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After 2 people were killed, and 23 injured in a horrific incident on Red River St. in downtown Austin early Thursday morning during the annual South By Southwest gathering, it’s easy to overreact, and point fingers, and lay blame. In the aftermath of such events, we tend to lose sight of just how rare occurrences like this are, and that no matter how hard you plan for safety and implement measures to prevent such incidences, you are never going to entirely eliminate tragedy from the human equation. You can only try to mitigate it as best as you can, while hopefully not impinging on the personal freedoms of individuals.
But make no mistake about it, on Thursday morning, SXSW changed forever, as well as it should. Was the accident the result of some direct action or oversight of the City of Austin, the official SXSW organization, or even the overarching umbrella of official and non-official entities, events, and organizations that all come together under the SXSW moniker every March? Of course not. It was the fault of one man, and in the end, that is where the blame directly lies, and that fact should never be lost sight of as people ask “Why?” and “How can we prevent this from happening again?”
But SXSW, even without this big, headline-grabbing accident, is, and has been for over a half decade or more, an absolute, colossal failure of logistics, planning, implementation, and in dealing with the human element in any sort of rational, accommodating, or intuitive manner. SXSW as currently constructed is completely unfeasible. It is a nightmare for musicians, patrons, media, workers, organizations, and the entirety of a metropolitan corridor and the general region, including workers and residents that have absolutely nothing to do with the event. In fact the question we should be asking isn’t “How could this happen?” For anyone that has had the miserable experience of being part of SXSW in any capacity in recent years, the question would be “How could have something like this never happened before?”
SXSW is too many people and too many events, cloistered in a area with not enough space, parking, resources, or infrastructure, beset by abominable planning and poor execution. Frustration with SXSW has become so institutionalized, it is just as much of the experience for artists and patrons as is the music, movies, or new technologies themselves. The knowledge of SXSW as a nightmare experience is beyond anecdotal, it is effusive throughout the music and entertainment culture in America, to where people that never would even consider attending SXSW know just how bad people are treated to be a part of it, and find amusement at the native Austin archetype that complains about its growth and systemic problems.
And as more big names attending SXSW increase—like Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga who jumped on the SXSW bandwagon this year—and Austin’s own growth and infrastructure issues completely autonomous from SXSW continue to become a more significant part of the equation, there’s every reason to think that these problems will only get worse, and potentially, more incidents such as the one on 3/13 will happen again, even if they are on a smaller scale but more widespread, and simply blend into the event to where they never make headlines, as they have done in years past. There has always been issues with death, injuries, and accidents at SXSW. It’s just now they were concentrated as such that we couldn’t ignore them.
Nobody wants to be a part of SXSW. Talk to the bands and artists, talk to the labels and organizations, and they will tell you how much they hate the annual exercise of heading down to Austin. They all look at it as massive headache, and a misappropriation of resources. They attend the event out of some strange sense of obligation to the industry. It’s peer pressure, while the madness is fueled by the remarkable amount of capital being pumped into the event by corporate and independent sponsors who believe the SXSW experience can somehow afford their brand more exposure and recognition, when it truth the average SXSW patron is so harried by simply dealing with the people problems the event presents, they don’t have time to recognize who sponsored the stage their favorite band played on, or supplied them the flavored water they gulped down as they got pinballed around from one overcrowded event to another.
And exactly how many artists, bands, and movies does SXSW actually launch annually? And what is the percentage of those launches compared to the number of attendees and performances? To many of the artists that attend the event, no real meaningful growth will come from their difficult, and many times costly experience.
Fundamentally, the problem with SXSW is that nobody is big enough to control it. Because the official SXSW organization has been so non inclusive over the years, the unofficial segment of the festival is the fastest-growing portion. And since these non-official events and organizations are so disparate, and many times are founded purposely to be against the official SXSW organization, there’s no way to control them, or equate their impact on things such as traffic and commerce in planning. Meanwhile the City of Austin seems to be asleep at the wheel at engaging the problem full on to find meaningful, actionable solutions to the many problems SXSW creates for the city annually.
It almost seems like the SXSW organization and the city want the event to be madness, because without gates, people problems are the only way they can control the scope of the event or the amount of people attending it. But now two people have died, and many have been injured. Again, SXSW and the City of Austin were not at fault for a drunk driver in any way. But if the people at SXSW moved, instead of stayed cued up in endless lines, or if traffic flowed more freely throughout the area, and if parking were more accessible and frustrations more in check, the likelihood of accidents, and even fatalities, would decrease.
So what’s the solution? I don’t know. But we no longer have the right to ignore the problem.
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