe and figure out which venues will host their favorite topics, it really gets pretty manageable. On the positive side, we hear over and over that some of the best SXSW experiences happened by accident because there are so many different presentations and films, and parties and showcases happening cheek-to-jowl.
Bisnow: How do you think SXSW has evolved as Austin as evolved? Or, to flip that question, do you think SXSW has changed Austin?
Shea: In 1987, Austin’s population was 744,000 and now it’s 2.1 million. SXSW 1987 had about 700 attendees, and last year over 70,000 people had some sort of SXSW credential. It’s fair to say the city and the event have both experienced 30 years of explosive growth. There’s no question that SXSW’s cutting-edge brand has been a real boon to Austin’s reputation as a create place to visit or live. And that’s cycled back around and helped SXSW because folks see us as a business-related excuse to hang out here for a week. Everybody’s pretty happy with how things worked out.
Bisnow: There seems to be this Austin pastime where we all sit around and talk about how the festival is over itself, how it's too commercial, how it's too "not Austin." Do you think the festival will or can hit that point? And, if so, how do the festival organizers work to keep it weird, to keep it Austin?
Shea: SXSW has never been a museum or amusement park where you go back year after year to see the same dinosaur skeletons or ride the same ride. It’s a transformative experience full of entertainment and ideas and inspiration and interesting people. It’s a stage at a crossroads where makers and producers show off their creations for audiences and buyers and sellers. Is that weird? I don’t know. Is that Austin? I think it was 30 years ago, and I think it will be 30 years from now. SXSW’s mission statement is to help creative people achieve their goals and that’s what we’ll keep trying to do.
Pepper Shea with questions June 19 at Bisnow's Austin Hospitality and Tourism event June 19.