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New report considers Austin’s ability to host a safe SXSW

By | Published on Friday 3 October 2014


Could the world’s biggest showcase festival South By Southwest be forced to move to a city other than Austin? Or will Austin be forced to give organisers of its massive music, film, tech and education carnival more control over the city’s streets during the March bonanza?

Both of those things were being mooted yesterday after a new report into Austin’s big annual event by a firm called Populous, though commissioned by SXSW itself, emerged. The report concluded that, with South By’s continued rapid growth, various issues need to be addressed by the city to ensure the continued smooth running of the vent.

According to Texas Monthly, the report states that “like any business they [SXSW management] will eventually need to make decisions about whether or not they can continue to exist in their current format and location”, adding that SXSW may well “have no choice but to entertain notions of bidding their event to other cities to sustain their business model”.

It should be stressed that the idea of SXSW leaving Austin seems to be very much a ‘worst case scenario’ kind of thing, not least because the festival’s identity is in part tied to Austin’s laidback, beers n bars-type ‘vibe’. Though that said, big events need big planning, and the threat that SXSW could always go elsewhere will presumably make Austin, which is trading off its music credentials more than ever, aware of its role in those plans.

But what could that mean? Well, elsewhere in the Populus report are fairly radical proposals to ensure crowd safety, not least access restrictions like “soft searching” people looking to cross into certain locales, banning buskers from playing while the festival is on, and restricting events that take place near carparks.

Another proposal is the creation of a so called ‘clean zone’, an area cordoned off to… well, the details are still fairly sketchy, but the jist is that it’d be there to preserve the “brand equity of SXSW and its sponsors”. So, go figure. The notion of a ‘clean zone’ comes from major sporting events in America, the organisers of which have sought control over spin-off events and outdoor advertising in the locale near their big games.

Another notable point in the report reads that “the current policy of the city with respect to the permitting process as ‘first come, first served’ and/or ‘must treat everyone equally’ appears to have become detrimental to event planning process and management of the key stakeholder interests”.

But SXSW management were last night keen to stress that, while they agree with much of what is said in the report about the organisation of their event and Austin’s role in delivering that, moving from its host city is not currently on the agenda, and South By promoters have no wish to outlaw unofficial events that take place during their festival.

Team SXSW said in a 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”.

But unofficial events need to be managed so to ensure overall safety, they add. “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 majority of the unofficial events are in existing businesses and this would not affect them”.

However: “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”.