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Brent Grulke, creative director at SXSW, dies

Peter Mongillo
Brent Grulke was a driving force behind SXSW for almost 20 years.

Brent Grulke, the longtime creative director and driving force behind the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival, died Monday. He was 52.

The news of Grulke's death from a heart attack prompted an outpouring of messages on social media sites. Grulke made a major impact on the world of music as creative director at SXSW for nearly 20 years, playing a central role in the festival's transformation into an international event and helping to further define Austin as a cultural destination.

"A lot of Brent's personality was in SXSW," Roland Swenson, SXSW director and co-founder, said Monday. "He was adventurous and knowledgeable and excited about creative people and endeavors. He didn't like the usual and mundane. He was open-minded enough to know that his taste wasn't always the most important thing, so he was open to new things."

Grulke was born in Nebraska and moved to the Houston area in his early teens. He attended the University of Texas, where he wrote for The Daily Texan and later for The Austin Chronicle. In the 1980s, he worked as a sound engineer for Austin bands including Alejandro Escovedo and the True Believers and co-produced a compilation of Austin groups called "Bands on the Block."

"Because of his experience on the road with bands, he was able to empathize with touring bands," said former American-Statesman music writer Michael Corcoran, a roommate of Grulke's during the late 1980s. "He always worked hard to make sure bands felt welcome at SXSW, that they were being taken care of."

Grulke had worked for the festival since its founding in 1987. In 1994, he became the creative director, primarily overseeing the booking of acts. He expanded the number of bands that played the festival from about 500 to more than 2,000 in 2012.

The festival's expansion also led to a dramatic increase in the number of people that descend on Austin in March and the amount of money pumped into the local economy, which was $167 million in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

"He had a big vision for what it could be," Swenson said. "We used to tease him about how many bands he would book in a given year, and he would always hit that number."

Grulke traveled with Swenson to music conferences in Europe and elsewhere to find talent to showcase at SXSW.

Among the artists that Grulke played a role in introducing to the United States was Amy Winehouse, whom he booked after seeing the singer perform in a hotel ballroom at a music industry event in France in January 2007.

“There’s a certain kind of charisma that the most compelling artists have; they kind of demand that you pay attention to them,” Grulke told the Statesman in 2011.

He is survived by his wife, Kristen, and his son, Graham.

Contact Peter Mongillo at 445-3696