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South By Southwest Adds A 'Super Bowl' To Austin's Economy Each Year


This weekend we're coming to you from the Texas Standard studio at KUT in Austin, Texas. We're here for South by Southwest. And if you haven't heard of South by Southwest, let me try to describe it. First, there is music everywhere.


MARTIN: There are people playing or singing or both on just about every street corner downtown. There are even performers riding around on a flatbed truck. We know. We heard them before we saw them. There's a massive music festival with hundreds of artists, some of them major international stars, some of them just starting out, performing at venues all over town.

And there's a nine-day film festival and a huge series of conferences and panels on technology and film and music and lots of other issues that take over the convention center and hotels across the city. And that's just the official program. For almost two weeks, this place is a beehive. Here's how the mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, describes it.

STEVE ADLER: Well, in most direct terms, last year it added a little over $325 million dollars to the economy. That makes it on par with the Super Bowl, which means we have a Super Bowl here every year.

MARTIN: We visited the mayor in his office, and even there inside you could hear the echoes from a show across the river. Like I said, music is everywhere. And these days, so are techies and investors and anybody else who might be interested in the next big thing. And that's also given the event and the city a certain reputation that can be tough to maintain.

ADLER: There's nothing worse than being the city that used to be the cool city. And Expedia just announced last week that we were the coolest city. But how long does that last? So it is a concern. But this is really authentic. This is who we are. This is not an event which was created to make us look innovative. This is a community that always has been. This is a community that was entrepreneurial and innovative when I passed through this town 40 years ago and, much to my surprise, decided to stay because I fell in love with the city.

MARTIN: You went to law school here?

ADLER: I did. And that's what brought me here. I grew up on the East Coast. I came here for law school with no intention of staying. It just happened to be the cheapest law school in the country and I could afford it. But it is the same thing that was the music then that is the tech now. To me, it's an expression of exactly the same thing. Back 30 years ago when this started, it was an opportunity to showcase local Austin musical talent, which was phenomenal. But no one was seeing it because it lacked the distribution chains and the capital in order to be able to get out of the city. So they created a festival that brought in the artists, but also the distribution and the capital.

Well, that's what South by is right now but with tech. It's the same thing. Let's bring in the people with the ideas, with the art. Now it's the venture capitalists that are coming in. And everyone's walking around this city now, enjoying the panels and looking for each other. There's a lot of matchmaking that goes on this week.

MARTIN: All of this transforms the city during South by Southwest. But it's also a metaphor for the city itself, which is grappling with new popularity and surprisingly fast growth.

ADLER: That brings incredible opportunity and excitement. It also brings pretty considerable challenges with respect to affordability and infrastructure, mostly mobility.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit, if you would, about the affordability issue, because we keep hearing people talking about how, you know, housing prices have just skyrocketed. Can you talk a little bit about that?

ADLER: And they have. But it's all relative. So the median home price in San Francisco last year went over a $1,150,000. Seattle and Boston, bound and determined not to follow San Francisco like a tractor beam, are being pulled in the same direction. I think the median home price in those two cities is north of $650,000 now. Austin, it's about $300,000. But that is a shock to the people who live here because it's all relative.

So you have the danger of losing the very diversity that is responsible for the creativity and the fabric that makes for what is, I think, a very special spirit and soul in this city. And if we lose the middle-income folks in our city, if we lose the diversity in our city, then we'll stop being Austin. You can't be the live music capital of the world if you lose your live music musicians and your live music venues.

So we're now trying to guard against that, looking at what we can learn from San Francisco and Seattle and Boston and the other cities, but recognizing that no city has yet been able to really figure out what to do about gentrification. So we're trying to do things that other cities have done that have worked and also trying to come up with new, innovative solutions that nobody's tried yet.

MARTIN: You talked about the fact that the house prices - housing prices here can be a shock to the people that live here. I'm imagining that the festival, and given how much it's grown over the 30 years that it's been taking place here, is also something of a shock to the people who live here. I wanted to ask you about that. What do you hear most? I mean, do you mostly hear people who live here excited about it? Or at this point is it mostly, oh, no, that again?

ADLER: You know, you hear both, and I'm not sure that it's one more than the other.

MARTIN: That said, just about everybody we talked to agreed on one thing - Austin is a great place for music and food. So naturally, I asked the mayor for some inside information about places we should check out.

ADLER: Really? You're going to ask me to name specific clubs on national radio like this?

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, we know.

ADLER: I'll get shot. I would say that...

MARTIN: We need that and we need the barbecue hot list. That's what - that's - I'm sorry. That's just the way it's got to happen.

ADLER: You know, the Continental Club has been with us forever on South Congress Street. You should check that out. The Elephant Room has great jazz. I'm going to get in trouble for even doing that.


MARTIN: OK, barbecue - where's your spot?

ADLER: You know, when the 25 mayors came into town and I'm trying to show them the Google autonomous car that's on our streets and I'm putting virtual reality glasses on their heads and they're being able to experience municipal applications of that technology, I'm showing them lots of cool stuff. All they wanted was to figure out how to get into Franklin's Barbecue and jump the line. So we did that on Sunday.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.

ADLER: And I think I could get elected president of the United States Conference of Mayors right now.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, Mayor Steve Adler, thanks so much for visiting with us.

ADLER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, you know, we did it. We did get to some of the places he mentioned. We'll tell you about that later on in the program, so we hope you'll stick around. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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