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Music industry reacts to cancellation of South By Southwest

By | Published on Monday 9 March 2020

SXSW 2020

The music industry spent the weekend weighing up the implications of this year’s South By Southwest becoming the latest major music event to cancel over concerns regarding the coronavirus COVID-19. Meanwhile, organisers of the mega showcase festival and music convention confirmed that they were not insured for this kind of cancellation.

Austin, Texas-based SXSW had initially resisted calls that it should cancel its 2020 edition as part of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. It insisted that the event would go ahead even as key partners and speakers – especially on the tech side – started to pull out, and as an online petition calling for cancellation gained momentum.

But on Friday organisers confirmed that city officials in Austin had ordered that this year’s edition not go ahead. In a statement, SXSW said: “The city of Austin has cancelled the March dates for SXSW. [We] will faithfully follow the city’s directions”.

It went on: “We are devastated to share this news with you. ‘The show must go on’ is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place. We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation”.

The organisers noted that Austin’s public health department had said as recently as last Wednesday that there was no evidence cancelling SXSW would make the local community any safer as COVID-19 starts to spread across the US. However, after the local authority had a change of heart, they added “we honour and respect the city of Austin’s decision”.

The statement also said that organisers are exploring options to reschedule the 2020 edition of its annual event and/or to provide an online version of some or all of its conference programme. More details about all that will follow in due course.

In the short term, a lot of artists and music companies will be cancelling travel plans and wondering whether any of the money already spent on their SXSW activities is refundable. The majority of the artists who play the festival, of course, are relatively early in their careers, investing in a SXSW performance as part of a bid to build industry momentum. Which means they are at the stage where being out of pocket a few grand is a big deal.

Some of those bands will have received funding from government, charitable or industry organisations, which will also have to review the impact of the cancellation. With no SXSW for artists to attend, the grants they dished out will provide no return on investment.

The city of Austin will be majorly hit too, many businesses there relying on the annual boost delivered by the 400,000+ people who attend the various strands of SXSW, and the spin-off and side-show events that happen over ten days each March.

As for SXSW itself, the big question was whether organisers were insured for this kind of cancellation. According to the Austin Chronicle, a local newspaper published by one of the festival’s co-founders, Nick Barbaro, the answer to that question is “no”.

Another co-founder and the event’s MD, Roland Swenson, told the paper that his company had “a lot of insurance” covering the possible negative consequences of terrorism, injury, property destruction and severe weather, but “bacterial infections, communicable diseases, viruses and pandemics are not covered”.

From a music industry perspective, insurance is a big part of the COVID-19 story as more shows and festivals are cancelled or postponed. It’s generally thought that a promoter is probably in a better position insurance-wise if forced to cancel by government, rather than voluntarily choosing to shut down a show over coronavirus concerns.

However, for each event it will depend on the specific wording of their individual insurance policies. Other events may find that “communicable diseases” are likewise excluded, except where an artist has to cancel as a result of contracting such a disease.

Elsewhere in the US, organisers of the main Miami edition of the Ultra Music Festival have officially confirmed their event is also cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns. Local government officials had already informally confirmed the cancellation, but now the dance music event’s website has made an official announcement. Technically it’s a postponement – but by a full year – meaning the 2020 edition is cancelled.

The official statement reads: “It is with a heavy heart that we inform you that the city of Miami has issued an official directive requiring that the 22nd edition of Ultra Music Festival, originally scheduled for 20, 21 and 22 Mar 2020 will be postponed to 26, 27 and 28 Mar 2021. Due to the Florida Governor’s declaration of a public health emergency and Centers Of Disease Control And Prevention’s interim guidance for COVID-19, it is impossible for the city to provide access to Bayfront Park at this time”.