SXSW Changes

Bullying tactics or lack of options? SXSW says without changes it may leave Austin

SXSW threatens to move away from Austin in new report

SXSW Music 2014 7864
Photo by Jon Shapley

Editor's note: Since this article originally published, SXSW has made the report and its letter to the Austin City Council available on its website. It can be viewed here

Almost six months after an accused drunk driver smashed through a police barricade and into a crowd of festival-goers, SXSW has issued a report outlining recommended changes to the March extravaganza, which converges the music, film and interactive festivals for nearly two weeks of festivities.

The report, which was made available exclusively to the Austin American-Statesman by a SXSW consultant, details recommendations made from the firm Populous, who conducted the study on behalf of the festival. The article comes just four months after the Statesman ran an op-ed critical of SXSW which garnered the very public outrage of The Austin Chronicle publisher and SXSW co-director Nick Barbaro.

According to the Statesman, the report's recommendations include a city-issued event safety plan and the City Council fast-tracking legislation that would grant priority status for SXSW permits. The emphasis, says the 9-page report, is to quell “unruly behavior, inability to access events and activities and unsafe conditions" and to heavily regulate non-SXSW events. Without these changes, SXSW may consider hosting the event outside of Austin.

“If SXSW cannot sustain success and growth in the future, like any business they will eventually need to make decisions about whether or not they can continue to exist in their current format and location,” the Populous report said. “It is very possible that SXSW will have no choice but to entertain notions of bidding their event to other cities to sustain their business model.” 

Now, sure, a few Austinites will read that statement and throw their hands up in glee. But the hundreds of millions of dollars ($315 million in 2014 alone) that SXSW pumps into the local economy every year can't just be dismissed. Neither can the worldwide publicity that events like SXSW bring to Austin. And, despite an embarrassing meeting in May during which city leaders offered few — if any — answers (you can listen to audio of the meeting here), the city has, at least publicly, seemed eager to work with SXSW to create a functioning model.  

Thinly-veiled threats aside, it should be noted that SXSW co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson told the Statesman, “SXSW is so tied up in Austin and we reflect each other so much that I can’t really imagine [a move] happening.” Instead, said Swenson, “Our fear is that we’re just not going to be able to do it anymore because of all of these different factors that are emerging and growing out of control.” 

As the Austin Business Journal points out, the Austin City Council has yet to see the report, so it remains to be seen whether these tactics will energize council members to actually pass legislation and streamline the events process, or if this will be just another snafu in SXSW's increasing public relations meltdown.