SXSW co-founder Louis Black reminisces as 30th festival approaches

Cat Cardenas

Before their first South By Southwest, the members of The Black Keys were recording songs in their basement and mowing lawns for tour money. 

Before her first SXSW, actress Lena Dunham was working on unpaid web series and creating the feature that would score her a deal with HBO. 

Before SXSW, Louis Black, the festival’s co-founder, was just a music and movie-obsessed student from New Jersey. 

In the years preceding the very first SXSW Festival in 1987, the New Music Seminar approached co-founder Roland Swenson about bringing their music festival to Austin. Though the deal fell through, Swenson took the idea to his friends, UT alumni Black and Nick Barbaro, who were working at the Austin Chronicle. Together, the team decided to create SXSW — a play off of the Alfred Hitchcock film, North By Northwest. 

With the 30th festival underway, Black said he owes its success to the passion within Austin’s creative community. 

“So many remarkable things have happened [at SXSW] and the point I absolutely have to make is that it happened because I so care about what I do,” Black said. “Because all the people I work with care so much about what they do. The reality is, this community of music and film is driven by love and passion and commitment.”

Infographic by Lillian Michel | Daily Texan Staff

Though it now boasts hundred of thousands of registrants and injects more than $300 million into Austin’s economy, SXSW was born from a group of broke, recently-graduated friends. From their beginnings in the fluorescent basement of The Daily Texan where they met, to the punk clubs Raul’s and Liberty Lunch where they shared their love of music, Black said he’s still in disbelief that they’ve gotten where they have today. 

“I’m 40 years into my Austin experience, and almost at any point that time if you had said ‘This is what’s going to come next,’ I would’ve told you that you were full of shit,” Black said.

In the festival’s second year, SPIN magazine’s publisher and founder Bob Guccione Jr. praised SXSW and the Austin Music Scene in an interview with the Daily Texan.

“If Austin doesn’t become a major recording industry center, it certainly won’t be for lack of talent,” Guccione said. “The scene [in Austin] is just so incredible…Austin — and the entire Southwest region — has got a different quality, a sort of frontier, pioneer spirit that no other place has.”

Musicians, filmmakers and innovators have credited the festival with giving them their start over the years. In that time, Black said he’s loved providing a platform for upcoming artists to make names for themselves. 

“When Lena Dunham broke out, her whole career happened because of SXSW,” Black said. “To get to be a part of something like that — it’s something you cannot take away from me.”

After decades of SXSW festivals, Black said he still gets excited when March rolls around each year.

“When South By looks at you and you’re sitting there watching a movie or listening to a band or walking down the street, it says, ‘Why the hell aren’t you doing what you want to do?’” Black said.  

Infographic by Lillian Michel | Daily Texan Staff