AUSTIN, Texas — In the 1980s, Ed Ward was a music writer with the Austin American-Statesman, and he joined a task force put together by the local chamber of commerce that had the goal of promoting music. Task force members realized that the local music scene had huge economic potential.
The outcome of their work was the South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival, which has become one of the biggest annual music events in the world.
The first SXSW took place in 1987, and Ward’s job was to coordinate the event’s panel discussions. He went on to become a noted music writer — he co-wrote “Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll” — and today he is best known as a rock music commentator on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” He lived in France for 20 years but moved back to Austin in October. With thousands of musicians and music professionals in town for the 2014 SXSW, which runs through Sunday, he talked about his views on the evolution of the festival.
When SXSW made its debut, Austin was better known for Willie Nelson-style country music, and some music professionals doubted the wisdom of sending artists to the middle of Texas for a showcase, Ward said. Only one hotel, a downtown Sheraton, agreed to work with the festival, and some local authorities, particularly the fire department, were unfriendly to the festival, he said.
But the city had a vibrant live music scene, and Ward and fellow SXSW organizers succeeded in drawing panelists and artists to that first event. About 3,500 people came that year, Ward said. By the third year, about 10,000 were in attendence.
SXSW proved it could be successful.
It has continued to grow every year, and now it includes interactive and film components. Ward is disappointed to see what’s happened to the SXSW panel discussions, he said. The educational side of the festival is important to him, but he believes the panels have become a mouthpiece for marketers.
“Now it’s all sales pitches from companies,” he said.
Ward doesn’t see the point, for example, in a panel on “the contribution of Converse sneakers to rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, adding that he believes interest in the panels has waned.
He’s not sure the SXSW film festival is viable, and the interactive component has become too big, he said. But coexistence of music, interactive and film makes sense.
“All of those areas are moving toward convergence,” he said.
Ward is happy to see the expansion of the styles of music at the festival.
“For years it was hard to get any band that wasn’t boys with guitars and the occasional girl with a guitar,” he said.
Today there’s hardly a music style not represented at SXSW.
Ward is in the process of publishing a new book, called “Not Only Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It examines the “footnotes” of early rock and roll, he said. The end of rationing in early 1960s Liverpool, for example, contributed more to the rise of bands such as The Beatles than most people recognize, he said.
“There is all kinds of stuff around the edges that needs to be filled in, that has to be contextualized,” he said.