Listen to Austin 360 Radio

All Eyes on Texas: SXSW's starry in-person return makes news and money for Austin

For the first time in three years, downtown Austin streets swelled with South by Southwest attendees, riding a wave of good weather through a week of mostly upbeat spirits from festgoers and businesses who were happy to have the event back.

SXSW was canceled a week ahead of time in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold, and last year's event was a virtual affair. Organizers had noted before this year's event that official attendance looked to be down from 2019, and that seemed apparent both on the sidewalks and in the Austin Convention Center. There were crowds, but rarely long lines, and navigating around town seemed somewhat easier than usual during South by Southwest.

Final registrant totals would not be available until after the event, but SXSW Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest said Saturday that the numbers were "pretty close" to 2019 and had exceeded organizers' conservative expectations.

SXSW concerts:Dolly Parton came to SXSW and gave Austin an eternal memory

Giacomo Ricciardi and Madison Ramirez listen to Thursday to one of the free concerts given at the SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake. Returning in-person for the first time since 2019, South by Southwest generally drew smaller crowds, but local businesses say they still saw a substantial boost from the festival.

The music festival featured 1,500 showcasing artists, down from the usual tally of around 2,000 pre-pandemic. The SXSW Film Festival presented 101 features, down from 131 in 2019. Conference-session content was about 20% to 25% smaller than 2019, according to Forrest.

Registrations picked up significantly as the COVID-19 omicron variant began to subside, resulting in "one of our strongest Februarys ever, in terms of registrations," Forrest said. He added most notable downturn was in international attendance, particularly from Asian countries.

SXSW 2022:Read more of our SXSW coverage here

A smaller SXSW was still far better than none at all for the artists, innovators and activists who've come to Austin every spring for decades to showcase their latest projects. Locally, businesses ranging from music venues to restaurants to party planners have come to depend on the event as a major source of income, and many reported a significant uptick in business.

"I think everything generally went as planned," Forrest said. "We benefited from people just being excited to be back at SXSW with face-to-face interactions, after two years of up-and-down COVID restrictions."

Big names abound around town during SXSW 2022

Top-drawing celebrities at SXSW often don't get added to the schedule until late in the game, but that was even more true this year, with many waiting out the winter COVID-19 spike of the omicron variant before committing to an Austin trip.

As it turned out, the schedule boasted a fairly strong contingent of marquee names. Dolly Parton performed Friday night at ACL Live, joining other high-profile music acts at SXSW such as keynote speakers Beck and Lizzo and documentary-film subjects Sheryl Crow, Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile. New this year were a string of largely ticketed shows at Waterloo Park featuring Shawn Mendes, Young Thug and others, while the public got free access to three concerts at Auditorium Shores with Sammy Hagar, Golden Dawn Arkestra and more. 

The music festival also helped put a spotlight on Ukraine in the wake of Russia's recent invasion of that country. A Saturday night showcase scheduled at Speakeasy featured singer Oleksandra Zaritska, the only Ukrainian musician of several booked who was able to attend. Several local musicians signed on to back Zaritska and perform in support of Ukraine. SXSW organizers said in an email Saturday that the event will be making donations to refugee relief via Global Giving, and to Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian media outlet.

Unofficial SXSW satellite music events returned as well, ranging from big soirees such as Thursday's Luck Reunion at Willie Nelson's ranch to day parties throughout the week at bars, clubs, restaurants, parking lots, event spaces, backyards, recording studios and even a hair salon. Foot traffic downtown and on South Congress Avenue was heavy in the latter part of the week, as residents and out-of-towners filled parties such as South by San Jose and the Lucy's Fried Chicken Revival.

Meanwhile, the SXSW Film Festival drew appearances from Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal ("The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent"), Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto ("WeCrashed"), Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis ("Everything Everywhere All at Once"), Lee Pace ("Bodies Bodies Bodies"), Regina Hall ("Master") and Rosario Dawson ("DMZ"). Prominent local residents who took part included Sandra Bullock ("The Lost City") and director Richard Linklater ("Apollo 10½").

More:For tacos, is it Austin or San Antonio? Pedro Pascal chose a side at SXSW.

Political figures who spoke at daytime sessions included Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke and U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Key issues discussed included the Texas government's recent actions limiting rights to abortion and gender-affirming medical care. 

A few well-known speakers, such as Meta's Mark Zuckerberg and legendary music producer Brian Eno, appeared only via virtual feeds. But the vast majority of SXSW events and presenters were in-person.

On the technology/interactive side of SXSW, major discussion points this year included blockchain, Web3, cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. A search for "blockchain" on the official SXSW schedule returned dozens of results. Blockchain Creative Labs had a pop-up headquarters at Fifth and Trinity streets for registrants to learn more about these tech terms, and the company was a primary sponsor of Parton's ACL Live appearance.

On Saturday, SXSW announced Parton as the recipient of this year's Grulke Prize for career act. The awards, named after the late SXSW creative director Brent Grulke, also went to Chicago trio Horsegirl for developing U.S. act, and English group Yard Act for developing non-U.S. act.

SXSW proves a boost for Austin businesses

While indications are that this year's SXSW didn't bring as many tourists to Austin as the festival did in pre-pandemic years, local business owners and industry groups say the event's return has been a big economic boost to the city's economy.

SXSW and the spring festival season historically have accounted for up to 50% of the annual revenue of downtown storefront businesses, such as restaurants, bars or retail stores, according to the Downtown Austin Alliance.

In 2019, the last time SXSW took place in person, its financial benefits to the Austin area were estimated at $356 million, according to a study commissioned by SXSW.

"Since SXSW 2022 attendance did not reach 2019 levels, the economic impact may not reach 2019 levels," said Michele Van Hyfte, vice president of urban design for the Downtown Alliance. "However, the additional revenue will provide much-needed relief to not only businesses that have been waiting for an in-person spring festival season for two years, but also to the dozens of new businesses now operating in downtown."

Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Austin, the city's convention and visitors' bureau, said the ripple effects of the return of the in-person 10-day festival will be felt across many business sectors going forward.

"SXSW has always been a big part of Austin's brand," he said. "This is a wake-up call to a lot of people that if they can do their event, we can do our event."

Electro-pop band MUNA, with Katie Gavin on lead vocals, perform Thursday in the Saddest Factory Label Showcase at the Mohawk.

Visit Austin won't have economic impact figures until after SXSW wraps up, but anecdotally, "our hotels are telling us they're doing very well downtown," Noonan said. "It's just nice that this flagship moment is back."

This year's festival signals a return to tourism and business travel pre-COVID, he said. The numbers are already looking good — the fourth quarter of 2021 saw higher tax collections than in pre-pandemic 2019.

That sentiment is mirrored by merchants like Craig Staley, co-owner of Austin-based Royal Blue Groceries. Staley said he was expecting a smaller SXSW crowd, but he said the company, which has six locations in Austin, has still seen a big lift from the festival.

“We had heard attendance would be down 25% to 30% from 2019, so we were kind of expecting a bigger dip in the numbers than we’ve seen,” Staley said. “Overall, we’re super happy.”

Staley said Royal Blue stores are seeing fewer visitors from Europe, “but backfilling some of that absence is people from the United States making this trip who haven’t made it before. I think there are a lot of new people, and that is great. It is definitely a big boost.”

Matthew Nuss, president of ZaZa Hospitality, which operates Hotel ZaZa locations in Austin, Dallas and Houston, said SXSW 2022 has been a boon for his company.

“We saw incredible foot traffic and occupancy in both the Austin hotel and our venues,” he said. “A very well-heeled crowd who weren’t afraid to spend money.”

Michael Girard, owner of Speakeasy, a nightclub and music venue on Congress Avenue, said his club "has been busy every day since SXSW started."

South by Southwest attendees come down the escalator to the first floor of the Austin Convention Center on Monday. Final SXSW registrant totals won't be available until after the event, but SXSW Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest said Saturday that the numbers were "pretty close" to 2019 and had exceeded organizers' conservative expectations.

“It feels good to see SXSW back and see all of the activations downtown,” he said. “I think this year sets the stage for Austin to have a record SXSW in 2023.”

James Holmes, owner of Lucy's Fried Chicken, said he expects to see a 10% bump in sales over opening day in 2019, the last time SXSW was held in person.

Holmes said this year is the busiest opening for the live music portion of the event that he has seen in the 12 years his South Congress location has been open.

Typically, there's a "slow build that gains momentum," Holmes said. But this year, Lucy's opened Wednesday to a full house from the moment the music started at noon, he said.

"We were at full at capacity," Holmes said. "People were standing around waiting on a table. I think everybody's just excited to be out and about. People were ready to dance, sing, drink beer and eat fried chicken."

Brian Berry, controller for the popular Maudie's Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin, said the chain's South Lamar Boulevard location near downtown has seen about a 10% uptick overall in sales, which is consistent with prior years, "with "most or all of it evening business."

Maudie's original location off Lake Austin Boulevard typically sees a falloff in sales during SXSW, "perhaps due to our strong family business being affected by spring break," Berry said. 

"This year has seen about a 15% increase in nighttime business — a bit less than prior years — but we are seeing the usual overall falloff. How much SXSW mitigates the decline is difficult to quantify," he said.

Jonathan Van Ness, widely known for the Netflix reboot series "Queer Eye" and  Alok Vaid-Menon, a mixed media artist, discussed identity, belonging and changes in the beauty industry at SXSW session Monday.

Transgender rights discussion takes center stage at SXSW 2022

A main point of discussion at this year’s festival was transgender rights, spurred by Gov. Greg Abbott's Feb. 22 directive to treat gender-affirming medical care as child abuse.

It started two weeks before the festival with an admonition from SXSW organizers who said that they “unequivocally condemn” the state’s actions and that the festival “stands against discriminatory legislation and supports the LGBTQ+ community.”

More SXSW:Lee Pace to trans youth in Texas: You're not alone

Programing at SXSW included a March 11 panel titled “Addressing Our Transgender Health Crisis” and a March 13 session titled “Trans Texans Need Us: Hear From the Front Lines.”

The schedule also included appearances by several LGBTQ rights activists, including "Queer Eye" star Jonathan Van Ness and writer/artist Alok Vaid-Menon, who appeared together at a session Monday.

Van Ness, who is nonbinary, said Abbott’s actions regarding transgender youth are “a stunning example of governmental overreach and an example that democracy is under threat in various parts of the United States.”

Lizzo, a Grammy-winning singer and rapper from Houston, used her SXSW keynote address to condemn Gov. Greg Abbott's policies on transgender children and their parents.

More SXSW:Jonathan Van Ness marks two years living in Austin, talks trans rights

Lizzo, a Grammy-winning singer and rapper from Houston, also used her keynote address at the festival to condemn Abbott, arguing that he is “taking away the right for young children to have a chance to live authentically themselves.”

“I am changing things on a cultural level, because I'm a part of the culture. I'm a musician, I'm an actress,” she said. “But you know, there are people in charge who can change things on a systemic level, and they're letting us down.”

Speakers on unrelated panels also touched in the issue, including Democrat Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging Abbott in the race for Texas governor.

O’Rourke called the governor a “thug” during his interview session and said Abbott is “targeting transgender kids and turning in their parents.”

More SXSW:Beto O'Rourke says legalizing weed in Texas is possible

The issue extended beyond the conference portion of the festival, as stars walking the red carpet at film premieres offered words of encouragement to transgender youths living in Texas.

“I am the mother of a trans daughter,” actress Jamie Lee Curtis told the American-Statesman on the red carpet. “It’s outrageous and horrifying that the governor has taken this position. I will do everything that I can, along with millions of other people, to support and defend the rights of these trans young people.”

A state judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of Abbott’s directive — though that ruling has been appealed — and the federal government has also stepped in, encouraging any Texans under investigation over gender-affirming care to file a federal civil rights complaint.

American-Statesman writers Deborah Sengupta Stith and Eric Webb contributed to this report.

More SXSW coverage

See all our South by Southwest coverage at austin360.com and statesman.com.