SXSW 2024: A Tale of Contrasts

Sparks Marketing
Sxsw hero

The origin story of SXSW is that of a music and media festival that had promoters wanting to show off the creative and eclectic Austin scene. It has since grown to a monster See-And-Be-Seen music, technology, and film festival that attracts Venture Capitalists, budding entrepreneurs, and a host of household name brands to a packed 10 days that span a vast amount of real estate and programming.

SXSW 2024 showcased a remarkable display of resilience, with a few adjustments along the way. While standalone activations saw a decrease of over 30%, the event maintained its vibrant spirit. Programming and content curation reached new heights, attracting renowned figures like Meghan Markle and Mark Cuban. Despite the abundance of sessions, even the largest venues experienced room for more attendees. Although spending at the Creative Industries Expo saw a dip, there's still plenty of room for innovation and collaboration. The festival's embrace of more public activations fosters a sense of inclusivity, ushering in a new era of accessibility and community engagement.

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The Lackluster Moments

Not an Austin takeover.

Brand activations normally occupy every square block of Austin for SXSW; 2024 remained full but much sparser. Typical activation buildings and areas were empty.

Penske Media
(the organization that has a controlling stake in the festival) and SXSW have yet to release official numbers, but the projected attendance for this year was said to be over 300,000 - closer to the pre-pandemic crowds that were over 400,000. Still, the festival felt smaller this year - the once-packed venues now had elbow room. The energy was subdued, like a party where some guests didn’t show up. The changing landscape of Austin (hyper development and construction) should be mentioned here as a major contributing factor.

The Changing Austin Landscape.

Austin itself is evolving. The city’s skyline is full of new high-rises and mixed-use buildings downtown, and the population has nearly doubled in a decade. The tech industry influx has transformed neighborhoods, and the quirky food trucks now share space with sleek coffee shops. And despite this year’s drop off in tech industry attendance, we wonder if Austin is losing its soul—the very essence that makes SXSW thrive. (::sips cold brew::)

SXSW - The Good-to-Know

The Good-to-Know

The rise of consumer products.

Consumer packaged goods are finding an audience at SXSW as the program continues to open itself up to the public more and more. The most successful brands (such as Tide and Sharpie) choose to launch products- and not simply make an “awareness play.”

Entertainment category continues to spend big.

The film festival component of SXSW has successfully infiltrated the entirety of the festival, with premieres happening from the first day all the way through to the conclusion of the fest. Smartest moves were by companies who chose to activate in partnership with original content (such as Amazon with "Fallout"). There is opportunity here for more studios to market their films that premiere. Where was the "Civil War" activation?

Hospitality + F/B are table stakes.

Most activations were fully dual purpose, offering an almost requisite set of drink tickets upon entry and a uniformed bartender pouring a signature cocktail at almost every turn. Overall it felt like this was what kept some uninterested crowds to dwell longer rather than a true complement to an activation.

SXSW - So What's Next?

So What's Next?

The film, cultural, and music components of the program continue to thrive at SXSW. The growth of consumer brands and products as sponsors indicates a move away from “cutting edge” and more into “cutting through the noise.” Still, SXSW remains an important part of the national events calendar.