It’s long been a maxim of South by Southwest that everybody’s SXSW is different: with so much content going on, attendees will all have a different experience.
But after a few days of the festivals and conference, somewhere around March 11, I began to feel something I really hadn’t felt at SXSW in many years of covering the event: space. I could feel it at the first and fourth floors of the Austin Convention Center, where instead of big clumps of people barely moving, the hallways and main entrance areas moved smooth. I could feel it at night on Rainey Street, which should have been a complete zoo of people, but instead felt sparsely trafficked. It felt like food-truck lines were shorter.
I could even see it on the street; instead of the sprawling lines down South Congress to get downtown, traffic moved relatively smoothly compared to past SXSW years. What was going on?
So I started asking around. Was it just me? Was everyone else seeing this?
To be clear, there were still people packing into most of the high-profile keynote and featured speaker sessions, music showcases still drew crowds and there were plenty of sold-out film screenings, including premieres of “Ready Player One” and “Isle of Dogs.” I’m talking more about day-to-day foot traffic compared to previous years of SXSW.
I asked our veteran music writers. I asked some of our editors, who have watched SXSW grow and grow so much these last 10 years or so. I asked folks who were attending lots of parties and panels. A few days later, as my SXSW was winding down, I asked on Twitter and on Facebook:
This is a late observation but everyone I’ve talked to about #SXSW this week agreed it felt smaller, less crowded, less traffic, than past years despite the great weather. Other attendees: agree?— Omar L. Gallaga (@omarg) March 16, 2018
Here were a few of the responses that agreed with the assessment:
Interactive seemed about the same and great vibe. Music felt smaller for sure. Not sure if that's good or bad.— Mike Fitch (@mfitch) March 18, 2018
Agreed. The Woodie Awards didn’t make it, the artist line up was significantly smaller, the parking lot on 7th & Neches was empty.— kanye asada (@_ingrrrid) March 18, 2018
Entirely my experience. Especially music. SX organizers will point to registrant numbers, but without the noise of the recent past (Spotify house, Doritos stage, McDonald’s loft, Obama, a Pandora House and Fader Fort that stayed until Saturday) there’s less for locals to do.— Ramón Ramirez (@AThousandGrams) March 17, 2018
Definitely fewer people. Smallest in 4 years I’d say.— SXSWOpenBar (@openbarsxsw) March 17, 2018
Yes. I have been going since 01. Plus, everything is so spread out, events not just downtown like Westworld. No huge acts are publicized. Less free booze and free food. No parking lots anymore to rope off and do big stuff. Too many hotels took away parking.— Dagan M-V (@daganmv99) March 17, 2018
yes, very much so. My biz is at a bar on E 6th and the bar totals are down from past SXSWs and my foot traffic is half of last year at least— Alicia ✊🌹 (@aliciaaaaah) March 16, 2018
Well compared to when @BarackObama + @Drake came I’d 100% agree that this year is smaller/less traffic congested lol— Andrew Lee (@AndrewLeeReal) March 16, 2018
Major props to @Austin_Police + help from out of town for all of their hard work keeping everyone safe again this year. #SXSW #SXSW2018
Interactive for sure— DangerousBri (@DangerousBri) March 16, 2018
And a few from people who saw it differently:
@omarg didn’t feel the crowds were less. But I did appreciate that everything else seemed toned down. No massive acts like Gaga and Doritos.— Mark Hammer @sxsw (@MrkHmmr) March 16, 2018
The gaming expo is much more cramped. Last year things like the esports stage had their own rooms. Now it's all crammed into the exhibit hall.— Will Harrison? (@DoubleUHarrison) March 16, 2018
Also: way more merch tables. Like triple.
Less traffic 😂😂😂 as a local I do NOT agree 🙄— Annette (@AnnetteATX) March 16, 2018
Disagreed— Liz Rules (@lizrules29) March 17, 2018
As a conference and tradeshow organizer, I would say it is really hard for people to judge - I see blog posts claiming we had 1/4 or 4x the people we had. I do know it took a half hour some days to get there from Airport/35— Shawn Collins (@shawncollins) March 16, 2018
For its part, South by Southwest itself isn’t likely to have official attendance and participation numbers for SXSW 2018 for a while. Last year, we didn’t learn that SXSW 2017 had 70,696 attendees and 421,900 participants until mid June.
But even if those numbers are flat or grow, there could still be a few reasons why someone observing on street level might have felt SXSW was smaller this year. Here are a few theories:
Theory #1: a wider spread
This year’s SXSW featured a new hotel, The Fairmont, which despite some criticism after its opening online of its looks, provided more opportunities for people to cozy up downtown and for official SXSW programming to spread out from the Convention Center and other nearby venues.
Some believe that the crowds were still here, but they were better distributed across a wider swath of downtown and east Austin.
Agreed. Still super crowded, but felt better distributed. Felt like badge access was honored more this year.— Dan Heberden (@danheberden) March 16, 2018
You might be right, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers were solid and but because there are so many more hotels for people to be in...like the JW and Fairmont, traffic in places like the convention center seemed light.— Josh Rubin (@jrubin) March 16, 2018
Could it be because it has become so spread out across the city?— Eric Young (@AustinBeerGeek) March 16, 2018
Not sure. A few big hotels and better queue management did contribute to a less crowded feeling onsite. I was mostly at the Hilton, JW, & Fairmont, and all had lots of sessions, huge number of badges, but with well-managed lines.— Paul Teich (@paulrteich) March 16, 2018
Theory #2: Lines and traffic better managed
Was everything simply better organized this year? Before the event, SXSW touted a new feature on its app, website and on boards across venues showing attendees which panels, screenings or music showcases were empty, half-full or completely full. With that information, some attendees may have had better information to avoid queues that weren’t going anywhere.
2018 was also the SXSW when Uber and Lyft returned after not servicing Austin during the same period in 2017. We also saw lots of electric scooters, foldable electric bikes and other forms of alternate transportation that may have eased traffic and parking woes a bit last week.
Traffic was way lighter coming into downtown tonight from NW Austin. I was pleasantly surprised.— VegGirl (@VegGirlATX) March 17, 2018
Public transpo has improved and more shows are spread out within the city.— Raquel P (@QuellyPea) March 17, 2018
The hippies have dropped the ban on uber. Mystery solved.— Nicholas Coy (@NicholasCoyVara) March 17, 2018
Theory #3: who cares why, just enjoy it
Some of the sentiment I’ve heard suggests that without major, major music acts on the schedule and fewer gigantic brand activations in the heart of downtown (the biggest this year, themed to “Westworld,” was outside the city), that SXSW may be able to go back to its roots a bit: to become a conference about discovering little-known acts and ideas instead of lining up for big names. And that may make it a better experience for those who are here.
Agreed. In short, more rad.— Matthew Odam (@odam) March 16, 2018
Agree. But it was a great #sxsw all the same.— Roy Kasten (@roykasten) March 18, 2018
Don’t jinx it!!!— Alison Kwong (@alikwong) March 17, 2018
Looking back on this and feeling guilty. I should have treated this like SXSW days of old when you discovered new bands. I think I’m just too old to “go hard” anymore. 😉— Laura K (@Lauralizzzz) March 17, 2018
Word. It’s just felt more chilled. Loved it.— SXSWOpenBar (@openbarsxsw) March 17, 2018
Definitely and that's not a bad thing per say.— Ivan Frank (@IvanFranka) March 16, 2018
It worked. pic.twitter.com/253ryHWJx1— Michael Sidoric (@avfolk) March 16, 2018
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