SXSW Getting Too Big For Austin?

A new report on safety, crowd control and brand protection during SXSW is now adding additional heat to ongoing discussions about how best to address the incredible growth of the festival's ecosystem which includes many unofficial events. The report not only suggested that SXSW might move if not satisfied but proposed what has become known as a "Clean Zone" approach to the festival. SXSW says that's not what they're looking for but changes need to be made. So how about splitting up SXSW into three separate events?

The Populous Report On SXSW


The report commissioned by SXSW, which involved workshops that included city employees presumably paid by taxpayers, was initially released exclusively to the Austin American-Statesmen (big old local paper) and is now buried behind a paywall.


SXSW posted a "Letter to the City of Austin" and followed with an official response to the uproar generated by initial reports. They've also posted an Executive Summary which excludes most of the specifics that got people upset.


One issue is that statements in the report from Populous imply the possibility that SXSW might move. That got a lot of people understandably upset. Some interpretations suggest that proposed permit restrictions are a move to ban unofficial events.


SXSW Seeks To Limit Temporary Permits


Yesterday SXSW added on official statement that denied both possibilities then clarified what they say they want:


"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 City did that for the first time this past year, and we think it was a common sense move that should be a standard procedure. Parts of 6th Street are severely overcrowded and can't support more pop-up events. The majority of the unofficial events are in existing businesses and this would not affect them."


"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."


But Populous Says They Should Go For The Clean Zone


Dan Solomon digs into the situation for Texas Monthly to discuss the report's recommendation to create a "Legal Injunctive Zone" or a "Clean Zone" which would be a "perimeter around some part of the city" that "protects the brand equity of SXSW and its sponsors."


Solomon discusses the issues that have occurred around sporting events, such as a "man [who] was cited by police for having a van with Best Buy logos on it within the Super Bowl clean zone."


Such concerns are heightened by recommendations in the report that the City of Austin shift to what some consider an anti-democratic policy:


"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. The SXSW event is one of the largest events in the world, and bespoke treatment is needed to facilitate a continuing safe event in Austin."


So the parts of the report SXSW hasn't released seem to undermine what SXSW is saying they do want. One has to wonder was Populous, who has a history, a poor choice or a cover?


That's the corner SXSW has painted itself into. Their brand is losing its trustworthiness. So even if they say they don't agree with stuff in the report they haven't addressed the issue of why they hired somebody who tends to say those kinds of things.


As Solomon points out and as I recently sympathized, this is a tough situation. Everybody involved is going to end up looking bad.


Too Big? Split The Festival Into 3!


The reality is that SXSW has gotten too big to continue as one festival and while adequately addressing the issues at hand. SXSW says temporary permits should be limited.


But if it's too big isn't the problem that it's 3 festivals in 1?


Proposal: The City of Austin should immediately restrict all future permits to SXSW until they split into 3 festivals.

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