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CELEBRATION OF MUSIC: Fans gather for a concert March 15 at SXSW in Austin.
Jordan Naylor/Getty Images for SXSW
CELEBRATION OF MUSIC: Fans gather for a concert March 15 at SXSW in Austin.

Life (and death) at South By Southwest

Music | Tragedy at fast-growing festival provokes public soul-searching and questions for other American mega-festivals. Are some becoming victims of their success?

Issue: "Coat of many dollars," May 3, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas—Festival-goers at March’s South By Southwest have been asking if the music, film, and interactive festival has gotten too big for its designer cowboy boots. During this year’s festival, when drunk driver Rashad Charjuan Owens crashed through police barricades, killing four festival-goers and injuring 21 more, the question took on greater urgency. 

Police charged Owens with capital murder, and the incident caused an unusual season of public soul-searching in Austin. A press conference the morning after the tragedy was carried live on Austin’s local radio stations. Reporters asked Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo if he should shut down the festival. He replied, “We cannot allow one individual to ruin a celebration of life, of music.”

But an incident two days later caused some to wonder anew if “South By” or SXSW, as the festival is known, had become something else. On March 15, police arrested rapper Tyler The Creator for inciting a riot after he yelled at fans to push their way past security guards at a sold-out show.

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Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said both incidents were unprecedented in the 27-year history of the festival, and on that narrow point he’s right. In fact, given the number of people who show up for SXSW—200,000 to 350,000, depending upon whose count you believe—it’s remarkable there aren’t more incidents. 

Still, the deaths at South By Southwest have brought new scrutiny to a phenomenon that is relatively new in the way it is profoundly shaping entertainment culture. Multimedia music festivals are now a multibillion dollar industry whose high season is just kicking off. Milwaukee’s Summerfest, which bills itself as the world’s largest music festival, is expected to attract 1 million people this June and July. Recognizing that the trend is becoming a genre of its own, colleges like the University of Minnesota and the University of Nevada–Las Vegas now offer degrees in “Festival and Event Management.” 

Live music festivals were not unknown before 1969’s Woodstock. Summerfest began in 1968, and historians tell us the first music festival, the Greek Pythian Games, began in 582 B.C. Medieval music festivals often included singing and playing competitions.

But 21st-century festivals have surpassed precedents. And their growth has caused problems. The deaths at SXSW are just the latest causing festival organizers—and government officials—to ask questions about public safety. Last year, police arrested 10 people on felony drug charges at Chicago’s Lollapalooza festival. In 2011, two people died at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, likely from heat stroke, though drugs and alcohol many have contributed. 

Some in Austin also wonder whether the deaths, tragic in their own right, are also symptoms of a festival that has lost its way. Even South By’s staunchest defenders concede it’s not the same event it was when it started in 1987. The music resembles its Americana/singer-songwriter roots less each year. This year, hip hop moved to SXSW’s top-tier position, with Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs generating the most buzzed-about shows. 

But even the rise of hip hop isn’t without irony. An art form born on the streets, it was not so many years ago a sign that SXSW was trying to “keep it real.” Now it’s big business. Samsung, for example, hosted the Kanye West and Jay-Z show at Austin Music Hall at exactly the same time iTunes was hosting its own hip-hop night, featuring Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q at the nearby ACL Moody Theater. If you didn’t have a VIP pass, you had to stand in line for hours to get into the Samsung show, but you got in for free if you had a Samsung device with the company’s new streaming music service, Milk Music, loaded on it. The tie-in was a purposeful slap at Apple, whom Kanye West had called out recently for exploiting artists with its iTunes system. It’s hard to know if it’s good or bad when rappers go to battle over operating systems. 

GOOD OR BAD, when the numbers of people are so large, more than music brands show up. Doritos, Subway, and Chevrolet all had a major presence at the festival. And even though music is still central to the event, with more than 2,000 bands playing at more than 100 official venues, not only is it impossible to hear them all, it’s impossible to know who’s playing and where, even after downloading SXSW apps and keeping an eye on updates.

That said, it’s possible to find some humanity among the walking dead. A singer-songwriter like Andrew Belle can restore waning faith in the ability of South By to find and nurture emerging talent. Other signs of life (see sidebar below) at South By this year included Penny and Sparrow. 

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