Mar
14

Why SXSW Will Change, & Must Change After 2014 Fatalities

March 14, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  30 Comments

sxswAfter 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.

30 Comments to “Why SXSW Will Change, & Must Change After 2014 Fatalities”

  • Just as the fire in the Rhode Island nightclub (Great White show) caused a lot of cities to revisit how the codes were written for clubs in their cities/towns, this will probably cause festivals, either on their own, or through local authorities, to institute new security measures. Or at least conduct studies to see if they susceptible to problems not thought of before.

       3 likes

  • I might be off base here but I am doubting those who are raking in the dough are going to be moved to do much of anything about SXSW because of this incident. To me they don’t seem to be tightly connected. If I am understanding reporting correctly the incident was caused by drunk driver trying to allude a sobriety check point (which seems to indicate the city is cognisant of a drunk driver issue during SXSW and trying to do something about it) and the ensuing police chase.

    To Trig’s other concerns about SXSW, it and the whole of Austin (year ’round frankly) is in a sad state of affairs and a far cry from the days when it was Doug Sahm’s Groover’s Paradise.

       0 likes

  • I really dont think that much will change. Maybe they put stronger barriers up or something in certain areas, but you cant block the whole downtown off. I do agree that many of these smaller bands come here and see no real growth, but many of them are coming here for the whole experience and party aspect of it themselves, along with trying to network. A lot of these bands that come from foreign countries use this opportunity to go ahead and add extra dates as part of a US tour. SXSW has only gotten bigger in the last few years and I don’t see that changing.

       1 likes

  • So the headline states that SXSW must change because of a drunk driver attempting to avoid a sobriety check. You absolve Austin and the organizers, place blame correctly on one man, and then state that you can never eliminate the tragedy.

    Beyond that, the rest is non-sense.. and is just a general rant of SXSW, which you also state is commonplace among participants for years. Don’t use the, by your own admission, the acts of one man to somehow make your rant, made by others ad nauseam, have any more merit. It’s shallow and weak.

       5 likes

    • “Beyond that, the rest is non-sense.. and is just a general rant of SXSW, which you also state is commonplace among participants for years. Don’t use the, by your own admission, the acts of one man to somehow make your rant, made by others ad nauseam, have any more merit. It’s shallow and weak.”

      You are proving my point that if you complain about SXSW, you’re scoffed off and laughed at as a hipster. And that, along with many other reasons, is why nothing will ever be done.

         5 likes

      • Oh you’re using the crazed act of a desperate man trying to avoid a DUI to add emotional heft to your general rant about SXSW.

        I never called you a hipster – you are setting up all kinds of straw men to help your rant out. I -only- scoff at you using a tragedy that has nothing to do with the organization of SXSW to justify your rant towards the festival’s organizers.

           3 likes

        • Only someone who doesn’t have intimate knowledge of SXSW would characterize it like this. As I explained above, a tragedy like this happens at SXSW every year, it’s just that the incidents are more strewn out so they don’t make headlines. There are multiple car crashes, mutiple deaths, and multiple injuries at the event every year. I was on South Congress just yesterday and personally witnessed a bad crash in the ridiculous traffic of SXSW. And the guy wasn’t just trying to avoid a DWI (what it’s called in Texas, though you seem to be an expert on this subject), he was on the way to a gig he was late to.

             6 likes

          • For what it’s worth, the correct legal terminology for a drunk driving offense in Texas is, and has been for a number of years, DUI. Some municipalities may still use DWI for a specific ‘drunk’ driving arrest, but DUI is the much more common reference. And I verified that with an attorney friend before commenting.

               1 likes

          • I’d check that.

            As far as I know(and consulting several state web sites seems to confirm) DUI in Texas has always been an offense for minors which has a zero tolerance threshold (as minors can not legally consume alcohol).

            If I may translate what you said… large number of people now in Texas that are not from Texas calling things what they called them before they came Texas.

            Sorry to be pedantic, but you went out of your way to attempt to correct someone else when it seems the laws int his state have some very specific definitions.

               0 likes

      • Some of your concerns might be warranted Trigger, but I believe it is too early for this mild attack. This was no mere accident based on a disorganized crowd. This guy wound up killing two people and then flee the scene because he did not want a sobriety test. In a way I felt like somehow the above article have somewhat trivialized that. (maybe trivialized is not the appropriate word),

           1 likes

  • The only thing missing from this article is how Shooter Jennings was involved.

    SXSW is the largest festival of its kind in the world – like it or not, you live in Austin now Trigger. The festival drove 218 million bucks in 2013 into the local economy (88 million of which is Austin based and year round, according to the Austin Business Journal).

    No one should die because idiots make bad decisions like driving drunk – but to blame the city, the festival, the traffic conditions, is utter and complete bullshit.

    “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.”

    *cough*. Should we suggest SXSW go to another city, perhaps one with more parking? Run for city council newcomer. Let’s run all these fuckers out out town!

       3 likes

    • “The only thing missing from this article is how Shooter Jennings was involved.”

      Huh, well at least this tips us off to the spirit of which this article was read, and this comment was posted.

      “No one should die because idiots make bad decisions like driving drunk – but to blame the city, the festival, the traffic conditions, is utter and complete bullshit.”

      Somebody didn’t read the article.

      “The festival drove 218 million bucks in 2013 into the local economy (88 million of which is Austin based and year round, according to the Austin Business Journal).”

      Exactly, and the fact that so much money is being made is the reason the wrong people are looking the other way.

      ” like it or not, you live in Austin now Trigger.”

      Ha! Not sure where all your anger at me and your information is coming from, but I do not live in Austin, have never lived in Austin, and never will live in Austin. But keep trying buddy.

         4 likes

      • Sorry Trigger, my bad – you live a suburb of Austin, do you not? My point was that I’m not sure Austin is mishandling the situation. I’m also not sure how anyone can suggest that horrible things like this could be more preventable by shortening the lines or adding more parking. ““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.”

        I know you said you don’t know how to fix it, but you also said “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.” Then stop feeding the machine. Registration goes up for participants ever year. Yes, it’s an absolute clusterfuck every year and all over the city of Austin. It’s also the only time some of these bands play the United States, play to people four times in three days, have lines for their gigs, etc.

        “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.” Bullshit. If there’s a city better prepared or more flexible than ATX to handle SXSW, I’m all ears. It’s good for the city, the economy, the musicians, the film makers, the local businesses, and so on. I agree with statement you made about this being inevitable with the number of people attending. Therefore, in my mind, we should applaud the city and community of Austin for making SXSW what it is.

           1 likes

  • The one thing that needs to be changed is the easy access people like this driver have to cars. SXSW is just fine as far as I can tell. There need to be actually consequences for auto drivers who drive without license and insurance, driver drunk or distracted, speed and ignore laws, etc. You’re driving a several thousand pound missile that can easily kill people and extraordinary care needs to taken.

    I’m stunned he was charged as heavily as he was– usually if you kill someone with your car, the prosecutors gladly help you with the excuses.

    This is more a sad reflection on our car culture than any problem with our music culture.

       0 likes

    • Please don’t blame the “car culture” on the actions of one man. That’s like blaming the “gun industry” when there’s a mass shooting. It’s convenient, it’s popular, but it’s so far removed from the truth it’s laughable.

         4 likes

  • I’ve attended just free, unofficial shows at SXSW in recent years. SXSW official attendees are mainly trendies who have nothing else better to do than drop a thousand bucks on a ridiculous badge so that they can try and network with people who aren’t going to give them the time of day. Okay, my previous sentence sounds like I’ve been listening too much to Alex Jones’ radio show, but from my perspective, based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes, there’s a lot of truth to that. One suggestion that I have is that down on lower 6th Street, the Austin PD should put up Bourbon Street-style barricades that can’t be breached by automobiles.

       3 likes

  • These numbers lay out clearly why after 15 years, I didn’t stick around for SXSW Music this year. I’m also a tech guy and I did go to Interactive, but it’s been all music up to now.

    2008 – 12,651 music registrants
    2011 – 16,353 music registrants
    2012 – 18,988 music registrants
    2013 – 25,119 music registrants and an estimated 325,000 visitors to the Austin area during music week.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if they hit 30,000 music badges this year.

       1 likes

  • I was interested to read the dude was fleeing from a sobriety check-point when this tragedy happened. When I first heard about this incident my initial reaction was that I don’t think Austin – albeit it most American cities – police drink-driving adequately. You always stop a drunk driver getting behind the wheel, but it’s important the cops are out there actively getting these people off the roads.

    I’ve witnessed heaps people in the states hop in their cars after a night out and drive home – I’ve even stupidly hopped in the car with them sometimes! I live in a country where this culture was aggressively changed about 15 years ago. Fed up with the horrific drink-driving culture here in NZ the police launched a massive crackdown that continues to this day. Basically, in NZ if you drink and drive you WILL get caught. Random sobriety tests (Booze Buses) are set up all over the place, at all times of day and night. I’ve been ‘breathalised’ at 9am in the morning on my way to work at a checkpoint. Basically if you drink more than a glass of wine or a couple of beers and drive, you are most probably over the limit. If convicted, you lose your licence for 6 months and get a criminal conviction that will haunt you for the rest of your life. Ever tried to travel internationally with a criminal conviction?

    Just ask Hollywood actor Chris Pine:
    http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/9819397/Chris-Pine-charged-with-drink-driving

    We’ve all been scared straight here – and it’s worked. Myself and everyone I know rely on expensive cabs, sober drivers and a super crappy and unreliable public transport system if we are out drinking. I think Austin should implement a MASSIVE crackdown on drink driving next year. Yeah, it might scare some people away, but who cares? Those people probably aren’t there for the music anyway.

    This is just one of the huge amount of TV ad campaigns in NZ that we’ve been bombarded with for the past 15 years. The original tag line was “If you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIYvD9DI1ZA

       2 likes

    • That line should read ‘You CAN’T always stop a drunk driver getting behind the wheel, but it’s important the cops are out there actively getting these people off the roads’.

         1 likes

      • In the US, various states have ad campaigns that say things like, “If you drink and drive, you WILL get caught.” But they’re ineffective because that statement isn’t true, in other words there’s no real teeth behind the threat.

           2 likes

        • Yeah, bluffing is generally not a very effective way to address a problem!

             0 likes

        • … and just to demonstrate NOBODY is above the law in New Zealand. Chris Pine convicted of drink driving and disqualified from driving for 6 months:
          http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11220842

          I remember reading years ago about Vince Neil from Motley Crue killing a friend whilst he was driving drunk. He never did ANY time for it and has been convicted of drink-driving since then too. It’s a joke.

             2 likes

  • Can anyone comment on the comparison of SXSW to other big Austin events?

    I attended the inaugural F1 race in 2012. I didn’t get the impression that the logistics/impact on locals was that bad.

    That said, the organizers chose to limit direct access and use an enormous fleet of shuttle buses to move people to and from the track. That had the effect of trapping attendees either at the track or in transit for long periods of time. Local merchants could not have been thrilled with all those fat wallets closed up in pockets and purses, bouncing along in school buses, or queued up to board them, for 2 to 3 hours each day.

    Hotel prices were sky high, of course. Marble Falls was as close as we could stay for what we felt was a reasonable cost. So we lost another 2.5 hours a day or so in transit. What brief time we spent downtown didn’t seem too bad. Parking prices were sufficiently jacked up to be sure. But I have had worse experiences on normal days in Chicago, for instance.

    I came away with a fairly good impression of the race, track, and such–but felt a little left out as far as Austin itself. I feel like I want to go back–maybe even for SXSW–but not if it is as bad as this makes it seem.

       0 likes

    • The F1 track is somewhat outside of town for that very reason, as are many race tracks like that. I think if you were planning a music trip to the city, just look at some venue calendars when you see a couple of cool people playing, and plan a trip around that. There is plenty of action on 6th St., Red River, and South Congress on any given Friday or Saturday night, but not all the madness of SXSW.

         0 likes

      • That’s excellent advice, Trig. I went to Austin for SXSW and encountered all those problems you talked about. I’ll NEVER forget that night I saw Scott H. Biram at Red Eyed Fly and spent about 2 hours trying to hail a cab afterwards. It’s was a miserable experience, I was on my own and absolutely freezing as I’d not adequately dressed for early morning frost. The irony was – YOU were there – and knew what I would encounter and kindly offered to drop me back at my friends house. I declined as I didn’t want to miss the end of Scott’s set! ARGHHHH. The city was so unprepared for such a massive onslaught of humans. I like your advice about skipping SXSW and just hitting Austin anyway. I stayed in Austin for a few days after SXSW and had just as good of a time – saw some great bands and did lots of stuff without the hectic crowds. Chicken Shit Bingo with Dale Watson! Such a great city.

           0 likes

      • It’s still a shit show during F1.

           0 likes

  • No one mentioned this and it’s a funny watch.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frjaQ17yAww

       1 likes

  • This was the first SXSW that I didn’t live in Austin for in a long time, and I can say whole-heartedly THANK GOD.

       0 likes

    • “This was the first SXSW that I didn’t live in Austin for in a long time, and I can say whole-heartedly THANK GOD.”

      I do not understand this comment. Do you mean this is the first SXSW you’ve missed since moving away from Austin?

         0 likes

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