“Meet the guy who made Austin cool.“
Congratulations, Mr. Swenson!
Roland Swenson: What for?
Out of a small get-together of music nerds you created South by Southwest, one of the biggest and most popular festivals of the tech scene.
Please – that’s giving me far too much credit!
Let’s just have a look at a few of the recent headlines: “Meet the guy who made Austin cool.” With South by Southwest, you helped put the sleepy little Texas town of Austin on the map.
Austin was cool long before I came along. There were a lot of bars and nightclubs that had been around for ages, where you could hear blues and folk music or jazz, rock and roll, punk rockor heavy metal.
“We definitely wanted to be part of this change.“
The classic honky-tonk culture of the south and southwest United States?
Yes. But when we founded South by Southwest, we couldn’t get the big stars. We invited unknown, experimental bands.
Back then, you worked for the Austin Chronicle, the local newspaper. Looking back, was there a particular moment that gave the festival the symbolic meaning it has today?
What does it symbolise in your view?
Everyone who wants to keep up with the latest trends in music, film, entertainment and above all new technologies, makes a pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, in March. That is now tens of thousands of people every year, from more than 60 countries. South by Southwest is an aggregate reflection of the global digital culture.
Wow, thanks! I think the year 1994 was a turning point. That was when we integrated multimedia into the festival, in addition to music and film. It was also a time when the Internet was gaining importance. It quickly became clear to us that these new technologies would change the way we lived in the 21st Century. Of course, we had no idea how quickly this would evolve, but we definitely wanted to be part of this change.
“I think we were just lucky.“
A lot of people wanted that. But what is at the heart of the visionary reputation South by Southwest has gained over the years?
I think we were just lucky, lucky in our choice of keynote speakers. One example: in the middle of the nineties, everybody was crazy for CD-ROM as a universal data storage medium. But our keynote speaker Todd Rundgren prophesied: “CD-ROM is dead. In the future, everything will live on the web.” You have to imagine this. In the audience there were business people whose companies were producing CD-ROMS or who had switched their operating systems to CD-ROM. They were anything but happy about this statement. But as it happened, Todd was right.
You are pretty humble about your defining role in SXSW. Is it true that you walk around Austin during the festivals and nobody recognises you?
Yes. I do not have an entourage. I don’t like to be at the center of things, I don’t push past people who are standing in line. I like to think that I can experience the festival like any other visitor. But I meet up with filmmakers, musicians or app developers who want to meet other creative people and come up with new ideas. I just find that great.
“The me Convention is a completely new event.“
For many who have followed SXSW over the years, it appeared impossible that the festival could grow any more. Now, with the me Convention in Frankfurt, we have a new conference and festival platform, together with Mercedes-Benz. How did this come about?
A lot of people have written incorrectly that SXSW would use this opportunity to expand abroad. That is not the case. The me Convention is a completely new event. Our role is to provide the expertise we’ve gained over the years to Mercedes-Benz. And of course, we find the idea behind the me Convention fantastic.
“Mercedes-Benz is thinking outside the box.”
What is that idea?
It’s no secret that the automobile industry is facing serious challenges. When I spoke with the representatives from Mercedes-Benz, I had the feeling they took these challenges more seriously than, for example, American carmakers. Self-driving cars will not only influence the buying habits of future generations, they will influence our urban areas. We will in future have to grapple with questions about how we deal with the transport, garbage, and energy industries – and with the rise of the ‘sharing community.’ How Mercedes-Benz approaches these issues not only sparked our interest, it fascinated us immediately.
Can you be more specific? Which changes do you mean?
Mercedes-Benz is thinking outside the box. The car will not just be a mode of transportation in the future. In the future, we will work, communicate and live in our cars. We will be able to check our Facebook account on the side of the car door while talking with colleagues on the phone or holding a meeting with other people in the car. We’re no longer talking about the conventional car, we’re talking about a new way of life. I think Mercedes-Benz’s perspective is visionary.
“I can hardly wait.“
What role did the me Convention play in this?
Whether it’s art, politics or new technologies, we all think about what the world of tomorrow will be like. The me Convention aims to support young creative, start-up founders and established entrepreneurs or students in reaching their goals.
If it’s possible to buy one in the near future: would you buy a self-driving car yourself?
Absolutely! To tell you the truth – I can hardly wait.
“How cool is that?“
I used to take the bus to read the paper in peace. That was nice. I just had one problem: I was so caught up in reading the articles that I missed my bus stop and ended up a mile away from the place I wanted to go. Or the classic example: I can’t find a parking space in the city and I program my car so that it drives itself home and picks me up later. How cool is that?
Forbes Magazine recently described SXSW as a “legendary brand”. What do you think is so legendary about SXSW?
That we’ve been around for more than 30 years!