Updated, 3:10pm ET: SXSW’s official statement on the report can be found in full at the bottom of this article.
A new report, commissioned by SXSW from international design and event firm Populous, is causing ripples this week because of a recurring theme: the suggestion that the massive Austin-based festival could, if certain suggestions aren’t implemented, solicit bids from other cities to host the event. The suggestions that the organizers want to see taken into consideration by the City of Austin? A variety of safety recommendations that could mitigate some serious concerns about the difficult-to-manage weeklong party in Austin and — more controversially — the creation of a “clean zone” over an undefined-section of central Austin during the duration of SXSW, which runs ten days in the middle of March.
“Clean zones” aren’t new to big events — other organizations, like the NFL, MLB, and FIFA, use them to manage the Super Bowl, the All-Star Game, and the World Cup — but they’d represent a dramatic shift in how the ten days in March function in Austin. Clean zones for these sporting events (which frequently result in controversy and lawsuits) restrict the grant of permits and posting of advertisements within a given radius of the event site. In New Orleans in 2013, for example, the NFL required that 60%, at minimum, of all commercial signage to contain NFL/Super Bowl-themed branding. A lawsuit in Minneapolis this spring challenged a provision in the city’s ordinance that gave Major League Baseball permit and licensing authority during the All-Star Game.
While the Populous report doesn’t detail specifically what SXSW wants from its clean zone, it’s safe to say that unsanctioned, unofficial events with no formal tie to SXSW, Inc — which happen in great abundance in Austin during March — would be heavily restricted. The language in the report explains that part of the motivation for the clean zone would be to protect “the brand equity of SXSW and its sponsors,” suggesting that if, say, Vans is the official shoe sponsor of the festival, the Converse Death Match at which Tyler, The Creator was arrested for “inciting a riot” at SXSW 2014 might be a thing of the past.
This is controversial for a few reasons, and the free speech issues that have arisen around the Super Bowl and the All-Star Game are only some of them. Austin’s astronomic growth over the past fifteen years runs parallel to the growth of SXSW, and many of the businesses that have developed in downtown Austin in that time have done so in order to service the demand created by those ten days in March. Giving the authority to manage those events to SXSW, instead of keeping that authority with the city of Austin, would be a threatening policy change for business owners who rely on the income generated by, for example, renting their venue to a non-official sponsor for a day party during the festival.
The cultural and political climate in Austin right now makes the possibility that such sweeping changes could actually happen more likely now than it has been in the recent past. Austin’s political structure is shifting dramatically in November, when a new city council consisting of 10 member districts, as opposed to the current system of six at-large council members, will usher nine newcomers to the Austin City Council — and one of the first orders of business they confront will be SXSW. The police chase that ended with a hit and run that killed four and left 21 injured outside of the Mohawk earlier this year has many in the city concerned about how to better manage the event.
At the end of the day, the prospect of SXSW moving to another city is highly unlikely. The fact that the festival’s rise and the city’s growth are so closely entwined means that Austin organically involved the infrastructure that makes the festival viable. There are enough venues and hotels available in the central Austin area because people have built them over the past fifteen years — in part, to service SXSW crowds.
The possibility that the festival will successfully implement the changes suggested by this new report may happen — for reasons that have little to do with the veiled threat to move.
SXSW’s official statement:
We’ve been careful not to say anything that implies we’re trying to ban unofficial events because, even if we could, we wouldn’t try to do that. We totally get that unofficial events are part of the appeal of SXSW, though the line between “official” and “unofficial” can be hard to distinguish.
The Populous report is their expert assessment and opinion, not ours, and we agree with most of it, but not all of it. In our own statements we’ve been careful not to imply a threat to relocate SXSW, and have also explicitly stated that is not our position numerous times.
What we’re asking the City to do is put a limit on the number of permits issued for events that require temporary permits, based on location, capacity and infrastructure. The City did that for the first time this past year, and we think it was a common sense move that should be a standard procedure. Parts of 6th Street are severely overcrowded and can’t support more pop-up events. The majority of the unofficial events are in existing businesses and this would not affect them.
The most important part of what we’re asking for is a comprehensive safety plan that will include not just SXSW events, but every other significant activity downtown during our event. Marketing companies are fond of the tactic of keeping everything a secret until the last minute to avoid scrutiny. SXSW, the unofficial events, and the City all need transparency in order to plan for safety properly.