Breaking It Down

SXSW founder breaks silence to discuss Red River tragedy and the fest's future in Austin

SXSW founder discusses Red River tragedy and fest's future in Austin

SXSW, crowd, band, stage, Austin skyline
SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson talks about the future of the landmark festival.  ExtremeAirShots/

It's been a tough year for SXSW. In the months that followed the Red River tragedy, SXSW struggled to steady itself as it faced a barrage of criticism from both inside the city and out.

It began last May after the Austin American-Statesman ran an op-ed chastising the festival for not ponying up the cash to pay for city services. That in turn outraged SXSW co-director and Austin Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro enough that he wrote an op-ed critical of the Statesman's op-ed. It was all very public and sassy and rooted in years of tension between the two publications.

Over the summer, Austin's rideshare debate heated up, fueled in part by the actions of an allegedly drunk Rashad Owens, who plowed through a police barricade in front of the Mohawk and killed four people during SXSW 2014.

Fall was even worse, after the festival released a report from the firm Populous. Said the report, "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." That tidbit got quite a bit of attention, enough that SXSW had to issue a statement the next day to quell the outrage. 

Needless to say, there is a lot to discuss. Just a few weeks away from what will likely be the most scrutinized SXSW in history, festival co-founder Roland Swenson sat down with Texas Monthly to talk about, well, everything. 

Over the past 12 months, Swenson has taken a noticeable step away from the spotlight, giving the occasional small interview or quote, but never really divulging the answers many of us were hoping for — until now. Though he's at times contradictory, especially regarding unofficial events, the Q&A gives an interesting glimpse into both Swenson and the future of SXSW.

Among the issues he discusses are the City of Austin's permitting process, the danger of alcohol-fueled events, and how the Real World: Austin created the city's reputation as a spring break destination. The full 9,000 words is well worth the time, but we combed through the very lengthy piece to pick out some of the more scintillating points.

On the infamous Doritos/Lady Gaga fiasco:

Did the Doritos thing bother me? Not as much as I thought it would. In a way, I thought it was kind of a hoot. But it was what they were doing with it that bugged me the most. The first year we were in there, all of a sudden they were shooting fireworks off of it, and that was something we expressly said: “You cannot do any pyrotechnics.” That’s one of our big rules—“No pyrotechnics anywhere”—and suddenly they’re shooting fireworks off of it and we’re going, “What the hell—what are you doing?” And they had just gone down to the fire department and gotten a permit to shoot off fireworks. How did that happen? I don’t know.

On creating a safer SXSW:

We’ve hired Populous to sort of write the plan and map it all out. And it will be up to all of the city departments and our staff and all of the participants to cooperate, to pull all of this together. It’s going to be a big task.

On SXSW leaving Austin:

We didn’t threaten to leave. We didn’t threaten to shut down the unofficial events. That was not our agenda even though it was reported that way ... Our fear is not that we would need to leave Austin but that [SXSW] would no longer be viable here for a variety of reasons. We’re being made responsible for everything that happens downtown during our event. It’s these hundreds of thousands of people coming for these free events who are making it so crowded, causing street closures and police overtime. But the city takes all those costs, rolls it up into one package, and says, “Hey, guess what, SXSW? We’re not going to make you pay for that, we’re going to give you a fee waiver.” And then everybody looks at us like, “Hey, corporate welfare, you guys are for-profit. How can the city not charge you?” And our position is just, like, why should we have to pay for all of the stuff that we didn’t do? So that’s kind of where we’re at.

On unofficial events:

One of the problems we had, the way the laws were written, the city didn’t really have a way to turn people down for an event. They didn’t really have a legal way to say no. At least that was their excuse to us. And for us, the big issue is not that there are unofficial events, it’s that they all want to be within three hundred yards of Sixth and Red River and we just can’t keep packing more and more pop-up events on Sixth Street.

On the aftermath of the Red River tragedy:

I was at the show. I had gone to see [the band] X; I was up on the top level at Mohawk and I saw the police car come around the corner. I worked my way over to the side and looked down and saw what had happened. You know, it was awful, it was awful. There were a lot of SXSW staff there and we were involved in the aftermath, trying to keep the crowds out of the area. We were lined up, creating a detour, me and the staff—there were probably twenty people from the staff around when it happened and then fifty or sixty of us there within five or ten minutes because everybody heard about it. It was pretty traumatic for our staff. We’re still getting over it. We’ve had some group counseling—there were probably a half dozen eyewitnesses on the staff who saw the whole thing. It’s definitely put a cloud over everything for a long time. Of course it doesn’t compare to what the victims and their families have gone through.

On the City of Austin and SXSW: 

One of the things that happened right at the end of the outgoing city council was that they passed an ordinance that gave some legal cover for the city bureaucrats to say no. There’s this guy Don Pitts—he was the city music liaison—and he was the one that said no to Doritos when they wanted to put Lady Gaga there, and he really climbed out on a limb to do that. Now he’s got some backup. I’m not trying to get rid of stuff as much as I’m trying to keep it from all happening in the same spot. That’s my goal.

To read the full interview (and you might want to grab a snack), head to Texas Monthly.