SXSW Sydney - How’d it stack up?


So the big SXSW Sydney experiment is finally under our belts - up until this year, it had grown for 35 years only in Austin, and this was the first time they’ve tried to repeat the formula anywhere else, never mind in a different country and timezone. So how’d they get on?

First things first, we have to acknowledge it was never going to be on the same scale as SXSW Austin. The commercial opportunities aren’t as great, which dictates who can invest in the trip. In contrast, SXSW Austin has been a mainstay of the film, music and tech calendars for many, many years. It took time to grow to the size, scale and cultural significance that we see today. So let’s keep that in mind.

I also took a few photos which you can see here on Flickr.

The good

First impressions in Sydney were good. While they didn’t have the breadth and depth of sessions they have in Austin (back of a napkin: maybe 1500 sessions in Austin compared with about 150 in Sydney), and they were probably a bit light on world class speakers, they had a very decent coverage of topics with a high level of quality. I usually bank on a 50/25/25 split between good, average and bad in Austin, and I hit the same ratio here. That’s obviously a difficult and important bedrock to get in place.

My interests have shifted in the past year or two due to my work with Altai - I’m still interested in tech, but I’m now also keen to learn more about the entertainment industry, scale-ups and growing businesses into the States. Learned a lot, which I won’t bore you with now, but for now I’ll give two thumbs up from this guy. I’m also feeling content about my prior advice - if you avoided the hypey topics like AI, VR, Web3 and Metaverse, you’ll find the average quality will go up, up, up.

It was also encouraging to see many sessions being full, or close to full. They’ll obviously need a good turnout to justify further investment, and it looks as though that commercial box has been ticked emphatically.

There was also an interesting comparison between the Sydney International Convention Centre and the Austin Convention Center, the former being shiny and new (and maybe half the size), making the latter look very worn around the edges by comparison. That said, the ACC really sets things up better for a massive clash of commerce and culture; all the pillars inside and out are covered in cellophane ready for thousands of flyers, stickers and posters, which contrasted with the ICC’s boring concrete pillars and walls. More on the nanny state below…

ACC Austin Convention Center

ICC Sydney International Convention Centre

Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to the amazing volunteers. Every single one of them greeted you with a big smile, keen to help you find your way. It plays a massive part in the general air of positivity and inclusion that you feel in Austin, where they start every session or film with a shout-out to volunteers (in film screenings everyone bursts into spontaneous applause before he film starts). Hope they start doing it here.

The not-so-good

As mentioned before, one of the biggest challenges they’ve got in exporting SXSW to Sydney is attracting international talent. I suspect it will always be a challenge in the tech and film space, but even more so when it comes to bands who have the added cost of shipping extra band members and equipment, and uncertain returns on that investment. Back in Austin, bands plan their tours around being in Texas in the Spring so there’s no shortage of talent in the right place at the right time.

Wandering around the music venues, I discovered some great Australian bands, and the Indonesian bands playing at Tumbalong Park attracted a lively crowd (free access to the public for that venue will have helped). But when you’ve paid so much for a ticket - A$1895 for Platinum in the end - you might reasonably expect to see some blockbuster headline acts. For example, in Austin this year I saw New Order, and last year saw Beck. I missed Dolly Parton and Macklemore. On the film front, I saw World premieres of Air and Evil Dead Rise. We didn’t hit those heights in Sydney, which wouldn’t be such a big problem if the tickets weren’t so expensive.

Also in the not-so-good column was the Expo hall. Mostly people sitting around playing computer games, and loads of VR stalls (can’t help but think they’ll all be out of business once the Apple Vision Pro is launched). There were some quite good installations from Qantas and The Army, but that wasn’t enough to offset the general quality. Hopefully more interesting vendors will feel encouraged to attend next year. I’d also like to see an equivalent of Flatstock - the Austin mainstay where people are selling posters, apparel such as baseball caps, and other cool merch.

Flatstock Flatstock

The ugly

All the positives by far outweigh the negatives - it was a great event, and I’m super looking forward to next year - but there was one aspect that really caught in the throat.

Nanny. State. Bullshit.

Poster showing terms and conditions

At almost every venue and talk, alongside the smiling and friendly volunteers, we had to deal with 1am bouncer vibes coming off the security guards. Some of them were on power trips that really harshed our mellow. I’ll give you (and SXSW) two examples:

  • On Day One, I was visiting the Suntory courtyard for a drink in the sunshine with my colleague and her dog. The place was nearly empty, but the bouncer wouldn’t let the dog in for five minutes while he checked whether dogs were allowed. Then when we were eventually let in and had drinks, they changed their minds and kicked us out. This was in Tumbalong Park - a public place, where dogs go all the time. Just dumb.

Renee and Denim, her dog Renee and her dog, Denim, just before we got turfed out

  • After queuing for an hour waiting to get in and see Chance the Rapper, some big heavy dude came up to me and said “you’re not coming in with that bag”. A simple laptop rucksack, at a tech conference. I pointed out that almost everyone in the queue had a bag like that, or bigger. He just shrugged, but I could see the gears turning in his head…so I offered to fold down the top of my bag by an inch and he eventually - and very reluctantly - conceded I could go in.

There were other examples too. Such a contrast with Austin, where security is present but it’s relatively friendly and it fades into the background. Destination NSW and the City of Sydney have some work to do if they want Sydney to shine on an international stage.

Phew! Rant over. That’s the only ugly one!


In conclusion, let me say this: the good far outweighed the bad. It really was a solid event, and an audacious attempt to export something that’s special and unique.

I’m reliably informed that SXSW has signed a five year contract with Destination NSW, and that they’ve got a list of “Year 2” problems to solve. I’m not surprised - the amount of sheer hard work that went into organising “Year 1” of SXSW Sydney was evident to everyone in attendance. I feel proud that they chose Sydney as their APAC hub, they did a great job, and I’m looking forward to finding out next year how they build and grow on these foundations.