Coronavirus Hysteria Officially Infects SXSW & Music Industry

Without a single case of the Coronavirus either confirmed or even suspected at the moment in Austin, TX or the greater Travis county area, the mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, has declared a “local disaster,” mandating that the music portion of SXSW set to transpire in Austin the 3rd week of March will no longer happen, against the wishes of SXSW itself, and despite officials at Austin Public Health determining just 48 hours before that cancelling SXSW would in no way make the city safer.

In the wake of this cancellation and other developments tied to the fears of Coronoavirus, we should all feel embarrassed and demoralized at the succumbing to the outright hysteria this disease has caused throughout culture. Coronavirus was the first real test of how the world would react to the concerns of a potential pandemic since the wide permeation of social media, the polarization of the population due to political rancor, and the voracious appetite for clicks and attention by traditional media amid a dying industry and an outmoded business model. We have colossally failed that test. Hysteria has prevailed, and people’s retirement savings, people’s livelihoods, and the very pursuit of happiness at the heart of every Democracy and assemblage of free peoples has been significantly and adversely affected by this madness.

Now the hyper concern and panic over the Coronavirus has landed at the doorstep of music, and will affect the industry in such a corrosive way, its reverberations could be felt for years to come, especially by the precedent set by canceling what is the largest independent music gathering in the world, pressuring, if not ensuring other musical events throughout 2020 and beyond cancel their plans in a domino affect, putting a significant burden on the livelihoods of musical performers, their representatives in the industry, the promoters of live events themselves, underwriters in the insurance industry for these events who are sure to receive record claims, and the local economies and businesses that benefit from musical gatherings including contractors, hotels, and restaurateurs that will now be left holding the bag. From major festivals and headliner tours to local club shows, Coronavirus is now a part of the equation of whether these events should be allowed to move forward.

This is not in any way to say there isn’t cause for concern about the Coronavirus, or cause for concern about the Coronavirus somehow affecting SXSW festivities, or other live music events. With the amount of individuals congregating within the city and traveling from distant places to attend SXSW festivities, of course there should be worry about the public health implications. Precautions should be taken, and protocols mandated. Anyone showing symptoms or those who’ve been in contact with someone with the Coronavirus should not go to any live musical event. And of course, anyone who fears for their health and safety due to the Coronavirus has every right not to attend live musical performances, and avoid congregations of people.

But context is needed. As of Friday (3-6) evening, the amount of confirmed Coronavirus cases in the United States is 267, or 0.00008% of the population. 15 people have died. For context, 4,800 people have died from the flu in the United States in 2020, and there has been 87,000 hospitalizations. Also, only 3.4 percent of the people who contract the Conronavirus die from the disease, which is a higher frequency than flu sufferers (varies upon strain and year), but is still a very low percentage.

To cancel an entire function, especially one as expansive and omnivorous as SXSW—which is actually a collection of hundreds of individual events held in different locations throughout the region—is devastating on an unprecedented scale, and the essence of an alarmist overreaction. And doing so under the pretense of a “local disaster” through an act of government when no actual “disaster” exists is a very scary precedent that could be called upon in the future to stifle legal rights to assembly. With still ample time before the music portion of SXSW, and plenty of tools at the dispose of the event including disallowing individuals from affected regions or showing symptoms from attending, this is an overreaction too early in the process. If cases began to appear in Austin, or a dramatic spike in the spread of the disease occurred, there would still be time to cancel the event in the future.

Another issue is that many, if not most of the functions that transpire around the 34-year-old event are unofficial, meaning they don’t fall under the umbrella or jurisdiction of the SXSW organization. Can these events move forward, or will the city shut them down too? Right now hundreds of event organizers, including for massive functions that attract thousands of people like Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion held on the Thursday of SXSW at a location dozens of miles outside of the city are having to asses how to handle their events, with little or no guidance or precedence to go off of.

Possibly the worst to be affected is the performers themselves who are asking similar questions about their obligations to non-official SXSW events during the time period, wondering if they should cancel travel plans, including artist who are dependent on these performance as income, and have routed entire spring touring plans around their SXSW attendance.

Misconceptions abound about SXSW for people who have never attended. SXSW has received criticism from many over the last decade, (including from Saving Country Music) for being too bloated, too unorganized, full of safety concerns that were exacerbated with the killing of 4 people and the injuring of 26 in an auto rampage in 2014, and the general congestion the event brings to Austin annually, though many of these concerns have been addressed and mitigated in the last few years. Make no mistake, some are celebrating the cancellation of the event—Cronovirus-related or otherwise—due to the inconvenience to the city.

But unquestionably, even with its annual complications, SXSW is where independent music artists are discovered, where they find the right managers, labels, booking agents, and publicists to help further their career, and managers, labels, booking agents, and publicists find future starts for that roster. It’s where media outlets like Saving Country Music discover and support burgeoning talent. All those important moments, those critical connections, the face to face interaction in an increasingly digital world will not happen this year, and this will specifically impact the independent side of music more adversely where that support and those interactions are often essential.

Now, promoters from across the world will be more likely to cancel their events. Music tours will be adversely affected, not just from cancellations, but from fear in the public to attend. The litigious nature of today’s society already had HR departments of major corporate sponsors and promoters pulling out of SXSW before the cancellation, and second-guessing current and future plans.

All of this is for a virus that when zooming out and assessing the situation with a cool mind is a popcorn fart blown up into an atomic bomb by opportunistic entities in the media an elsewhere. Unfortunately that atomic bomb just got dropped right in the heart of the Live Music Capital of the World, which is already reeling from rapid contraction and financial strain within its music community. The economic earnings for the 2020 edition of SXSW where over 400,000 people were expected to attend was expected to be $355 million. Many of the music venues throughout the city have their greatest days during SXSW. It is the Black Friday for Austin music, multiple days in a row. Now, they have an entire week or more blocked off for official SXSW showcases, with no bands and no events to host. The Austin music scene may never recover from that loss.

The “disaster” is not the specter of Coronavious possibly affecting someone who may attend SXSW. It’s canceling the event due to the embarrassing hysteria we have allowed to fester over this concerning, but limited disease that is likely to subside with the onset of spring, right when the music portion of SXSW is scheduled to commence. Meanwhile domino-like implications throughout the music industry will begin to fall for the days and weeks ahead, and affect music like we’ve never seen before.

The City of Austin didn’t just suffer a disaster. They just created one.

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