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Meet The Guy Who Made Austin Cool

Roland Swenson has built South by Southwest from a niche Texas music festival to one of the country’s hottest events in tech

Roland Swenson insists that Austin, Texas has always been cool. That he’s played any role in building that reputation is something the native Austinite is far too modest to admit.

He’s the co-founder and managing director of the South by Southwest Music, Film, and Interactive Festival, which draws thousands of artists and geeks, alike, to Austin each March. The 10-day marathon of live performances, trade shows and, of course, plenty of partying was once a pure-play music festival. Today, most people show up for SXSW Interactive, which begins March 8th. More than 1,700 miles from Silicon Valley, it’s a mecca for thousands of entrepreneurs, who arrive with dreams of making it. And some do. Once upon a time, a start-up called Twitter gained its first real traction at South by Southwest. Two years later, in 2009, Foursquare launched there, too.   

Despite having built the thing, though, Swenson takes none of the credit.

“What we do is just manufacture this hyper-reality where there are amazing people everywhere you turn,” he says. “People want to be in this atmosphere, and yet they’re really the ones creating it.”

For the leader of an event where self-promotion and entrepreneurial bravado are currency, Swenson is surprisingly understated. The 56-year-old, still-baby-faced Texan is content to walk the festival grounds unrecognized, and he laughs telling the story of the time his mom got stopped by security on her way to a show. “She said, ‘My son is Roland Swenson,’ and the guard goes, ‘Ma’am, I don’t know who that is,’” Swenson recounts, chuckling. “I’ve watched other events become a cult of personality around the founders. But South by Southwest is what’s famous, not me, and that’s a good thing.”

The story of Swenson’s upbringing reads like a guidebook on how to enjoy the ‘60s and ‘70s. He saw Johnny Cash perform for the first time at age 12. By 16, Swenson was sneaking in the backdoor of a local nightclub, spying from the kitchen as acts like Willie Nelson proceeded to blow his mind. In college at the University of Texas, he got swept up in Sex Pistols mania. He worked in a record store, managed a friend’s band, and went on the road to run a small record label, before a job at Austin’s new alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle, landed him back in his own hometown. He was organizing events for the Chronicle when, in 1986, the city of Austin asked Swenson to help launch an event to turn Austin into a tourist destination for music lovers. He approached his friend, Louis Jay Meyers, about the idea, and the two of them convinced Chronicle editor Louis Black, and publisher, Nick Barbaro, to sponsor and co-found the festival. By the following March, the first event was underway.

“We figured if we got 150 people to come, we’d call it a success,” Swenson says. “We ended up with 700 people the first year. It started as a special event of the Chronicle and just kind of grew into its own thing.”

Since then, the festival has hosted American musical icons like Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, three performances Swenson lists as personally thrilling. But he says the real turning point for South by Southwest came in 1994 when he and his co-founders anticipated the oncoming sea change in tech and launched the interactive festival. “We were thinking, ‘What’s the future of entertainment going to be like?’” Swenson remembers. “If we can create events that support those activities, then whatever happens in the 21st century, we’ll be in a good position.”

That first year, in the early days of the Web browsers, Swenson’s team hooked a bunch of computers up to the Internet and called it an Internet Theater. “People stood in line for hours to sit at the computers and be on the Internet, because they’d never done it before,” Swenson says. “After that, we just kept changing to try to keep up.”

“Keeping up” is an understatement befitting Swenson. In reality, South by Southwest is pioneering. There’s a reason tech bloggers send themselves into a tailspin each March, scouring Austin for the next big thing, and a reason why tech deities like Mark Zuckerberg come out to deliver keynote speeches. Swenson and his team dutifully embraced their unlikely entrepreneurial following. In 2011, they launched two new events, SXSW Eco, for environmental techies, and SXSW Edu, an education-based event, which Bill Gates is set to keynote this year. In perhaps its most deliberate move to lure tech talent, this August the company is launching SXSW V2V, an event specifically for start-ups, which will be held in Las Vegas.

“There’s a certain gamble to it,” Swenson says of leaving the home base in Austin, “but it’s Vegas, right?”

Though he’s loath to make grand bets on South by Southwest’s future, Swenson says he is proud of how well the 26-year-old event has evolved over the years. “At this point, it’s my life’s work. It’s important for me to see it grow and adapt and change,” he says. “South by Southwest exists because people decide they need it. As long as they need it, we’ll be here.”