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SXSW organizer discusses 2022 festival midway through event

Organizers say the event turnout is slightly smaller than 2019, partially due to the number of international attendees not coming because of COVID-19.

AUSTIN, Texas — More people are in town for South by Southwest (SXSW) this week after the music festival kicked off Monday night. SXSW organizers say the second portion of the festival, which includes more concerts, usually draws the most attendees.

SXSW technically began when SXSW EDU started on March 7. Then, on March 11, the film festival started, followed by the music festival starting on March 14.

In 2019, the last time SXSW was held in-person because of COVID-19, more than 230,000 people attended the festival and 62 countries were represented. One out of every four badge-holders in 2019 was from another country. 

Organizers say this year, the total attendance is slightly lower – something they say is in part because they are seeing fewer international attendees.

"In 2019, 25% of our badge-holders were from outside the U.S. So, one in every four registrants," said Hugh Forrest, SXSW's chief programming officer. "This year, it's probably 22 to 23%, so down a little bit, particularly down in Asia. It's just because the travel from Asia to the U.S. has been more difficult with COVID."

Forrest did say that, this year, the festival has a lot of attendees from Brazil, Canada, Australia and the U.K. He also said that COVID-19 caused people to buy badges at different times than usual.

“It certainly has been a different pattern of registration in the sense that when, in early February, when the numbers of omicron began to recede, plateau and recede, we started getting a lot more badge sales, badge traffic," Forrest said. "And that's a little bit different than how it usually works."

Back in 1987 when SXSW first started, it was purely a music festival. Now the event includes everything from music and film to sports to government to gaming. 

This year, SXSW even added a transportation track. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg will be one of the speakers at the festival.

“One of the things we've added for 2022 is a transportation track about innovation in transportation,” Forrest said. “So, we have a lot of transportation people coming into town this week. We've got people from Formula E, we've got people from Formula 1, we've got people from all kinds of EV [electric vehicle] companies, including Porsche and Volkswagen, which is one of our sponsors. So, that's really, really exciting.”

But even with all the new events and growth, Forrest – an Austinite who has worked with SXSW for more than 30 years – said the festival still has the same mission.

“The bottom line is still the same,” Forrest said. “That we focus on very, very creative and innovative people in a city that celebrates and cultivates creativity and innovation. And so, as much as it's changed, it hasn't changed all that greatly. And, you know, the fact that so many people come to Austin, love Austin, love this event is certainly what keeps myself and my staff going.”

Forrest hopes locals will come out and enjoy some of the events too. He said one option that is free and is “quintessential Austin” is the concerts at the Outdoor Stage near Lady Bird Lake.

Those shows will be held Thursday through Saturday at Vic Mathias Shores, formerly known as Auditorium Shores. The gates open at 4 p.m. each day and music starts at 5 p.m. Music goes until around 9:30 each night.

The Outdoor Stage is the biggest stage at SXSW and, in 2019, more than 16,000 people attended the free concerts. You can view this year’s lineup here.

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