AUSTIN : LIVE GREED CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
Well, maybe not. There’s always Las Vegas! But you still have to wonder just how the old Austin music scene got devoured so quickly by the Greed Monster. Austin used to be known as the place you would come to and just play, leaving the industry types back in Nashville and LA. Just climb up on a stage somewhere and not worry about the money changers. And it wasn’t that long ago…
But it’s March 2015 now, and Editor Wendy tells me that this is our South By Southwest issue. Which means it’s come again; there is no stopping the insanity that is SXSW. Not even with the crowd deaths last year due to police pursuit of a drunken asshole driver. Or is it still ” alleged” pursuit of an “alleged” asshole ? I don’t follow trials but no matter what we lost music fans for no good reason and the money parade never lost a beat. After all, what are a few innocent lives when there’s millions of dollars at stake?
To back up a bit, in the early morning hours of March 12th last year a drunk driver trying to elude police crashed through some barricades downtown, 2 were killed instantly and 2 others died later of their injuries. Over another dozen were injured. There are of course any numbers of ways of dividing up the blame, being a fan of personal responsibility I say most goes back to the accused driver. But I also feel strongly that something like this was waiting to happen, and it should have been a wakeup call. Not just for those named in the many lawsuits that were filed within days, but for all involved. And that includes the citizens of Austin, though we have little actual control. But from all that I’ve heard and read the changes made will do little to address the root problem, leaving the possibility of similar tragedies in the future.
Because the elephant in the room in all of this is that SXSW has become just too damn big, there are just too many people in too small a space for too many hours, it’s been a ticking time bomb for years. Add in alcohol, jet lag and general rock-n-roll attitudes and you have a very explosive mixture. And it should be very obvious to anyone who has ever tried to go downtown during the music festival; it’s a traffic nightmare whether you’re on 4 wheels, 2 wheels, public transport or on foot. There are just too many people per square foot, without changing that you change nothing. But any talk of trying to rein in the situation previously has instantly devolved into finger pointing over who’s at fault, and of course constant reminders of just how much money all those people are bringing into town. But now one could say that the money has innocent blood on it and there was at least some hope of meaningful change. But it looks like greed once again won out.
Right after the tragedy the City of Austin did make all the right noises, meetings were announced and reviews scheduled. But when the changes were announced for the City of Austin side of things they mainly seemed to be about reductions in the number of temporary event permits and new curfew hours. While a 25% reduction in those permits might sound like progress on the surface, it can also be seen as a way for the SXSW folks to wield their considerable influence to eliminate permits for ” non-official events ” such as Texas Rockfest which we featured in last year’s issue. Event promoter Adam Brewer was able to secure his 2015 permit but will have to deal with the curfew and noise ordinances which will also change this year. Adam has been doing these shows for years and will no doubt survive, but these types of events bring in only a small number of people who weren’t already downtown for the official shows. On the APD side of things, the changes were even more predictable, and probably will have the same minimal impact on crowd size. APD will of course increase patrolling, both in actual manpower and in equipment, and (more troubling) they will reassign resources from neighborhood patrols. So if you get in a jam at home that week and need the cops, remember they are downtown stuck in traffic watching out-of-towners get drunk. Of course all of this costs money, and APD is funded with our tax dollars so we are all footing the bill. I really don’t mind paying my taxes for the services that are really needed, but will any of this actually make things safer?
I just don’t see how it could. The root issue is still there, an event which has outgrown itself. And trying to shrink an event like this is not going to work, not with so many people making money off its size. The original idea behind SXSW was to have a somewhat local event each year while the UT students were out on spring break. The music clubs were pretty much dead that week and selling wristbands for multiple act shows at various venues was a way of helping the clubs, the musicians and maybe even bringing new people out since you could go bar hopping for music and not pay cover charges. It was never supposed to be about Lady Gaga dropping in from the sky to promote Doritos. By now though it’s as if the very people who started it no longer remember the original low key idea. If you go to the ” History” section of the SXSW website they now say that ” SXSW’s original goal was to create an event that would act as a tool for creative people and the companies they work with “. That is one huge leap from wanting to help local clubs draw a crowd.
But once all that money started rolling in no one wanted to say stop, and the snowball keeps rolling down hill to this day. But there’s blood on that snow now, and we can do better than this. But step one has got to be getting this monster out of downtown and in a new, larger home. There is always talk of moving the festival elsewhere, but as long as the city keeps playing along and jumping through these hoops to keep it downtown they aren’t going to go anywhere. And why should they? By keeping it downtown the SXSW people get to dump a lot of the usual security costs off on to the citizens of Austin. While at the same time tying up traffic, diverting needed resources and generally kowtowing to the greed heads who are raking in the cash. The very same people who have conveniently managed to forget, or bury, the humble idea that started the whole mess. The idea of actually supporting the Austin music scene. The current monstrosity has nothing to do with that, it’s now totally about the money. So I think I’m going to cash in myself now, be sure to keep an eye out for my ” Austin, Live Greed Capital Of The World ” tee shirts and bumper stickers, soon to go on sale to survivors of this years ” festivities” !
I want to end this with a dedication to the victims of last year’s tragedy. We owe them better than this….