On Friday, the interactive (SXSWi) and film festivals begin. The music portion starts Wednesday.
SXSWi is set for 20 percent to 30 percent growth over its record attendance a year ago. That's notable at a time when many conferences are shrinking. But the Interactive festival is seen as indispensable to many people in new media and Internet businesses.
This year's event includes keynote speakers like FiveThirtyEight.com blogger Nate Silver, Wired magazine editor and "The Long Tail" author Chris Anderson; and Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh. There will be dozens of panels and parties, and more iPhones and Twitter conversations than in just about any other small neighborhood in the world.
As SXSW has grown over the years, lines to register have become frustratingly long. To battle that, conference organizers this year decided to open the registration desk at 7 p.m. Thursday, allowing anyone already in Austin to get their badges right away and avoid having to miss sessions while waiting in line on opening day. But the tremendous popularity of SXSW this year meant that by 7:15 p.m. Thursday, the registration area was already jam-packed.
People arriving just 20 minutes after the SXSW registration desk opened had to wait in a long line on the Austin Convention Center's downstairs level just to get on the escalator to the upper level, where they had to wait in another long, winding line.
For years, one of the whimsical features of SXSW has been a giant pile of Legos in a corner of the Austin Convention Center, there for anyone to play with. On Thursday, the evening before SXSW officially begins, the pile of bricks sits seemingly untouched. Soon, though, there are guaranteed to be creations of all kinds in the area.
Attendees of any of the three SXSW festivals are given a canvas bag stuffed with all kinds of literature and goodies. Those who pay for passes to more than one festival get a bag for each one. Here, in the giant hall where the tens of thousands of bags are assembled, stacks and stacks of the still-empty bags sit on palettes waiting to be filled.
At the other end of one row, several garbage buckets are filled with items like energy bars. The row stretches all the way to the other side of the hall, where stacks of canvas bags await filling. The bags will be handed out to SXSW attendees beginning Friday morning.
Each bag includes a set of magazines, newspapers, and other paper products. Some SXSW attendees have raised the point over the years that the thousands of bags given out result in massive amounts of waste, as much of what they contain is instantly thrown out.
Conference organizers have acknowledged flaws in the bag system, but note that many attendees end up using the canvas bags for years for shopping. In addition, they point out, conference sponsors often insist on having their materials included in the bags.
In a supermarket near the Austin Convention Center, a giant stack of soda cases touts the upcoming college basketball tournament, a big deal here, where the University of Texas is a perennial sports powerhouse.
But "March Madness" in Austin could just as well refer to SXSW, which draws tens of thousands of people to town, and is expected to do so again this year, in spite of the dismal state of the economy.