SXSW heads Down Under: A look back at the craziest moments in the festival’s history

Mark Zuckerberg sxsw

Mark Zuckerberg's trainwreck interview with Sarah Lacy made headlines for the wrong reasons. Source: Aaron Schwarz/Shutterstock.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is heading down under in 2023 in a boon for NSW that also marks the first time the futurist festival has been held outside the United States in its 35-year history.

The spin-off festival will host more than 1000 screenings, events and performances across Sydney, Destination NSW confirmed, with “the largest group of inspiring international thinkers, creators, innovators and performers ever seen in Sydney at one time”, SXSW Sydney managing director Colin Daniels says.

“We are thrilled to bring this legendary festival of gaming, music, screen, tech and innovation to Sydney in 2023,” SXSW Sydney event producer Geoff Jones continued.

But the world-renown festival is no stranger to the headlines either. Here are the most remarkable and scandalous moments in SXSW’s history.

The 1994 discovery of hit boyband Hanson

The trio of brothers were brought to SXSW by their hopeful father who had them perform impromptu auditions for the various music industry executives making their way around.

It worked.

A&R executive Christopher Sabec (who became Hanson’s manager) helped them sign with Mercury Records and the band went on to dominate charts in the late ’90s.

The 2000 discovery of mega-star John Mayer

The then-unknown singer-songwriter performed at the millennium’s SXSW Music festival, which caught the attention of record label executives from Aware Records.

It became Mayer’s first record label, but he would go on to sign with Columbia Records later in his career.

The 2005 creation of independent film movement “mumblecore”

It’s thought that the term “mumblecore” was coined by Eric Masunaga, a musician and the sound editor on Mutual Appreciation, in a bar at the SXSW festival.

It’s often characterised by natural — sometimes script-free — dialogue between characters in a low-budget film setting.

Some even say its influence spurred the “mockumentary”, like the original BBC version of TV show The Office.

Hype grows for new social media website Twitter

The groundswell began for the new website, which offered a scaled-back social media platform where brevity — 140 characters or less, or about 34 words — was enforced.

In 2017, Twitter would go on to double that length to 280 characters, though a year later only about 1% of tweets hit that limit, according to the company.

The 2008 trainwreck interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Technology journalist Sarah Lacy sat down for a coveted interview with the young CEO and it got ugly fast, with Lacy continually interrupted Zuckerberg.

When he asked her “Did you run out of questions?” the audience, who by this stage was murmuring angrily, started to cheer.

“Try doing what I do for a living,” she retorted. “It’s not that easy.”

After, Sean Bonner, the creator of Metroblogging, tweeted: “It sounds like the Zuckerberg keynote was one of the worst things in Internet history”.

The pandemic sees the world’s most well-known companies drop out

The SXSW team were determined to go ahead with the March 2020 festival as normal, saying there had been a handful of cancellations from China but a safe event was being planned.

But in the run up, Twitter, Facebook, Vevo, Intel, Mashable, Universal Music Group, Amazon, Entertainment Weekly, TikTok, Netflix, Apple and more dropped out.

Once a petition to can the festival gained 50,000 signatures, “devastated” SXSW organisers called it off.

After two years online, the festival is back in 2023, taking place on March 10-19 in Austin, Texas, and from October 15-22 in Sydney.

An earlier version of this story stated Michelle Shocked’s keynote speech was written by her then-husband Bart Bull, and mentioned an incident involving the band Two Nice Girls. This information was incorrect. SmartCompany regrets this error.

This article was update on July 2, 2022, and again on July 6, 2022.


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