SXSW and Chicago: Where does the second city rank?

March 6, 2012

Friday marks the start of South By Southwest 2012- universally known simply as SXSW. The little conference that began in Austin, Tex. in 1987 has grown into a cultural and corporate behemoth that is virtually inescapable each March. Nearly 50,000 people will travel to Austin this year to officially participate in either the Film, Interactive or Music portions of the conference. Countless more will simply show up in Austin looking for a good time. It's likely they'll all find something entertaining and free to do, as that's the name of the game for filmmakers, social networks, app designers, musicians, record labels, talent bookers and media outlets when it comes to SXSW. And for every free party, there are sure to be advertisers looking to influence the "tastemakers" who've taken their spring break in Texas. In short, SXSW is a giant cluster-you-know-what.

Listen to Jim DeRogatis and Andrew Huff discuss SXSW on Eight Forty-Eight

To begin to make sense of what people mean when they talk about SXSW, first we have to separate the official conference from the unsanctioned hoopla that takes over the rest of Austin in March. The outside activities are nearly impossible to quantify- some exist only as Facebook events and some are impromptu house parties. Last year some events were so chaotic some people I spoke with wondered if Austin authorities had lost control. For the purpose of a discussion of the big picture of SXSW, it helps to limit things to the official proceedings. That way we can talk about actual numbers and compare apples to apples, as it were.

For the past 20 years Jim DeRogatis has been attending SXSW Music. He's seen it grow from a much smaller gathering focused on edgy music, to its current massive scale. He was even there in 1998 when Fred Armisen went down from Chicago and made the SXSW comedy videos that launched his career. Through it all, Chicago has played an important role in much of what happens there. He'll be on Eight Forty-Eight Wednesday to discuss Chicago's place in the music world and how that squares with its presence at SXSW.

Andrew Huff has been involved in the SXSW Interactive conference for the past eight years. As the founder of Gapers Block and a savvy web entrepreneur, Huff serves on the conference's panel select board and has been on panels three times in the past. Panels are the bread and butter of SXSW Interactive, as music showcases and film screenings are for their respective conferences. SXSW Interactive has the highest percentage of Midwestern registrants of any of the conferences. Though there are a handful of big success stories here (Groupon, Threadless and Grubhub), does Chicago rank as a top city for the Interactive industry? And does it play a commensurate role in SXSW Interactive? Andrew Huff will be on Eight Forty-Eight Wednesday to lend his insights to these questions.

I'll also be heading to Austin next Monday. Check wbez.org/sxsw for daily updates and @wbezmusic for tweets from the trenches.

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