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After two years of pandemic quiet, a smaller SXSW looks to turn the music back up

If you’re among those Austinites who long for the days when South by Southwest was smaller, the 2022 event might look pretty good to you.

For more than a decade before the pandemic hit, the number of acts performing at the music festival typically peaked around 2,000. Then COVID-19 dealt a near-fatal blow to SXSW, knocking out the event entirely in 2020 and reducing it to an online-only format in 2021.

SXSW returns in person March 11-20, but on a noticeably smaller scale. Music acts will number between 1,300 and 1,400, down about a third from the 2019 event. Conference registration numbers also are down by about 25%, according to organizers. The reduction in size has its upsides and downsides, SXSW co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson told the American-Statesman.

“It's going to be a less expensive show for us to do,” Swenson said. But fewer bands and registrants also means less revenue — especially since many of this year’s attendees will be using deferred registration from 2020. Will the income and expenses even out?

“I hope so,” Swenson said. “I guess we're going to find out.”

After two years without an in-person event, South by Southwest returns to Austin starting Friday.

This year’s event might not have happened at all if SXSW hadn’t sold 50% of the company last year to Penske Media Corp., which owns entertainment industry magazines such as Billboard and Variety. Owner Jay Penske contacted Swenson in early 2020 about acquiring a stake in SXSW.

“I was on the phone with him while we were telling everybody in the office that we were not having South by Southwest,” Swenson said. “We heard from a bunch of different groups that wanted to invest. We liked him, and it just worked out.”

Asked if the Penske deal was necessary for SXSW to survive, Swenson answered simply, “Yes.”

What does the new SXSW look like?

The 50-50 deal is new for SXSW, but this isn’t the first time they’ve brought in outside investors. About a decade ago, prominent music industry executive Coran Capshaw bought a minority share in the business. Capshaw, whose Red Light Management company handles the Dave Matthews Band, Phish and other acts, also has a stake in the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and other prominent festivals.

Swenson co-founded SXSW in 1987 with Austin Chronicle co-founders Louis Black and Nick Barbaro and local booking agent/musician Louis Meyers. Swenson and Barbaro remain after buying out Meyers and Black over the years.

Swenson describes the relationship with Penske Media as “a joint venture, and we're the managing partner.” That means SXSW has maintained most of the control in presenting the event, he said. “But Jay has a lot of ideas, a lot of energy, and he's definitely been pursuing different things he wants to see happen.”

Continuing coverage:Special event permit applications for Austin's SXSW are down by nearly 50% this year

The most prominent example at SXSW 2022 is a three-night run of shows at Moody Amphitheater in Waterloo Park from March 17-19, presented by Billboard and Samsung, with chart-topping rappers Gunna and Young Thug, DJ/producer Kygo and pop star Shawn Mendes. For those shows, a portion of tickets will be made available to SXSW registrants and wristband-holders. An unspecified portion of tickets are on sale to the general public.

SXSW has sold advance tickets to high-profile showcases in the past, but the concerts at the 5,000-capacity amphitheater are the largest ticketed events the festival has ever presented — a notable exception to this year’s otherwise smaller-scale event.

Also running March 17-19: a series of free, open-to-the-public shows at Auditorium Shores. They include a hard-rock lineup with headliner Sammy Hagar & the Circle and a Spaceflight Records bill featuring local bands such as Golden Dawn Arkestra and Heartless Bastards. SXSW has presented shows at Auditorium Shores most years, including a Garth Brooks concert in 2017.

Big names at SXSW, but not all are performing

Rap superstar Lizzo will deliver a SXSW conference keynote about her new Amazon Prime series, “Watch Out for the Big Grrls,” on Sunday, before the music festival begins. As of press time, though, she has no performances scheduled. Singer-rapper-actor Donald Glover will be in town only to launch the new season of his critically acclaimed TV show, “Atlanta.”  There’s also no performance on the schedule for the March 18 keynote speaker, singer-songwriter Beck.

Hip-hop star Lizzo is no stranger to South by Southwest, including a stop at the music festival in 2017. She is on this year's keynote speaker lineup, but has no SXSW performances scheduled.

Two other music keynote speakers are performing only at Willie Nelson’s Luck TX ranch west of Austin. Michelle Zauner, whose March 19 keynote will partly center on her best-selling 2021 memoir “Crying in H Mart,” will perform with her Grammy-nominated band Japanese Breakfast at the annual Luck Reunion on March 17, which is not part of SXSW. And multiple Grammy winner Jason Isbell, who’s part of a March 18 session about addiction, will perform his own show later that day at Luck as part of an expanded lineup at the ranch this year.

And while country icon Dolly Parton will do an interview and performance at ACL Live on March 18, her agenda is very much tied to SXSW’s tech side. Parton is celebrating the release of her new novel and album “Run, Rose, Run,” but also the launch of Dollyverse, a new online experience created in partnership with Fox Entertainment’s Blockchain Creative Labs. Fans can stream the country legend’s appearance live on the Dollyverse platform, which also will sell NFTs. 

Swenson said Parton has been on the festival’s wish-list for years. SXSW’s interactive element “was a big part of the decision-making” for her appearance, he added.

Most music bookings for this SXSW recall the event’s early days, when the music festival was all about discovering artists on the rise. Notable events include a Wednesday showcase at Stubb’s presented by indie-rocker Phoebe Bridgers' Saddest Factory label and an event built around popular podcast and Netflix series "Song Exploder." 

Austin’s National Public Radio affiliate KUTX will host morning broadcasts March 16-19 at Studio 6A on the UT campus, and the hosts of the station’s Saturday night hip-hop show “The Breaks” will present a showcase. But NPR’s overall presence at the fest has been scaled back.

Popular events from the past missing this year include Rachael Ray’s Feedback day party, the Fader Fort and parking lot shows at Waterloo Records. A decade ago, the Mohawk was transformed into the House of Vans for an entire week during the festival. This year, the popular Red River Cultural District club has ticketed shows March 11-15. A few long-established free daytime events not officially affiliated with SXSW will be back, like South by San José and the Lucy's Fried Chicken Revival.

More SXSW news:26 things you need to see at SXSW Film Festival 2022

Meanwhile, the SXSW Film Festival’s in-person return packs more conventional star power. After two years of limited virtual offerings, the celebrity-laden red carpets and the big studios are back in town.

Headlining film projects joining Glover’s “Atlanta” include “The Lost City,” a comedy from Paramount Pictures starring Sandra Bullock and Daniel Radcliffe, and “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” a Michelle Yeoh-led sci-fi film from prominent distributor A24 that will open the festival on Friday. The film schedule also features a robust lineup of up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world, many of whom will be in Austin for the event.

Jessica Bustamante, middle, cheers for rapper Bun B at the Fader Fort during South by Southwest in 2018. The popular Fader Fort pop-up is one of many long-running, pre-pandemic parties that have not been announced for SXSW's 2022 in-person return.

Two years later, SXSW welcomes a different world

In a series of Twitter posts Thursday, SXSW organizers described the experience of finalizing their first in-person festival in nearly three years as “almost surreal.” They also acknowledged the turbulent events at home and abroad that coincide with this year’s event. 

Lauding the “mettle” of the citizens of besieged Ukraine, organizers pledged to donate to refugee relief efforts and highlighted a Ukrainian music showcase on March 19 at Speakeasy characterized as “uncertain at this moment.” 

SXSW also reiterated opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott's recent order to treat gender-affirming care for young transgender Texans as child abuse, with festival organizers saying he "put transgender children and their families in harm’s way.” The conference will host a panel on opening day titled "Addressing Our Transgender Health Crisis."

Continuing coverage:SXSW condemns Gov. Greg Abbott order to treat transgender care as child abuse

“We unequivocally denounce this action and will continue to use our platform to elevate voices from the LGBTQ+ community,” organizers also wrote in Thursday's tweet. 

And the pandemic continues. SXSW’s timing could not have been worse in 2020, when lockdowns forced cancellation of the event just days before it was to begin. Organizers caught a break this time: SXSW 2022 arrives just as the omicron variant has receded. Austin recently retreated from Stage 5 COVID-19 guidelines, the highest risk, to the more moderate Stage 2.

Even so, a lot of pandemic protocols will remain in place, and organizers on Friday told the Statesman that no changes to those are planned. Official registrants will have to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours when they pick up their credentials. (Those who have neither can get tested in the Austin Convention Center for free when they check in.)

Swenson said SXSW crew members at the convention center will be required to wear a mask. The same will be asked of attendees, but when asked about whether the mask requirement will be enforced, he said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

 “We're primarily concerned with the stuff that is indoors during the day,” he added. “At night, we're going to encourage people to wear masks, but we won't always have final say over that. It’s going to be what the venue insists on.”

Swenson said organizers might still adjust its protocols during the event’s 11-day run. Mostly, though, he’s just glad SXSW is happening at all this year, after the two-year absence.

“One of the few gratifying things about all this is that I don't feel like we're taken for granted now as much as we were before,” he said. “I think people would always say, ‘Oh, South by Southwest could go away and something else will just pop up in this place.’ Well, that didn't happen.

“We'll see how it turns out, and we'll see if we get to come back in 2023.”