If you were driving on an American highway last weekend, you probably passed one. They came from Nashville, New York and New Orleans, from Boston and Seattle and Chicago and Los Angeles, and from four dozen other countries entirely: 2,000 musical acts, in vans brimming with equipment and ambition and hope, rolling toward Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest like filings drawn to a magnet.
It’s a big week for these aspiring musicians. Like pre-season football hopefuls, many will do two-a-days, playing to land a label or a spot at a big summer festival. But it’s also a big week for Austin. Like a polished party host, the city doesn’t flaunt its own hospitality. But after nearly three decades, the festival’s brand of forward-thinking, creative cool seems perfectly aligned with Austin’s own.
This symbiotic relationship has turned heads in municipalities across the country. Cities have historically competed for visitors by building cavernous convention centers and taxpayer-funded stadiums, and though economic wisdom frowns on these expenditures, they still build them. But festivals represent an alternative growing in popularity. Industry conferences and major sporting events, like your average American family, do not visit the same city year after year. Festivals, by contrast, are a municipal golden goose. And they don’t just stick around: They can float a cultural aura that helps affirm a city’s identity year-round. For Austin, that’s live music. For Miami Beach, it’s art. Nearly everyone agrees it’s a concept worth imitating — so why do so few American cities have world-class festivals?
South by Southwest is now a quintessential urban American festival. For nearly two weeks each March, the three-part extravaganza is divided between music, film and “interactive,” but includes other add-ons like the Gaming Expo. For wannabes, it’s both an opportunity and a stamp of legitimacy, and the doorway can open wide indeed. It was only five years ago that Lena Dunham got her start with a short film submission to SXSW; now she has a film released by the Criterion Collection, a multimillion-dollar book deal, and a show on HBO.
Then there’s the money: An analysis of SXSW 2013 estimates that the festival was responsible for contributing $218 million to the local economy. That includes direct impact, like the revenue of a local bed-and-breakfast; indirect impact, like the increased business of a cleaning service that works at that BnB; and induced impact, or the unrelated spending made possible by those additional revenues. The direct impact was calculated at $146 million, a comparable figure to the $152 million direct impact of Super Bowl XLVI on Indianapolis. It’s like Austin is hosting the Super Bowl every year.
The willingness of Americans to travel in order to be a part of something like this is nothing new. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, a mammoth six-month event that occupied 700 acres of the city, drew 27 million people. (At the time, the U.S. population was 62 million.) It was the dawn of American public leisure, the age of the amusement park and the Fourth of July parade. Many festivals of the era were culturally specific — Chinese New Year in San Francisco, St. Patrick’s Day in Boston, Columbus Day in New York, African-American festivals across the Southeast. But American festivals really took off in the 1930s, with improvements in transportation and increased recreation time.
Today, however, there are relatively few city-specific events that boast a real national draw. SXSW is one type: a centrally planned, private event with a strong civic association. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras festivities are another. But while cities spend millions competing for national political conventions and sporting events, starting a festival seems somehow more daunting. It’s certainly a less common path than fishing for existing events.
Music has been an easy option for cities looking to break into the festival game. Concerts overtook record sales as the biggest segment of the music industry in 2008, and music events in the U.S. appear not to have reached their saturation point. Young Americans, in particular, have a remarkable fondness for live music festivals, flocking to Coachella, Bonnaroo and hundreds of others year after year. Chicago nailed down Lollapalooza after its stint on the road, and hosts the Pitchfork Festival each summer. Governors Ball is gaining steam in New York, while Outside Lands has been a big boost to San Francisco. When Electric Daisy Carnival, the traveling electronic music festival, visited Las Vegas in 2011, attendees spent $311 per day, not including ticket prices (or, obviously, any black market purchases).
But a festival that defines a city’s identity, gives it a year-round reputation? Surely such a thing — like San Fermin in Pamplona or Oktoberfest in Munich --can’t be created overnight?
Actually, most of these events don’t grow as organically as their publicity materials might imply. (Avignon’s reputation for theater, for example, was basically invented in 1947 with the introduction of the Festival d’Avignon.) In fact, a city doesn’t even have to invent its own festival. So Cincinnati celebrates its German heritage by dressing up as Zinzinnati each fall for its own version of Oktoberfest, at which a half-million people eat 80,000 bratwurst over a three-day weekend. Miami Beach enhanced its reputation as a city firmly within the international art world by hosting a festival, Art Basel, whose very name pays tribute to another city.
Others simply draw inspiration from what has worked elsewhere. So XOXO, in Portland, aims to re-create the best parts of SXSW, but leave behind some of the chaos. And Tom Tom Founders’ Festival, in Charlottesville, Va., emphasizes a similar mix of music, art and innovation, while keeping it local with a tribute to Thomas Jefferson. Both of those events will occur for the third time this year.
As Rehan Choudry, who founded the Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas (part of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s broader effort to reinvent downtown Vegas’ identity), put it to Governing magazine, “The biggest piece of advice to any city trying to do this is, ‘Don’t think year one, think year five.’ If it’s not long-term, it’s not worth the resources.”
There’s nothing stopping American cities from joining Cannes (Film Festival), Venice (Biennale) or Edinburgh (Fringe) in drawing crowds for a week and burnishing their reputations for a year. Nothing but a lack of imagination, that is. For the quarter-billion dollars Detroit taxpayers will spend on a new Red Wings arena, for example, the city could start something that 29 other North American cities don’t already have.