SXSW Returns to Austin Virtually with Full Schedule

Charles Taylor, Copy Editor

On March 3, 2020, Austin Mayor Steve Adler released an order effectively canceling South By Southwest (SXSW), citing public health concerns related to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. In its March 6 statement, the corporation announced the official cancellation of the event and mentioned plans to attempt to reschedule it for a later date. Given the continued climb of local and national COVID-19 cases for the rest of the year, this reschedule proved impossible. 

The ongoing pandemic precluding an in-person SXSW 2021, on Oct. 6, 2020, the corporation announced its plans to host a fully online version of the meetup for the first time ever. According to SXSW Senior Content Marketing Manager Jordan Roberts, the conference will retain its normal structure but in a digital setting. While this means the process of attending SXSW will look different this year, Roberts said the perseverance of the arts despite the COVID-19 pandemic will keep the event alive. 

“Even though we can’t meet for a physical event, it doesn’t mean that creativity stopped, and there’s new music to be heard and films to come out, and speakers that will impart certain presentations,” Roberts said. “You still wouldn’t want to miss out since we’re all kind of on pause in a remote world.”

Indigo Sparke, A Place to Bury Strangers, and Francisca Valenzuela will join the music festival’s featured artists, and featured speakers this year will include Willie Nelson, Queen Latifah and Matthew McConaughey. In addition, Roberts said an initial film slate has been announced.

“So we have about seven or so feature films,” Roberts said. “A few of them are documentaries. There’s one that’s about NASA, so it’s ‘The Hunt for Planet B.’ But the big opening night headliner is Demi Lovato’s documentary…’Dancing With the Devil.’ So that’s going to be the opening night headliner for the film festival, that’s been getting a lot of good pickups.”

Joost van Dreunen, a New York University Stern School of Business teacher and the founder of interactive entertainment investment management company New Breukelen, will speak about video games as the future of entertainment at this year’s SXSW in the form of a pre-recorded video. According to van Dreunen, not appearing physically in front of his audience will pose some challenges, but hosting a virtual talk will allow him the leeway to attempt a more creative approach.

“Spontaneity will be an issue,” van Dreunen said. “My session, I believe, is pre-recorded. One of things I enjoy most about public speaking is interacting with a crowd. It is more difficult to keep people’s attention in an online pre-recorded video. However, I don’t have a lot of experience with this format so I’m hoping it will work out and be interesting…I will be able to integrate more visuals, change scenery, and take the audience on a field trip as part of the talk, which you usually cannot do. We’ll see.”

Cindy Royal, a professor and the founding director of the Media Innovation Lab in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Texas State University, has attended SXSW since the late 1990s. 

According to her, the impact of COVID-19 on this year’s SXSW will extend beyond the cancellation of physical events, in addition affecting the content presented. One of the reasons Royal plans to attend this year is to get a sense of the pandemic’s impact on workplaces and the entertainment industry.

“There are just some very relevant content points that are happening right now, things that affect what I do with my students in terms of how their careers are changing into the future, like virtual workplaces,” Royal said. “And a lot of them that have graduated, I know, have had to do all their interviewing through Zoom and things like that…But then also, I’ll be interested in the content, the things that really kind of connect all these areas, how technology and the pandemic have affected musicians, how they’ve affected film distribution, and how we’re going to deal with this going forward.”

While organizing a fully virtual SXSW is new territory for the organizers, Roberts said the meetup had already built a significant online presence in past years with a global audience tuning in to get a sense of the trends of the future. She said this year’s SXSW will be a continuation of this digital experience but on a larger scale.

“Each year, we typically are focused on the physical, but we do have a digital component in the past still,” Roberts said. “We would have SXSW live events, we would still livestream keynotes and showcases, and be posting photos. And also, the rest of the world is doing press updates. And that community of the people that aren’t at the event are so heavily engaged, and they’re looking to South By to kind of be those tastemakers and guide and forecast the what’s next. So I think that base, that audience, has always also been there. This year, we’re speaking to them even more directly and having even more programming.”

For Royal in particular, a major part of the SXSW experience in past years has been witnessing her students’ exploration of events that interest them and interaction with those around them. She hopes that this year’s virtual setting will allow for this same level of engagement between participants.

“The thing that I enjoy most is seeing students acclimate to the community of SXSW when they start meeting people and they start hearing about the topics that we’ve been teaching them in school, and they really feel like they’ve become part of a special community,” Royal said. “So I’ll definitely miss seeing that in person. I’m hoping that that same spirit, for anybody who participates will still be able to be retained.”

The ability to happen upon new topics or artists is one of Royal’s favorite aspects of the convergence, and she hopes this can continue in a virtual setting. According to Royal, a digital SXSW could give people who otherwise wouldn’t be involved with it a chance to join in the action.

“I always encourage students to go to sessions that they know nothing about just to open their mind up to something completely different,” Royal said. “So I’m hoping that there will also be this element of serendipity that will allow people to sort of stumble into something new that they hadn’t really known about before. I also hope that doing SXSW in a virtual manner may open it up to more people than the usual people who come to Austin every year in March.” 

While a virtual SXSW will be easier to access, it will render human-to-human interaction at the event impossible. Despite the impact COVID-19 will have on this year’s meetup, van Dreunen said he plans to focus elsewhere during his talk.

COVID-19 may show up in one or two slides,” van Dreunen said. “But most of us have been spending so much time talking about it that I’d prefer to talk about fun, inspiring, funny, ridiculous things instead.”

SXSW will run from March 16-20, 2021, and lineup updates and other information can be found at