Touring

Coronavirus vs. SXSW: Music Industry Weighs Its Options

SXSW
Gary Miller/FilmMagic

A general view of the atmosphere on 6th street in downtown Austin during the South By Southwest Music Festival on March 20, 2015 in Austin, Texas.

The event is soldiering on, despite a spate of cancellations and mounting concern in Austin and beyond.

With more than 40,000 people signing a petition to cancel Austin’s upcoming South by Southwest (SXSW) festival and conference amid growing fears over coronavirus, a divide is emerging between major corporation participants ⁠-- which are dropping out daily ⁠-- and the community of showcasing artists and talent bookers, many of whom are crossing their fingers for things to go as planned.

Texas currently has 11 known cases of coronavirus (known as COVID-19), all in the San Antonio area. As the respiratory illness, which emerged in China at the end of 2019, continues to spread across the globe, some worry that SXSW (set for March 13-22) will become a virus breeding ground. The 2019 event drew more than 73,700 attendees, roughly 19,000 of whom came from outside of the U.S., according to its event statistics report.

Even so, local booking agent Tammy Miranda says that none of the bands she has booked for SXSW shows, including at 6th Street venue Maggie Mae’s, have expressed concerns over the virus.

“Musicians are a crazy bunch,” she says. “They play outside the box; they’re different. They’re concerned mainly with asking, ‘You don’t think it’s going to cancel, do you?’”

“Nobody that I’ve interacted with has even brought it up,” adds Maggie Mae’s GM James Parmenter. “Everything is lined up and booked on all ends, and there doesn’t seem to be heavy concern about it at all.” Just to be safe, he’s taking steps to ensure that “everything is sanitized” at the bar and live venue, which will host live shows from noon to midnight during SXSW’s music portion.

Mohawk Austin talent booker Austen Bailey says the Red River Street venue mainstay hasn’t had any artist cancellations yet, either. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “There’s a lot of factors that can affect tours, and the venue ecosystem is very fragile. That’s what we’re used to.”

But as governments in affected countries like China and Italy impose quarantines, and airlines suspend flights to and from high-risk areas, some international SXSW acts have had little choice but to back out. That includes Chinese indie band Hiperson, which pulled out of an official showcase with London record label Damnably.

And at least some attendees are getting cold feet. One scheduled SXSW speaker in the music industry, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of harming his clients’ reputations, says he’s still trying to decide whether or not to stay home. “Just think of the scenarios,” he says. “If there’s zero cases in Austin, but post-SXSW, there’s 15 cases, how do you live with that?”

Still, he says that his music industry colleagues are split. “A lot of people are like, ‘We’re not as sensitive as you are; we think it’s going to be okay,’” he explains. “I think there’s a general consensus of, ‘Let’s see what SXSW does.’”

So far, SXSW has continued to insist that the event will go on as planned ⁠-- and on Tuesday, even announced a round of newly-added speakers, including Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and Pharrell Williams in conversation with Sony/ATV Music Publishing chairman/CEO Jon Platt.

“SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event,” reads a coronavirus information page added to the SXSW website on March 2. “As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health, we are proceeding with the 2020 event with the health and safety of our attendees, staff, and volunteers as our top priority.” SXSW will provide disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and microphone wipe downs across the conference, and will screen all employees and volunteers for any signs of illness.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler told Billboard over email that “at this time, our public health officers are not recommending cancellation of SXSW.”

“If local public health officials report any change in their assessment and recommendation, immediate action will be taken,” he continued. “Know that this situation is being constantly monitored and re-evaluated daily. Our public health officials are in constant communication with a local advisory panel (with all three hospital systems and top area physicians) and other professionals in cities across the country evaluating information and practices from around the world."

At an Austin press conference Wednesday morning (March 4), interim Austin-Travis County health authority and medical director Dr. Mark Escott explained why shutting down SXSW could actually make things worse.

“One of the concerns is, if we make the recommendation to shut down SXSW, people will still continue to come here,” he said. “They’ll travel, do what they normally continue to do, but without the organizational structure that SXSW provides.”

He added that Austin Public Health is looking into how to decrease crowding at venues: “Obviously, as the number of people increases at a particular venue, and the density at that venue increases, the risk of spread of infection…is going to increase.”

If SXSW were to pull the plug on the whole annual event, it would be for the first time in its 34-year history.

Meanwhile, the list of companies dropping out of SXSW continues to grow. Facebook, Intel and Twitter (whose CEO Jack Dorsey also called off his keynote speech) have all canceled their programming due to new company travel restrictions put in place in light of coronavirus.

Concord also canceled its annual SXSW happy hour event at the LINE Hotel, after the Beverly Hills-based company began restricting employee travel both domestically and abroad last week, a spokesperson for the company confirmed to Billboard.

Concord appears to be the only music company to officially cancel its SXSW participation as of yet, but it’s far from the only record label restricting employee travel. All three major labels ⁠-- Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group ⁠-- plus companies like BMG and Kobalt have introduced restrictions of varying levels, which will likely keep many of SXSW’s would-be music industry attendees at home.

Amazon has instructed employees to avoid “non-essential travel,” while it has yet to confirm whether SXSW falls under that category. The company’s film production arm, Amazon Studios, has pulled out of the conference, but an Amazon Music workshop hosted by two of the company’s staffers still appears on the SXSW website as of writing.

Other companies have been more direct. Vevo canceled all SXSW programming, including a showcase that was set to feature Busta Rhymes, “after careful consideration of all knowns and unknowns regarding the coronavirus.” And Mashable called off its Mashable House and MashBash: “This was a really tough call, but safety is our top priority,” the company tweeted.

TikTok has also joined the list. “While we think the risk is relatively low, we are erring on the side of caution as we prioritize safety for our team, creators, partners, artists, and brands,” a company spokesperson told Billboard. “We are looking at a variety of alternative ways to bring parts of the previously scheduled experience to audiences in creative new forms.”

And by early February, the organization China Gathering LLC ⁠-- which has served as a bridge between prominent Chinese companies and SXSW ⁠-- had already decided to suspend its SXSW 2020 programming, which included conference sessions, a music showcase and trade show exhibition.

Of course, the cost that major companies will incur by skipping SXSW is nothing compared to what Austin’s local economy could suffer. In 2019, SXSW’s impact on the Austin economy totaled $355.9 million, according to the conference’s official economic impact report for that year. Direct hotel bookings by SXSW alone generated nearly $1.9 million in hotel occupancy tax revenues for the City of Austin.

Empire Control Room owner Steve Sternschein says that the Austin bar and music venue generates roughly 20% of its annual revenue during the 10-day SXSW. “To not have that would be... I won’t say ‘catastrophic,’ but a dangerous situation,” he says. “Obviously, we’re going to have to batten down the hatches and get through it, but it puts the business in jeopardy.”

Still, he views the lack of corporations at the conference as a potential plus.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that the smaller it is, the better it is,” he says. “As long as it doesn’t turn into a huge national emergency, I think it may end up being the best year yet. Maybe not in terms of revenue and attendance, but in terms of quality.” He adds that some clients have stepped up to new opportunities following cancellations, “because there’s room for it.”

Meanwhile, the state of Texas seems to be doing its best to stay out of the SXSW drama. A spokesperson for The Texas Department of State Health Services told Billboard that SXSW is “fundamentally a local” matter. A spokesperson for Texas Governor Greg Abbott echoed that sentiment, telling Billboard, “we are communicating with the city, and with local health officials, on it, but this remains a local decision.”

With the disease now reaching more than 40 countries, several major events across the globe have been canceled, ranging from Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference in San Jose to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. And artists including Khalid, BTS, Avril Lavigne, Green Day and Stormzy have canceled or postponed tour dates in Asia and beyond. Global travel restrictions are affecting events in the U.S., too: On Tuesday, Mariah Carey postponed a March 10 concert in Hawaii, and last week, and K-pop fest Korea Times Music Festival canceled its April 25 event at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

The potential irony of avoiding Austin isn’t lost on Miranda, the Maggie Mae’s talent booker, who says that one of her booking agency staffers recently canceled a work-related flight from Austin to New York City due to coronavirus concerns.

“He didn’t want to go in your direction,” she says. “He’d rather stay here.”

Coronavirus