David J. Neff: SXSW Pros and Cons

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David J. Neff is an author, speaker, consultant and founder of Lights. Camera. Help. Here he weighs in on the pros of Austin’s premier festival.

In general, what do you think about SXSW?
I’m a big supporter of SXSW. Mainly because the festival is such an important event for anyone working in the digital space—you get to see what’s going to happen two years from now. It’s an absolutely future-looking event. It’s a great way to see what the [interactive] landscape is going to look like… new people, new companies, new products. Naturally, it’s the same for those attending from the music and film worlds. 

What would you say is the biggest positive regarding the festival?
The biggest positive for the city is the income SXSW generates. Also, it’s a great showcase for Austin. Visitors get to see films in our theaters, experience our live music scene, eat our breakfast tacos. People can explore everywhere that makes Austin the town it is. It’s a positive Austin experience that gets people primed for more—it’s Austin 101. Visitors start thinking, “When can I come back and see more?” 

Do you think the festival benefits the city in any way, and if so, how? 
I think SXSW has done a good job of giving back. Hugh and his team have championed the charge for events like the Beacon Lounge, which serves nonprofits attending, The Dewey Winburne Awards and giving scholarships for nonprofits to attend. They also have the SXSW Foundation, which steps in and helps when there are large catastrophic events. 

The festival has gotten much bigger over the years—do you think bigger is better? 
I think the interesting thing for us to focus on is that SXSW will continue to grow. I can’t understand why so many people in this city are negative about growth. Growth is mostly a positive. SXSW makes an easy target. We have thousands of people in town over the course of a week and a half to experience the thoughts, ideas and companies that will shape our future. I think the festival creates a real sense of value in our city, a sense of community. We’re showcasing our city, and people are coming back as visitors who put money into our economy. 

Some people are sick of SXSW and wish it would head out of town already. how would you change their minds? 
Again, I would say look at growth as a positive. Look at SXSW as a great tradition. No one is asking ACL to leave town. No one is asking other businesses like Dell to get out. It’s not a point of view that makes a lot of sense to me, and I think it would be a hard position to defend. I just don’t understand the mindset that growth and change are always bad when it comes to Austin. 

What could SXSW do to make the experience better for everyone involved and those that stay away?
The SXSW people are on top of it. They’re intelligent and know how to plan an event. They know how to expand it and control it. SXSW is a highly curated event with thousands of panels, locations, parties and sponsors. The size of the event is just something easy to pick on. 

Do you think SXSW has changed the city? If so, in what positive ways?
Austin is a beautiful city with tons of opportunities to get outside and experience nature. It’s a little weird, and we love that. We’re still that city. I don’t think SXSW really has an effect on who we are and what we do. Austin is Austin. But the festival does bring in thousands of people who visit our town and fall in love with it. Musicians, filmmakers, business owners. SXSW is a growth engine and it attracts a lot of great people here. 

Originally published March 15th, 2015 in The Austinite Magazine.

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