South by Southwest– which goes by SXSW for short –  is an enigma of sorts. Part music festival, part tech conference, part film showcase, and part hipster convention, South by Southwest is a conglomeration of interests on exhibition for nine days in Austin, Texas.

A brief history of SXSW

The inaugural SXSW was held in 1987 as a regional music festival. It continued to grow, and in 1994 other media aspects were added to the conference. Since then, the festival has continued to grow in size and scope with more than 2,371 musical acts and nearly 60,000 attendees.

Famous artists like comedian Fred Armisen, musicians John Mayer and Katy Perry, and the band Hanson got their big break at SXSW.

Change over time

In many ways, the changes that have occurred to SXSW over the past 20 years reflect the changes in our consumer culture and in our communication methods. SXSW acts as an engine to kickstart the hottest in pop culture, be it technology, music, or movies.

SXSW has been a place for many to begin their career. With a focus on showcasing the hottest in different industries this comes naturally. At the 2015 conference, SXSW screened 145 feature films, its most ever. This comes as no surprise, as it is now expected for smaller films to sign distribution deals after their SXSW debut. One of the biggest success stories of this kind is the documentary Undefeated. After an initial screening at SXSW in 2013, the movie went on to gain a distribution deal and eventually win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. This year, the app Meerkat, which allows users to Tweet live video, became the breakout technology of the conference. During, and immediately after the festival, it became the talk of headlines in new and old media outlets including Vox, Slate, and the Washington Post.

SXSW doesn’t always start the conversation, but it certainly facilitates and expedites the discussion and rise of artists, technology, and even movements. As one of the largest gatherings of thought leaders and media outlets, SXSW allows technologies and artists that may have been niche or minor to blow up.

In 2014, the focus of the Interactive portion of the festival was wearable technology. That same year, Elon Musk and Edward Snowden spoke about technology and privacy respectively. SXSW wasn’t the first time anyone heard of wearable technology, nor was it the first time we heard the name Snowden. But, SXSW brought greater attention to the movement surrounding both. SXSW provides a space for small-time technology, movements, and people to be heard by national media, and therefore more of society.

SXSW serves as a microcosm of what niche experts are talking about now, and what everyone will be talking about tomorrow.