SXSW 2014: A Disaster to Hopefully Lead to Policy Changes


A couple weeks ago, at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, TX, 4 were killed and many more injured as a man attempted to evade police during the event on March 13th.   The suspect, Rashad Owens, was allegedly fleeing police as he crashed through a barrier into a crowd of people attending the festival.  

The festival itself is very unique compared to other traditional music festivals.  South by Southwest features a music festival, a film festival, and an interactive festival.  All three festivals occur separately but concurrently and the entire festival this year lasted from March 7th to March 16th.  SXSW is always held in Austin, Texas – the location of the first SXSW festival.  The event has everything from book signings to the latest underground technology releases to concerts: perhaps one of the reasons it has grown so popular since its birth in 1987.


sxsw street


In 1987, the music festival had about 700 registrants; more recent years have brought in over 25,000 music registrants.  Add that up with the almost 50,000 interactive and film registrants, and you have a ridiculous amount of people (and that’s not counting the number of people who show up to the event without having registered).


So, it is pretty easy to see the growth of the SXSW festival since the beginning.  On the topic of changes, let’s take a look at how SXSW itself has evolved since the beginning.  Starting off as a much smaller event, the festival’s original purpose was to showcase smaller, up-and-coming bands and to hopefully give them a better chance at landing a record deal.  Today, iTunes is sponsoring Imagine Dragons and Coldplay, and Doritos has control over main stage which was temporarily renamed “#BoldStage” with Lady Gaga.  The trend here seems to be a movement from industry to consumer, and as the highest revenue-producing event for Austin, this speculation is only supported furthermore.


In my opinion this raises several important questions, some tied to the initial point of the article: the tragic and unnecessary deaths of 4 innocent people.  First, is the South by Southwest festival simply too big.  As far as I could tell, there was no limit to the number of Badges (Badges allow you access into the different festival events) they would sell – the more the merrier, right?  Only specific events within the festivals have the potential to be sold-out.  Should the event operators impose a sell-out limit on the festivals themselves?  Or, as a growing, economic-boosting event, should we continue to encourage its growth?  In addition to the hit and run incident, rapper Tyler, The Creator was arrested for inciting a riot among his fans when he told them to push through a group of security guards blocking their access to a sold-out show.


Instances like this can only be more difficult to control with a larger attendance.  In my opinion, SXSW, Inc. needs to reevaluate their method for allowing individuals to register before another tragic event happens.  It would also be nice to see the event make a shift back to its original purpose, to see a decrease in the consumerism that is slowly invading all of our growing festivals.


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