Yesterday SXSW, which describes itself as the “world’s leading festival celebrating the convergence of creativity and technology”, announced that it would launch a “European edition” of its event in London in June 2025. Calling the festival - which does not yet have a firm date - “the most unmissable event in the 2025 European creative calendar”, SXSW said it would “take over dozens of venues, galleries, clubs and other spaces in Shoreditch, East London”. 

The announcement drew a number of positive responses on social media from some quarters of the music industry. However, it became clear to CMU over the course of wide ranging conversations with senior representatives of industry stakeholders that SXSW’s proposed entry into London was not regarded as a wholly positive move. One senior executive told CMU “they need to pick a different date”.

In conversations across the industry numerous people who spoke to CMU highlighted that the date chosen by SXSW London - “early June” - would put it in direct competition with four of the UK’s long-established home grown industry showcase and networking events, Wide Days (Edinburgh), Sound City (Liverpool), Focus Wales (Wrexham), and The Great Escape (Brighton), all of which usually take place in May.

One person involved in that showcase ecosystem told CMU, “I think this could impact on all of us. All of the trade organisations have limited funds, and another event will just dilute the pot”. 

In a call with CMU, SXSW London spokesperson Ben McKnight said that he was “not prepared to answer questions about other showcase festivals”, but that “there’s been a massive amount of research in terms of the date - I’m not going to go into detail what research has been done, I don’t think there’s more to add”.

In the same conversation McKnight told CMU that SXSW London was a “very different offer - it’s not a direct comparison, it’s an event that has an international and global perspective. It’s also going to be about the opportunities for artists to meet with European artists and European industry”.

Prior to McKnight’s current role, he worked for sixteen years in the Mayor of London’s press office as a senior press officer, with responsibilities that included “the Mayor’s cultural strategy for London”, as well as leading comms for “Festival UK*2022” and “Unboxed 2022” - better known as the UK’s “Brexit Festival”.

Widespread concern for UK’s homegrown showcase ecosystem

A key part of the existing UK showcase ecosystem is the involvement of international music export offices and countries who want to build links with UK industry, providing a hugely valuable opportunity for UK artists and industry to connect at an international level, but also a key element of the funding required to enable small showcase events to break even. 

One source involved in music export told CMU, “A lot of international music export offices already have significant relationships with SXSW through the Austin event, and so might be worried about doing anything to jeopardise that relationship. While many export offices have long standing and heavily embedded relationships with some of the bigger showcase festivals at a European level, such as Eurosonic and Reeperbahn Festival, there’s definitely a risk that SXSW coming to London could impact smaller showcase festivals who are reliant on export office partnerships - both within the UK, but also across Europe”.

A spokesperson for Arts Council England - whose CEO Darren Henley was included in a “quote sheet” circulated by SXSW London - told CMU that Arts Council England “has not directly invested in SXSW Austin or London, but we have supported artists to attend the festival in Austin through other programmes”. 

The spokesperson went on to say, “We hope that any new programming within the music sector complements, rather than duplicates, the work of existing events and programmes”.

In conversations with the SXSW London organising team it became clear that the potential impacts of the event on the UK showcase ecosystem had not occurred to them. 

Meanwhile, conversations with UK music industry stakeholders showed that there was significant concern about the lack of understanding that the impacts SXSW London could have on what one senior executive described as the “thriving, but delicately balanced” ecosystem, with another saying that SXSW was showing “arrogant disregard” for the existing network of showcase events.

UK Music Interim CEO Tom Kiehl told CMU, “While it's undoubtedly fantastic news that SXSW is coming to London in 2025, we must continue to support important events across the UK like Wide Days in Scotland, Focus Wales and the Great Escape in Brighton so that they continue to thrive. We want to ensure music creators and music fans have the chance to access different events right across the UK. That is the best way of continuing to grow the industry and nurture the talent pipeline on which our sector relies”.

Responding to questions from CMU about the potential negative impacts of SXSW London on the UK’s established regional events, Randel Bryan, the Managing Director of SXSW London, told CMU, “We believe it’s important that musicians and creatives from other fields have as many opportunities as possible to showcase their work in front of industry leaders. We’re keen to support the creative and music ecology in the UK and look forward to working with the sector as we develop our programme”. 

Little consultation with music industry stakeholders

However, it appears that “working with the sector” is not something that SXSW considered before announcing its plans. 

A number of industry organisations CMU spoke to said that they had no idea about SXSW’s plans for a London event prior to the announcement, with two major music stakeholder organisations confirming that they had not been consulted by SXSW London about the proposed event. 

That said, rumours had begun circulating in March that SXSW might be planning a London edition after a “member of the SXSW management team” had talked indiscreetly about the plans at an event, possibly under the influence of alcohol. 

A BPI spokesperson told CMU that the trade body hoped that the event would “complement the already brilliant array of showcases and festivals that take place across the UK”, while a PPL spokesperson said that it “consistently supports events that develop performers’ skills and careers in the nations and regions, helping artists reach new audiences in the UK and beyond”.

The important role that non-London showcase and networking events play in supporting the talent development ecosystem is a critical part of building a sustainable music industry in a country where the vast majority of the music business is centred on London. 

One regular conference delegate told CMU, “Everyone has limited time and budget to attend events - and the sad reality is that for many people an event that takes place in London is much easier than travelling out of London. The risk is that industry people based in London will have their meetings at SXSW London rather than going to one of the existing events, and that leaves everyone poorer”.

The exchange of knowledge and connections that take place at the UK’s existing showcase and networking events is a critical part of the talent development pipeline in the UK music business - both in terms of musical talent, but also industry talent, helping early-career local industry practitioners establish meaningful - and valuable - connections with more established professionals embedded in the London industry.

One agent who spoke to CMU said, “Attending these sorts of events already has a significant cost. There’s also a lot of international funding that plays a big part in supporting the existing showcase events in the UK, and that funding is stretched relatively thin. If SXSW is coming into the same space then that could have a significant impact for those events. There’s a definite risk that some people will be drawn to SXSW just because of the known brand”.

A further concentration of music business activity in London will inevitably have a negative impact on the opportunities that early-stage talent and industry professionals have to connect with peers in London. 

CMU asked SXSW London a number of questions, including how the brand had assessed the impact on the other showcase festivals that take place in the UK, what data they had gathered, and what SXSW London was doing to ensure that its event would not have a negative impact on the well established network of homegrown events. However, SXSW London was not prepared to answer those questions. 

SXSW London and the Mayor of London - and the “Brexit Festival” crew

A key part of SXSW London’s announcement was a quote from Mayor of London Sadiq Khan who was quoted as saying "I am delighted to welcome SXSW to London for the first time ever - confirming our place at the heart of Europe’s tech and creative sectors and as a global capital of culture. When I was part of SXSW in Austin in 2018, I saw first-hand the electric atmosphere of innovation SXSW creates and I can’t wait to be part of it again. This is a historic opportunity for London to once again bring the world’s most exciting talent together as part of our mission to build a better and more prosperous London for everyone”.

CMU asked the Mayor of London’s office to comment on how the Mayor would engage with SXSW to ensure that its event does not have a negative impact on the UK’s existing showcase events, and whether the Mayor’s office had any data about the likely negative impacts the event might have elsewhere in the UK.

Without addressing these questions directly, a spokesperson for the Mayor of London told CMU, “SXSW provides a fantastic opportunity for a wide range of creatives from different fields to meet industry leaders, making a great addition to our existing world-class music and creative scene and internationally-renowned events. The Mayor understands the organisers have committed to working with those in the sector as their plans develop and will support them to help ensure that it brings benefits to all aspects of London’s existing music and creative scene. This is an historic opportunity for London to once again bring the world’s most exciting talent together, boosting the capital and the country”.

When asked for more detail about the engagement between the Mayor’s office and SXSW, CMU was told that the Deputy Mayor for Culture and Creative Industries - Justine Simons - “met with representatives of SXSW London earlier this year, following a phone call briefing last year. The meeting included Martin Green, Vice President Global Live Events - TAIT”. Green was the Chief Creative Officer of the UK’s widely derided “Brexit Festival” who quit the event before it concluded to go and run Liverpool’s staging of the Eurovision Song Contest.

The opaque network of offshore companies behind SXSW London

TAIT is an international event producer, named on the SXSW London press release. However, the SXSW London event itself will be “produced under licence from SXSW LLC by Panarise, a live entertainment company established and owned by Panarae”.

There is no company registered in the UK called Panarise - but Panarise Limited was incorporated in Jersey on 20 Feb of this year, with company papers endorsed by representatives of Panarae Limited, another Jersey company. Panarae Limited appears to be owned by The Panarae Partnership Limited - another Jersey company, that sits amid an opaque network of companies that use nominee directors and shareholders, including “Highvern Corporate Directors 1 Limited”, “Highvern Corporate Directors 2 Limited”.  “OH Securities Limited”, and “R&H Investments Limited”. Just to add to the complexity, Panarae Limited was previously owned by OH Securities. 

Documents obtained by CMU show that Panarae is associated with Ali Munir, an investor and director of Penske Media Corporation, SXSW’s majority owner. Quite why it was necessary for SXSW LLC to license its brand to a company ultimately controlled by a director of its parent is unclear. Why that company is located in Jersey - a jurisdiction named as one of the most “aggressive” tax havens in the world - is also unclear. 

Penske - which also owns Luminate, Rolling Stone, Variety, Billboard and 50% of Music Business Worldwide - controversially raised a sum reported to be $200 million in 2018 from the Saudi Research and Media Group or SRMG, a Saudi company described as "so closely tied to the Saudi regime of Mohammed bin Salman that it is widely considered an organ of soft power propaganda".

Panarae spokesperson Andy Cushman told CMU, “Panarae is a private company with a focus on the financing and development of global enterprises. The entity delivering SXSW London is Panarise, a subsidiary of Panarae. Panarae’s founder and CEO is Ali Munir, and the company has a diverse, global investment and partnership portfolio - ranging from financial and professional services to media, content and entertainment. In addition to SXSW London, these investments include equity in Penske Media Corporation, as well as TAIT, the producer of SXSW London. Neither Panarae, nor Panarise, have any investment from SRMG”.

Munir maintains a very low profile online, but previously held positions with investment bankers Jeffries & Co and is listed in multiple editions of Terra Firma’s annual review as an “Investors Relations” contact as “Director - Middle East”, with a Panarae email address, and, according to his PMC biog “continues to serve as a member of Terra Firma’s Advisory Board”. Terra Firma is best known in music industry circles for its disastrous takeover of major label EMI in the late 2000s.

With the SXSW London announcement already sending ripples through the UK music industry, it will be interesting to see how matters progress - and what scrutiny the event attracts in other quarters.

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