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SXSW Is Back, Shorter And Online, A Year After Becoming The First Major Event Canceled Over COVID-19

Stacey Abrams, author N.K. Jemison, and ASL interpreter Rorri Burton during Tuesday's SXSW 2021 keynote.
Stacey Abrams, author N.K. Jemison, and ASL interpreter Rorri Burton during Tuesday's SXSW 2021 keynote.

The nearly annual South by Southwest Conference and Festivals started Tuesday. This year’s activities will be completely online — a year after it became one of the first major events in the U.S. to be called off because of COVID-19.

SXSW Online will be shorter. There will be no networking over barbecue, the red carpets will remain rolled up, and there won't be any​ long lines. Also gone are the hundreds of millions of dollars the Austin economy typically gets when the festival attracts people from all over the world.

However, there will still be music, films and big names. Organizers are trying to keep as much of the festival's feel as possible while also experimenting with the virtual format.

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams was featured in Tuesday's keynote conversation with writer N.K. Jemisin. Topics ranged from Abrams’ early career as a romance novelist to voter suppression efforts in state houses to undo successes she helped steer in Georgia.

“I like to describe it as we protest in the streets, we protest at the ballot box, and then we have to protest in the halls of power,” Abrams said. “Because in between elections is when life happens. And that’s the life that we have to live with, so we have to be always present in the faces and in the minds of those in charge.”

Tuesday's sessions also included musicians Timbaland and Swizz Beatz talking about the quarantine success of their webcast series Verzuz, and journalist Jemele Hill discussing activism.

Wednesday will feature a keynote from a guy who has not participated before, but has as much to do with Austin’s boom as anyone else: Willie Nelson.

​“He is the spiritual godfather of this place," said Hugh Forrest, the chief programming officer at SXSW. “Having him involved with South by Southwest, having his creativity involved with an event that celebrates massive creativity, makes so much sense for 2021.”

Forrest said the pivot to online presentations will not be a one-off. There will be some virtual components next year, when South by Southwest hopes to return to an in-person event.

Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at jmaas@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.

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I grew up in Austin and studied journalism at the University of Texas. I began my radio career making fun of headlines on local sports and news talk shows. I moved to New York City to be a comic. Found some pretty good "day jobs” managing a daily news radio show for the Wall Street Journal and later, producing business news for Bloomberg Television. Upon returning to Austin, I dabbled in many things, including hosting nights and weekends on KUT and producing nightly TV news. Now I’m waking up early to make Morning Edition on KUT even better than it already is.