Austin Next

SXSW is one of the most anticipated annual events that celebrate the convergence of music, film, and technology in Austin, Texas. We welcome Hugh Forrest, SXSW Co-President & Chief Programming Officer back to the podcast to explore the latest developments and insights from SXSW and learn how this dynamic event continues to inspire and shape the future of creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Episode Highlights
  • The importance of SXSW in the Austin community and its core nature as a creative and entrepreneurial event.
  • Tips for first-time attendees of SXSW, including how to plan and make the most of their experience.
  • What's new in SXSW 2023, including the addition of new tracks, sponsors, and the use of generative AI.
  • An overview of the Health & MedTech and 2050 tracks at the SXSW conference.
  • Balancing optimism and skepticism in the age of AI, with insights from SXSW on climate change and technological innovation.
  • The launch of SXSW Sydney and what to expect from this new event.

Episode Links
Hugh Forrest: LinkedIn, Twitter
SXSW: Website, LinkedIn, Twitter

Austin Next Links: Website, X/Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn

What is Austin Next?

Austin's transformation into a global innovation powerhouse is at the heart of Austin Next. We explore insights into the region's evolution and the building of robust ecosystems. Additionally, we delve into the potential impact of emerging trends, technologies, and their convergence.
Austin, as our real-world case study, helps us aspire to better comprehend the true nature of innovation.

[00:00:00] Michael Scharf: Austin Next is happy to welcome back Hugh Forrest, the Co-President and Chief Programming Officer for SXSW and really appreciate him for taking time away from the mad rush just before the event. Hugh oversees content for the SXSW Conference, as well as the music festival, film festival, and educational aspects of the program.
[00:00:20] Hugh's been recognized as Austinite of the Year by the Austin Chamber and Austin Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, amongst other well-deserved accolades. Hugh Forrest, welcome back to the Austin Next Podcast. Thanks for making time for us.
[00:00:35] Hugh Forrest: Absolutely. Thanks for having me on again. Excited to talk about SXSW.
[00:00:40] Michael Scharf: Yeah, absolutely. But let's talk about some of the other things first. Belated congratulations. In October, you were named Co-President of SXSW. How's that changed your life? How's that changed what you do for the organization?
[00:00:55] Thank you for the nice words there. Great honor to have a new title.
[00:01:00] Hugh Forrest: It's changed my day-to-day activities here a little bit, but not a whole lot. I'm still mainly focused on programming. That's still my, I think, number one priority. But the reorg at the company, I think, has given a little more clarity to what people are doing and has been generally good for the company in terms of just understanding what people's roles are better and that helps us move forward.
[00:01:29] Michael Scharf: Superstar status after 30 years in reorg. It's not a bad thing.
[00:01:33] Hugh Forrest: Doubtful, doubtful.
[00:01:36] Michael Scharf: Let's be honest. SXSW is an Austin institution. Absolutely. Its impact here is huge. Almost $300 million last year alone.
[00:01:46] Hugh Forrest: I think we were at about 280 last year. We were significantly down or somewhat down from the pandemic, but still a nice amount of revenue pumped into the Austin economy as well as just shining this bright spotlight on the creativity in Austin, which is, I think what we've always done.
[00:02:06] Michael Scharf: I have to be honest. I don't know of any other conference that is so involved in the community outside the 10 days of the actual event. South by is a year-long kind of thing. And I'm not just talking about the planning. I know you guys work on this all year, but South by sponsors and participates in events throughout the year, whether it's Austin Forum, whether it's the Chamber. You're always out there making presentations and doing things.
[00:02:41] The organization's always involved. Why do you do this and how do you see South By’s place in the Austin community? Why do you guys feel it's so important to be so engaged?
[00:02:54] Hugh Forrest: I've always felt that we are a community event and that we're stronger when we can reflect and leverage the power of a very creative community.
[00:03:07] At this point in our journey, that community is global, international. But it all really started here in Austin with so much creativity that comes out of this city, that has always come outta this city, that continues to come out of this city, and getting a lot of great ideas from creatives in this city.
[00:03:29] We like being out there. We like interacting with people who like SXSW. We get a lot of great ideas from them. We get a lot of great energy from them. So these are all things that are very important to us, and I appreciate the nice words. I know that we could do a lot more in the community and hope that we can increase our community involvement in the months and years forward.
[00:03:57] But again, it's really the root of everything we do and just incredibly important to us.
[00:04:05] Michael Scharf: You talk about getting even more involved. How would you see that happening?
[00:04:08] Hugh Forrest: Well, I think that we could do more things outside of— I love doing stuff with the Chamber. I love doing stuff at Capital Factory.
[00:04:19] There are lots of other places that we could do stuff as well, that we could reach new portions of the community. Do more stuff in the spring and summer, which is traditionally a little bit of our late spring and summer, traditionally a little bit of our downtime. Just again, as fortunate as we've have been to grow over the last three decades, there's still lots of people who don't really understand what SXSWt is. And I think the best way to educate those people is often face-to-face interaction. “Oh wow. I didn't have any idea that was what SXSW is.” So again, there's lots of room to grow there.
[00:04:58] Michael Scharf: At its core, how would you describe the nature of SXSW? Let me give you a couple of examples. On the one hand, in San Francisco, you've got the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. It's all about the deals. People go there to make deals. It's all about the the hotel rooms and the hallway and that kind of thing.
[00:05:19] And on the other hand, if you think about it, in San Diego, a couple of months later, you've got Comic-Con. I don't think anybody's doing any deals at ComicCon. They're out there showing the latest trailer and first 10 minutes of this Marvel movie and the second 10 minutes of that DCU movie.
[00:05:38] And Tom Cruise is out there. He may not be jumping on a couch this time, but he's showing off scenes from Top Gun: Maverick. SXSW’s a little bit of both, I'm sure. We’ve got lots of movies being premiered here. I'm sure they're looking for distribution. We've got lots of musicians who would love to be picked up and get new gigs.
[00:06:00] We've got lots of technology companies that are not only looking to premiere their products but perhaps get their next partnership, their next round of funding. How does SXSW fit, if you would, between that continuum of like the JP Morgan on one hand and Comic-Con on the other?
[00:06:17] Hugh Forrest: I thought you were gonna go for a Burning Man as the second one. I think that there are a ton of great events out there, and we're flattered to be included in that list.
[00:06:30] Our mission statement has always been that SXSW helps creative people achieve their goals. And as much as we've changed and pivoted in the 35 years since the events started in 1987 and realized that when it started in 1987, it was entirely focused on music.
[00:06:50] Three decades later, we focus on music, we focus on healthcare, we focus on transportation. We focus on government, on sports, on style, on food, and on fashion, and so many other verticals. But the unifying construct here, or the unifying principle—the thread that holds this all together—is extremely creative people, and we firmly believe that events like SXSW where you can connect with other creative people in your industry are fantastic for professional as well as personal growth.
[00:07:28] Hugh Forrest: We also even more firmly believe that SXSW is relatively unique and that you can connect and learn from creative professionals in other industries, and that often you can learn the most about what you're doing by seeing someone in a different industry who has a completely different approach to what they do.
[00:07:51] It turns something in your brain that hadn't turned before about, “Wow, I could bring that into my field.” And then also, networking with people outside of your particular industry always almost inevitably opens up new opportunities, new ideas, new business ventures, new partnerships. That's one of the things that makes the event really special.
[00:08:15] I also think that back to your juxtaposition of Comic-Con versus the JP Morgan event in San Francisco, SXSW has always very much reflected Austin in so many ways. We're a city where there's real business that gets done here, but we do it on our own terms and we like to have fun too. And SXSW has always reflected that mindset.
[00:08:40] Michael Scharf: It's gonna be interesting. I have to admit, this is my first in-person SXSW. Two years ago when we moved here, it was all online. Last year, I was out of town for a board meeting. And this year I'm going and we're gonna do some things with Austin Next there.
[00:08:56] We're gonna have some fun. We're gonna do some videos, which will be a lot of fun. Do some interviews, that kind of thing. So what would you tell the person like me who's going there for the first time? I'm gonna put you on the spot here.
[00:09:12] Hugh Forrest: My biggest point of advice to people very much applies to first-timers at SXSW but also people who've been here several times before is create a game plan of what you want to achieve, what you want to accomplish, who you want to meet, what sessions you want to attend, that will help you achieve those goals.
[00:09:36] The event, like it or not, for better or for worse, it's very big at this point. It's easy to get overwhelmed, particularly if you don't know what to do. It's that paralysis of choice where you go into the store and there are a hundred different brands of beer and it makes you walk out without any kind of beer.
[00:09:54] Not that SXSW is beer, but I encourage you to have a game plan. Map out a schedule of what you want to do. Map out some alternate choices of if this room is too crowded or that room is too crowded, be prepared to embrace serendipity if it happens and completely pivot and ditch your game plan.
[00:10:15] But it's better to have a game plan and ditch it when serendipity happens, as opposed to expecting serendipity to happen the moment you walk in the door of the Austin Convention Center at SXSW. So again, I just think having that kind of game plan, idea of what you want gives you a little bit of stability and what can sometimes be chaotic and overwhelming, but chaotic and overwhelming and hopefully a good way.
[00:10:41] Michael Scharf: It's interesting because I've gone to a lot of conventions. I've been at some of the largest convention centers around and Austin's isn't the largest by far, but SXSW becomes downtown, which is amazing and provides a set of venues very, very different from the typical kind of convention/festival environment.
[00:11:05] Let's dig into 2023 a little bit. We've got some new tracks. We've got some new sponsors. I think Rolling Stones coming in for the first time to be the sponsor of the Music Track or the music festival.
[00:11:17] Hugh Forrest: Rolling Stone is part of our PMC family, which SXSW is essentially a part of now. So they're helping out with a big showcase at Austin City Limits. We're very excited about that. Billboard’s back for their second year doing stuff at Moody Amphitheater, so some really great music this year and reminder that we changed the badge structure several years ago so that if you have interactive badge, you can use that badge to go see some great music. And again, goes back to that idea that seeing very different kinds of creative people practice their art, practice their creativity, practice their innovation, is a great way to be inspired to do new things in whatever field you are.
[00:12:03] In terms of the conference content, we have 25 total tracks for 2023. I think that's probably as many tracks as we've ever had. A couple of new tracks this year, we've got a psychedelics track. We did a quote series of sessions on psychedelics or a summit last year on psychedelics.
[00:12:27] This year, it's formally a track. We've done coverage of psychedelics before, particularly our friend Tim Ferris, who lives in Austin, is very much a proponent of psychedelics. But certainly, we see a lot of usage for psychedelics in the medical community as well as the recreational community.
[00:12:48] And many ways psychedelics in 2023 is where cannabis was 10 years ago. There are new business opportunities opening here, and that's one of the reasons to cover it. We also have new for 2023 in Energy Track, which will largely be focused on alternative sustainable energy in some ways and goes hand in hand with our Climate Change Track.
[00:13:12] Hugh Forrest: We’ve got a Food Track again. We had a Food Track for a while and discontinued it. We have it again. That again flows into a lot of the theme here of climate change and a lot of the stuff. Food will be about talking about sustainable food options. We have a track called Markets and Economies, which focuses a lot on old markets, new markets, how the supply chain challenges of the last few years have changed these things.
[00:13:39] What we can look for moving forward. And then this—not a new track for 2023—a second-year track—transportation track. I mentioned that or call that out because I will always say and firmly believe that, again, SXSW is a strong, strong reflection of what is happening, what is trending, what is hot in Austin.
[00:14:06] The fact that Elon Musk essentially moved to Austin, or parts thereabout, the fact that there's a giant Tesla plant in Austin now has changed the city to become a hub of transportation innovation. We should be reflecting that at SXSW. And we are.
[00:14:27] Michael Scharf: Yeah, not only on the EV side but on the autonomous vehicle side as well.
[00:14:31] Hugh Forrest: Yeah, in that transportation track, a lot of focus on EVs, a lot of focus on autonomous, but also focus on new innovations in airlines, in railways, in micro-mobility. The transportation sector is experiencing lots of changes.
[00:14:51] This flows back to the climate change thing as well. So again, it's a topic that our community, I think, is very interested in and will get a lot of value out of at the 2023 event.
[00:15:06] Michael Scharf: It'll be interesting to look at the climate change event, especially from my point of view, because I'm on the board of a company that does carbon credits, and it's an interesting and difficult business in a lot of ways because of everybody that's got their hand out. Everybody wants you to do a certain something and all I care about is the work we're doing for the people on the ground where we work.
[00:15:31] And it's going to be interesting to hear the different points of view around what's going on there when I go to SXSW in a couple of weeks. I know you've got a Health & MedTech Track, and J&J stepped up, I guess, to be the lead sponsor.
[00:15:48] Hugh Forrest: Yep. J&J's involved as the track sponsor for our Health & MedTech Track.
[00:15:54] This is, again, another one that falls into that same perspective of reflecting what's hot and trendy in Austin. And certainly, the Dell Medical School has very much changed Austin into a center of innovation for health and MedTech. A lot of interesting content in there ranging everything from where we are post, knock on wood pandemic to lot of content on BCIs, which are brain–computer interfaces.
[00:16:26] Michael Scharf: Neurolink and three or four other companies are here doing their experiments.
[00:16:30] Hugh Forrest: Something that our friend Elon is involved in as well. And the health stuff touches on so many other themes that run throughout SXSW—personalization, data, future forecast, longevity—a lot of things that our community is very attuned to.
[00:16:51] Michael Scharf: Speaking of future forecasts, I think this is the first year you have a 2050 Track.
[00:16:57] Hugh Forrest: We've had a 2050 track. I think last year, we may have had the first year we had 2050 Track, but we've had this something that's been long-term.
[00:17:09] Focused on long-term future for several years with the idea or concept that we would all be in a little bit better place if we can try to think in the long-term future as opposed to what's tomorrow, what's next week, what's next month? So again, a lot of really insightful content there.
[00:17:34] Whether that is about space, whether that is about the topic I just mentioned—longevity, whether that is about long-term transportation options. But again, the idea there is trying to get out of our immediate focus and think about where we will be as humans in 30 years, where we will be as a planet, how we can try to leave something better for all our children and our grandchildren than what we have at present.
[00:18:09] Michael Scharf: Anything beyond next quarter's financial report, please.
[00:18:12] Hugh Forrest: Yeah, yeah, please. Absolutely.
[00:18:15] Michael Scharf: Yeah. What else can we expect at SXSW 2023?
[00:18:20] Hugh Forrest: I think that kind of somewhat stating the obvious, as we record this three weeks before the event, you cannot read a paragraph in the news or go three minutes without hearing about generative AI.
[00:18:39] It is the biggest buzzy topic out there right now, and I think that this will inevitably find its way into so many different sessions and into so many different conversations at SXSW. That's partly because the community that comes to SXSW, and it's partly again, where we ended up being in this cycle when ChatGPT came out and when the stuff with Bing is coming out, with music OM. So again, a lot of content there.
[00:19:13] The president of Open AI Greg Brockman is speaking at SXSW. We've also got one of the founding editors of Wired, that's Kevin Kelly. He's gonna talk about generative AI and kind of build off that essay he had in, I think, the December issue of Wired, where he was actually pretty optimistic about how generative AI impacts creativity.
[00:19:36] I think this is fascinating within that idea that SXSW has always been focused on creativity, and that's been our life, blood and, our ticket to longetivity. But it's hard to deny that something like generative AI—with all its flaws, and we know their flaws—inevitebly is changing what our definitions, our thoughts, our mindset is on creativity as we move into the future. So again, I think that'll be one of the big, big topics at this year's event. It will be in a lot of the sessions in the Tech Industry Track, it'll be in the Startup Track as people talk about new startup opportunities.
[00:20:26] It'll be in the design track as people talk about how to design this better. It'll also be in some of the music tracks in terms of, again, how does something like generative AI, when we've got these machines or algorithms that can compose music that may not quite be human, but it's getting pretty close, so yes.
[00:20:51] Michael Scharf: Yeah. I think one of the most interesting things, of course, is it drives new skillsets. Because my son and my granddaughter—she's just turned seven—spend a long time every week writing the prompts for Dall-E or one of the other picture-based generative AI systems to come up with a picture they want and the specificity with which they have to describe what they're looking for.
[00:21:18] I would like this kind of a thing in this style with this kind of activity going on. If nothing else, I think she's become a lot better in her language arts just because she has to be so specific for the computer. So I think there's a lot of benefits that'll come from it over time, and I think we'll probably figure out a way not to be so scared of it.
[00:21:49] Hugh Forrest: As you say, it's going to drive different definitions of what it means to be creative. Is that just creative prompts or are there other ways that you can use this technology? The idea that we're scared of it? Yeah, I think we are, but I also think that healthy skepticism, thinking about worst-case scenarios, shows that we've grown a little bit in terms of our understanding of technology. SXSW 20 years ago, we were very much at the epicenter of the social media revolution, and almost all parties, including myself, bought into this idea that social media is gonna make us closer, gonna unite the world, it was gonna solve all our problems.
[00:22:42] And what we have learned since then is that when you're coming up with a new technology, you have to kind of think of the absolute worst-case scenarios. And I'm not sure we're completely there yet in terms of thinking of those worst-case scenarios with AI, but I think we're a little more skeptical or measured in our hype on this stuff. Not all of us, myself included, because I think AI is transformational.
[00:23:13] But again, we should be as careful on this going forward as possible and try to think, this is a lot of neat things here, but what are the bad things and how will that negatively impact our society?
[00:23:27] Michael Scharf: This is another area for long-term thinking.
[00:23:31] Hugh Forrest: Absolutely. Let me also say, Michael, I've talked about it quite a few times in the podcast. We'll have a lot of climate change focus in 2023. We have a Climate Change Track. We've had that for a couple years. What I do hope, and what I think we've got is we've got more content here that is talking about ideas or solutions as opposed to simply identifying the problem. So a lot of focus on, the new markets and new opportunities for startups in this space. Really excited. We've got the UT profs who've worked on the enzyme that eats plastic. You saw that headline from last summer.
[00:24:18] They'll be speaking, and I think that's generally the flavor of the—a lot of our climate change content is what are our solutions out of this mess. They're not immediate, but we got the smartest people or some of the smartest people in the room here. Let's all think about this and maybe we can figure out some positive outcomes as opposed to there’s nothing we can do to stop this.
[00:24:48] Michael Scharf: Yeah, I have no doubt. I've been looking at new battery technology for 25 years. Haven't seen one that makes the grade yet, but you know what? I know it's out there and I have a sneaking suspicion whether it's this year or next year, somebody's gonna be presenting it at SXSW. So I'm looking forward to those sessions.
[00:25:10] Michael Scharf: Let's talk about Sydney. That's coming up now.
[00:25:14] Hugh Forrest: Yeah, we have a new event in Sydney, Australia, that is SXSW Sydney that debuts in October 2023. Have worked on this thing for quite a while, started working on it pre-pandemic, and then pandemic kind of slowed us down and got it across the goal line.
[00:25:37] I don't know about a year ago. This will be our first-ever event that has the name SXSW in it outside of Austin. We've done other events outside of Austin, but they've never had the name SXSW. This will be a multi-day conference and festival. It will parallel a lot of the content and the themes of SXSW in Austin. Meaning it will have technology, it will have a lot of game-related focus, a lot of film and TV-related focus.
[00:26:13] Hugh Forrest: A lot of music focus. The fact that it's happening in a city that is a maco-creativity in the Pacific Rim, a city that people want to visit, love to visit, that has great food, great energy, we think makes for a great fit. So we're incredibly excited about this. We just had the kickoff party for the event about two weeks ago in Sydney.
[00:26:37] A couple of my colleagues went. Great crowd, great turnout. So again, really, really excited about the opportunities there for 2023 and beyond.
[00:26:49] Michael Scharf: Hugh, it's great talking to you again. We end it like we do all the time. Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer of SXSW. What's next Austin and what's next for SXSW?
[00:27:01] Hugh Forrest: Thanks, Michael. Great pleasure to be here tonight and we'll see you in March at SXSW.
[00:27:07] Michael Scharf: Very good. Have a great evening. Thanks a lot.
[00:27:10] Hugh Forrest: Yourself as well.
[00:27:13] Jason Scharf: So what's next Austin? We're glad you've joined us on this journey. Please subscribe at your favorite podcast catcher. Leave us a review and let your colleagues know about us. This will help us grow the podcast and continue bringing you unique interviews and insights. Thanks again for listening and see you soon.