For the first time in 34 years, SXSW is canceled. Concerns about COVID-19 have led the City of Austin to shut down the annual festival one week before it was due to begin.
Is it the brave and responsible action of a city concerned for the safety of its citizens, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in the local economy? Or is it a weak capitulation to an overblown media frenzy, compounded by the signatures of 50,000 frightened people?
In either case, it must have been an agonizing decision to make, and I’m glad I wasn’t the one to make it.
As hard as SXSW has tried to keep the festival within their grasp, the days are long past when it was controlled by one company. For many years now, it’s been a city-wide event of both “official” and “unofficial” programming, providing huge revenues to local government coffers and independent businesses alike.
Having spent several years on the “front lines” of SXSW activations, I can’t imagine the amount of money that has been spent (now wasted) on supplies and set pieces. Just a few days from now, brands and their teams were due to start arriving to unload box trucks full of decor and freebies for their activations. Last year, HBO turned Fair Market into the Red Keep from Game of Thrones, for Pete’s sake. These events are huge productions.
I’ve also seen what happens to those supplies after the events. Most of them are left behind and discarded. I have a metal porch swing in my backyard right now — it’s a remnant from a SXSW activation that was abandoned after being used for 3 days. So what is going to happen to the custom-built set pieces that now won’t be needed? To the “SXSW 2020” t-shirts? To the branded swag bags?
I’m not worried about HBO’s or SXSW’s bottom lines. Even most of the local businesses whose events are now canceled will probably be fine in the long run. They received their deposits long ago. The loss of event income will sting, but most restaurants and event spaces don’t live or die by SXSW.
But while many of the local businesses can take the hit, their employees may not be able to bounce back as quickly. Servers and bartenders rely on the influx of cash to shore up their bank accounts after the slow winter season. Making $2,000 in two weeks is part of the deal when you work service in Austin. It’s grueling work with incredibly long hours and often, and overly-entitled clientele. But it can provide the down payment on the new car you desperately need, or the cash you rely on to pay the tax man every April. You can argue that servers should be saving for their taxes all year, but when there’s an annual event right before tax time, why bother?
Personally, I don’t like SXSW. I don’t like crowds, and the festival turns bad Austin traffic into horrific Austin traffic. Now that I work from home, I have a strict policy of not crossing Ben White until it’s over. But I would never wish for its cancelation when it’s a financial lifeline for so many people I care about.
I don’t know if canceling the event was the right call. I’m inclined to think it was. Over 400,000 people came to Austin for SXSW in 2019. It seems irresponsible to let the event go on when there are still so many questions about what this illness will mean in the long term.
Still, it’s a tough pill to swallow. My close friends and family members who were depending on this money will now have to go without. Bills will remain unpaid, meals will be skipped, health issues will go unresolved for lack of funds.
There are no winners here. Just a lot of people whose unsteady hold on financial stability has now become even more precarious.