The SXSW Exec Keeping Austin Weird
Who is the driving force behind SXSW’s past, present and yet to come? Meet Hugh Forrest who’s been the Chief Programming Officer since 1989, year three of the festival (and has just been named co-President with Jann Baskett, who also serves as Chief Brand Officer). For those of us who have witnessed the evolution of SXSW firsthand, it’s clear that programming has led to its longevity. “We are less about any one specific industry or vertical; instead, we try to highlight people and companies and ideas that reflect the most creative approaches possible in a wide variety of pursuits,” says Hugh. “Mix these highly creative people from different industries together in a highly creative city, and the results have proven to be very compelling.” He’s instrumental in expanding SXSW’s reach and influence, and has been the visionary that has turned what was once a small, dusty music fest into the multifaceted, multi-hyphenate global phenomenon it is today.
Founded in 1987 by staffers at the Austin Chronicle, SXSW brings the best in music, film, tech and culture to the booming creative hub of Austin, Texas. But SXSW is over. Done. Outdated. Oversaturated. Right? No matter how often haters declare the festival to be “over” it just keeps reinventing itself. What was once a local music fest attracting 700 fans, hosted 417k people from 126 countries with 26 tracks in 2019 — not to mention bringing in $350M to the city of Austin, which the four-lettered phenom helped put on the map. Then came Covid. They went virtual. Then Omicron. They went hybrid. In 2023, SXSW came roaring back with 345k attendees, 3,000 speakers and 270+ official events (plus countless unofficial ones). Oh and did we mention they’re going to Sydney, Australia later this year? Yup, so over.