On Tuesday night, organizers for South by Southwest sent a consultant’s report to Austin, Texas city officials. According to the Austin American-Statesman, which broke the news later that evening, the report called for a safety plan that could cap how many unofficial events the city allows during the week of SXSW. The next day, Texas Monthly analyzed the consulting firm’s report in more detail, and since then various music publications have suggested the festival might try to ban the unofficial shows that routinely pop up every year.
A rep for SXSW says the festival isn’t going to do that. “We’ve been careful not to say anything that implies we’re trying to ban unofficial events because, even if we could, we wouldn’t try to do that,” says SXSW spokesperson Elizabeth Derczo, in an emailed statement to Wondering Sound. “We totally get that unofficial events are part of the appeal of SXSW, though the line between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ can be hard to distinguish.”
Instead, SXSW says it’s urging Austin to set a cap for how many events it will allow.
“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,” Derczo explains. “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.”
She continues: “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.”
Derczo also says the report by Populous, which has also worked with the Super Bowl and World Cup, “is their expert assessment and opinion, not ours, and we agree with some of it, but not all of it.” SXSW hired Populous after the troubles at this year’s event, which included a car crash that killed four people and injured many more, as well as the arrest of Tyler, the Creator for allegedly trying to start a riot.
The consultant’s report further suggests SXSW could potentially leave Austin if the city doesn’t meet its needs. Derczo says, “In our own statements we’ve been careful not to imply a threat to relocate SXSW, and have also explicitly stated that is not our position numerous times.”
SXSW has long cautioned that unofficial events with free alcohol can draw crowds too big for the venues. The city issued its own report in early September also recommending fewer pop-up events. “The city finds itself at a critical point where public safety could be compromised if policies are not put in place for the 2015 SXSW festival and the non-sanctioned events surrounding it,” the city report says.
After the tragic deaths at this year’s SXSW, it’s clear Austin officials will have to do something. What remains to be seen is how that will specifically play out in practice. For now, though, this much is certain: SXSW says it isn’t going to put the kibosh on unofficial events altogether. Festival-goers who takes part in those each year may be able to breathe a little bit easier.
As Texas Monthly acknowledges, there’s a delicate balance to be struck here. “SXSW gets the credit when an unsanctioned event makes international headlines because, say, Kanye West shows up,” the magazine’s Dan Solomon wrote in a blog post. “It also gets the blame if somebody gets trampled to death in the rush to get inside the venue.”