Hugh Forrest

Hugh Forrest

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In: Interviews

By Meryl K. Evans

Published on February 3, 2002

Digital Web: Tell us about your role with SXSW and how you first got involved.

Hugh Forrest: There are presently three wings to South by Southwest (SXSW)–Music, Film, and Interactive. I am the Event Director for the Interactive Festival. This means that I manage a very small paid staff (Website Competition Coordinator, Shawn O’Keefe and Marketing Coordinator, Jason McVearry) and provide the overall vision for the event. I am also directly in charge of booking all the panels and securing the speakers, which is a lot of fun.

As for my overall association with SXSW, I’ve been working here off-and-on since 1989. My initial involvement with this group was a little bit haphazard. I had been publishing an “alternative newspaper” in Austin and had therefore purchased a Mac Plus and one of the earliest Apple LaserWriters (for the typesetting). In those days, SXSW stored all of their registration information on a typesetting machine that belonged to the Austin Chronicle. They called me literally a week before the 1989 event and said, “Hey, we’re wondering if we could transfer all of database to a Mac. Your Mac, in fact.”

I told them this was do-able and we stayed up for about 48 hours straight re-entering all of the names and addresses of people who had registered into a database program called ReFlex. Of course, the program completely crashed a few days later when the event started and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster. But, apparently I impressed enough folks around here that they hired me as their Registration Coordinator. I think what they really wanted was use of the computer and the printer.

At any rate, I quit SXSW for a couple of years in 1992 to become editor of a local paper called the Texas Sports Chronicle. That was a lot of fun, but advertising revenues never really took off. When that thing folded after a few years, I hopped around to a few different jobs ranging from club /concert promotion to fundraising for a local environmental group… but, eventually came back to SXSW in 1994 and have been here ever since then.

Digital Web: How did SXSW come to be? How did the team arrive at the decision to offer it in three parts: film, interactive, and music?

HF: SXSW started as a music-only event in 1987. To a certain degree, SXSW was patterned after the New Music Festival (NMS) in New York. At one time, the folks who organized NMS were going to start an offshoot event in Austin, because of the traditionally strong music scene here. For one reason or another, their plans stalled and folks from Austin decided to pick up the ball and run with it.

At any rate, two of the four “founding directors” of the company were formerly involved with the Film School at the University of Texas. So, they had always wanted to add a movie component to SXSW–and did this in 1994. I think there were four panel tracks for that first year of Film and one of these tracks was geared towards multimedia. Attendance was great, enough so that we decided to spin Multimedia off into its own event for the following year. For the first few years, it was known as the SXSW Multimedia Conference. In 1997, we altered the name to SXSW Multimedia Conference & Interactive Festival. A year later, we shortened the name to where it currently stands.

Digital Web: Other than the subject matter, what do you see different between the three parts of the festival?

HF: Wow… big question

On the one hand, I think the roles of the various attendees for the Music and Film events are a little bit more defined than for the Interactive Festival. For instance, at SXSW Music, the attendees fall into two main groups of people–up-and-coming musicians and then all the people who are hoping to ‘discover’ these musicians (ranging from A&R people to press to club owners to radio professionals). The equation works in a very symbiotic fashion–during the day, the musicians listen to the industry people. Then, at night, the industry folks listen to the musicians. To some extent, the same kind of logic applies with the indy film-makers who come to SXSW Film.

But, I don’t think there is that same kind of talent / talent-buyer dynamic in the new media industry–or not in 2002, at least. So, at SXSW Interactive, I think there’s less of a distinction between the speakers and the attendees. There’s kind of a feeling that everyone is in the same boat and we’re all kind of going the same direction. The people leading the panel might have a little better idea of where the boat is going to end up than the people listening to them–or maybe not. Often, someone in the audience raises the most interesting points in a panel during the question and answer period.

On the whole, however, I think there are more similarities than differences between the three SXSW events. All three events are geared to people who have a strong sense of creativity and an even stronger sense of independence. Whether it is a quirky musician or an unconventional Web designer, people who attend SXSW don’t want to listen to mainstream definitions of art. And, what is really special is when creative types from these three groups of people mix together. This merging of ideas from different genres is what I think is the most special and unique part of SXSW.

Digital Web: What sets SXSW apart from the other conferences out there?

HF: As before, I think one of the most unique aspects of SXSW is that it brings together creative people from the Internet, with creative types from the music and film industries. The ensuing mix of minds and ideas is really fascinating to watch and to experience.

Another thing that probably makes the Interactive event different than other such gatherings is that our panels don’t focus too much on the technical stuff. Why? Because I’m not all that strong in my understanding of the technical stuff, so I usually gear the panels towards a discussion of ideas and concepts (as opposed to software and code).

Digital Web: Who are the people behind SXSW Interactive and what are their backgrounds?

HF: The entire SXSW organization now has about 30 full-time, year-round employees. A lot of these people do administrative work for all three events–administrative work such as processing registrations or designing artwork or maintaining the database.

As for people who work only on the Interactive Festival, we have a very small staff. But, I like to think that small is better–and that being lean is one of out most important strengths. Shawn O’Keefe runs the Web site competition and has done a fantastic job finding some of the best new sites on the Internet. Shawn is also responsible for managing the portion of the Web site related to SXSW Interactive.

Jason McVearry heads up all our marketing and sales efforts. Given the economy, his job hasn’t been very easy this year. But, Jason is very persistent and has been able to generate a lot of new clients even in these tough times. We also have two interns working on press and publicity: Kim Garcia and Mike Simonoff. Ultimately these distinctions in job responsibilities are a bit superfluous in that we all do a little bit of everything.

Also, while our paid staff is minimal, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the hundreds of volunteers who donate countless hours of work to SXSW Interactive. They are the real behind-the-scenes stars for this event. Without their help and enthusiasm and energy, there wouldn’t be a SXSW Interactive Festival.

Digital Web: How does the team stay busy throughout the year preparing for the conference especially in the April – June months?

HF: Shawn, Jason and I have year-round meetings about this stuff. Summer is obviously a lot more relaxed than the fall and the winter. So, we try to do a lot of long-term brainstorming in those months. Some of that brainstorming eventually finds its way into the March event. For instance, we started talking about the Iron Webmaster Showdown last April. A lot of the other ideas we discuss during the summer never go beyond the planning stage. But, the discussion process is very important in terms of defining the long-term direction of the event.

As an organization, SXSW also tends to work on other events over the summer months. Over the last several years, we’ve been involved with an event in Portland, Oregon called North by Northwest (NXNW). This thing is a little more geared towards music–although we have added a strong focus on new media in recent years. NXNW was canceled for 2001, although it looks like we will probably do the event again in 2002. So, we will likely have our plate full with that as soon as SXSW concludes.

Digital Web: 2001 was a somber year for conferences and festivals. What do you think will happen in 2002? Are we going to continue the, “Nero fiddling while Rome burns” as you described an interview post-2001 SXSW?

HF: In many ways, I regret that quote–simply because I don’t think it accurately portrayed the experience most of our registrants had at last year’s event. Yes, the 2001 Interactive Festival was a little less crowded than the year before, during the heart of the boom. But, I think that what we lost in quantity was far out gained in quality. The people who attended last year’s event (and who are attending in 2002) are people who love the power and potential of new media. SXSW was never all that successful in attracting the get-rich-quick Internet crowd–so we didn’t lose that much when that demographic died away.

Again, our core audience is the creative types who were involved in the Web long before the boom. Through a combination of determination and innovation, these people are finding ways to outwit the recession. I think we’ve carved out a pretty good following in this niche and so I think attendance at our event will be fine.

Digital Web: Considering the slowdown of conferences, how do you meet the challenge of finding sponsors and other resources that help ensure SXSW is successful?

HF: The good news is that SXSW has never been overly sponsor driven, so we don’t feel that much of a pinch in 2002. Yes, it would make life a lot easier around here if mega-computer-corp. were giving us a ton of money. On the other hand, if such were the case, I don’t think the event would enjoy the same kind of emphasis on creativity and independence that it enjoys now. I think our organization faces the same challenges most new media companies are facing at present. The current economy means that you have to be a lot more resourceful in the things you do and the places you look for funding options. But, we’re surviving and I’m really proud of that.

Digital Web: What does the organization hope its attendees “takeaway” each year? Anything specific this year?

HF: From the speakers I’ve talked to in the last few months, I’m confident that folks will leave SXSW with a greater sense of optimism about the future of this industry. While we’re not going to sugarcoat things, this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival will spotlight people who are doing amazing things with new media. Let the mainstream press talk about the failures of the dotcom world; our event will celebrate all the innovative things that are being done on the Web, and talk about the even more innovative things that will be done tomorrow.

Of course, I also hope that people leave the even with a handful of leads on new employment opportunities. Most importantly, I hope they leave with some great memories of new friendships made–and I hope these friendships lead to many new connections, both on professional and a personal level.

Digital Web: How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the Interactive world as demonstrated by the caliber of people who speak at SXSW)?

HF: I’ve been very lucky to connect with a few of the luminaries in the interactive world, who have connected me with others, who have connected me with others, who have connected me with others and so on and so forth. The caliber of speakers at this year’s event reflects the quality of the informal network we’ve been able to set up–as well as the “small world” nature of this medium. But, my role in all of this is pretty minimal. The smartest move we ever did here was reach out to some of these people–we told them that we liked what they were doing and that they would probably enjoy themselves at SXSW. They did most of the rest of the work for us.

I should also add that the presence of the Web site competition has been a great way for us to both define and expand our target demographic. In 2000, we altered the rules such that only Web sites, which had launched in the last year, were eligible to enter. This has enabled us to stay current with up-and-coming developers who are doing some of the most creative work out there.

Digital Web: In a previous interview, you indicated that SXSW is heading back to its roots by focusing on ideas and creativity. How does SXSW make this happen?

HF: As opposed to talking about business models (past, present or future), I think it makes a lot more sense to focus on ideas and creativity in 2002. But, again, most of this focus comes from the generalist background I bring to the panel process. If I had a background in economics, I’d probably focus more panels on the economic side of the new media landscape. If I had a background in software or programming, the panels would be a lot more technical in nature. Instead, I bring more of a general curiosity to these topics. And, of course, I’m always fascinated by listening to creative people talk about how they arrive at their ideas.

Digital Web: What does creativity mean to you?

HF: I don’t know that I can define creativity. But, I love it when you are reading a book or watching a movie or seeing a play or listening to music and you get the “whoosh feeling” when your mind turns 180 degrees and you’ve stumbled across a completely different way of looking at the world. I think you get that feeling quite a few times at SXSW, simply because the event offers so many different avenues for creativity compacted into such a short period of time. And, inevitably, you’ll find inspiration and creativity at some place where you least expected it. But, that is part of the fun as well.

Digital Web: Where does the SXSW team get its inspiration especially at a time when the public puts a low priority on travel and conferences?

HF: For myself, I’ve been really inspired by talking to a lot of the panelists. Even though it is a tough time for the industry, these people haven’t given up. They are still creating same amazing stuff–and they are still unshakable in their confidence that new media’s best innovations are still yet to come.

Digital Web: What do you see in the typical SXSW attendee?

HF: I’m completely blanking on this one… how about a hunger for barbeque and Shiner Bock?

Digital Web: What advice do you offer to first time attendees?

HF: Don’t be shy. Try to meet as many people as possible. Try to attend as many different events as you can. Don’t expect to get too much sleep. See our guide on Getting the Most out of the 2002 SXSW Interactive Festival.

Digital Web: What do you suggest attendees do to be prepared to make the most of their time at SXSW?

HF: Probably the best thing to do is read through the bios of the panelists on the Web sites to get a general idea of who you most want to meet at the event. Make yourself familiar with the schedule (also available on the Web) so you have a good idea of all the things going on each day. Make sure you have a supply of business cards to hand out to the new friends you make at the event.

Digital Web: How do you stay motivated when the economy challenges us?

HF: I think the best way to stay motivated and energetic for this job is to feed off the excitement of the people who are coming to the event. We put in a lot of hard work to try to make this event run smoothly. The hours-logged-to-paycheck-received ratio usually does not quite add up. But, when people tell you how much fun they had at the event and how many new ideas they got from attending, it makes it all worthwhile. That kind of positive feedback is very addictive.

Digital Web: If anything goes, who would you want to have as a speaker for SXSW and why?

HF: I’ve tried to get Brian Eno to speak for several years. But, haven’t had a whole lot of luck there. Given the range of things that he is involved with, I think he’s a perfect fit for what we do. Plus, we share the same birthday–so I figure that is a sure sign of something. Maybe we’ll be able to get him on board for 2003!

Digital Web: What do you foresee in the future of SXSW?

HF: I hope we can continue to stay current with the ongoing changes in the industry. I hope we can smooth out some of the rough edges that still surround the event. I hope we can add in more elements that will make SXSW even more fun and exciting. But, generally, I really like the direction that we are taking right now and the kind of people that are coming to our event. In the end, staging SXSW is kind of like throwing a really big get-together for all the people whose ideas and creativity you admire most. Not a bad way to make a living.

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Meryl K. Evans, content maven, is a WaSP member even though she’s far from being a WASP. The content maven writes a column for PC Today and blogs for the Web Design Reference Guide at InformIT. Meryl provides the home for the CSS Collection and she’s the editor of Professional Services Journal, meryl’s notes :: the newsletter as well as other newsletters, so tell all your friends, families and animals to subscribe. Her ancient blog keeps cluckin’ since its arrival on the web in 2000.