Luis Espada, an Austin DJ who performs under the name King Louie, expected to spend this week padding his South by Southwest itinerary with a few extra gigs. “A lot of these companies work very last minute — they didn’t get a DJ or a musician on time — so they start calling this week,” he says. Then he adds with a laugh like a heavy shrug, “Now, nobody’s called.”
Espada had at least seven events lined up for this year’s SXSW, a number that was cut in half after the festival was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. While Espada still has some previously scheduled residencies and the party he helps throw, Peligrosa, to look forward to, he, like so many Austin creatives, small-business owners, and behind-the-scenes personnel, has lost a chunk of income that many in his position rely on each year. But in the days since the cancellation, this community has rallied, raising money for those left in the lurch and following through on the entertainment industry’s oldest maxim: The show must go on.
“There’s about two or three groups on Facebook that have complete schedules lined up for artists that are misplaced, people who are building stages, for bartenders, for door guys — it’s a huge community effort,” Espada says. “You pitch in what you have — I have an artist, I have a venue, I have this, and we’re just, in a week, gonna regenerate something.”
The scope of those hit hardest is wide, and the majority are those responsible for making sure the 10-day music, film, and tech behemoth runs as smoothly as possible. This includes the people who run SXSW: On Monday, organizers announced that they’d been forced to lay off a third of their full-time staff. Many more, however, are contractors like Sean Dylan, an Austin backline technician, who spends most of the year on tour, but calls the hectic days of SXSW a “saving grace” after the slow winter months. He says the cancellation caught him off guard, and caused him to “lose quite a bit of income and inherit quite a bit of anxiety.”
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” he continues. “Everyone in the industry was locked into the contracts, things had been purchased for the shows, and they waited until the last feasible moment to cancel and left us all hanging. Even if they’d done it a week earlier it could’ve been better.”
Shelly Lashley, the event manager for downtown venue Faregrounds, says that even before the official cancellation, about 80 percent of her events were being axed as companies pulled out early and enacted travel bans for employees. Her brother, Luke Lashley, is the founder of BL&S Films, a production house that was set to cover an array of events and activations; the cancellation not only hit his business hard, but left the 30 or so freelancers they’d hired out of work as well. Compelled to do something, the Lashleys partnered with their friend Mary Kathryn Paynter — owner of the brand marketing consultancy MKCO — to launch I Lost My Gig, one of several crowdfunding efforts that emerged in the past week.
Paynter, a native Austinite who’s watched her hometown change drastically in recent years thanks to an influx of venture-capital and tech jobs, says there’s a big disconnect between those who enjoy events like SXSW and the Austin City Limits Festival, and those that make them happen. “There’s two economies here,” she says, adding, “Real estate prices have gone up [and] wages are not going up, and as a result, it’s pushing a lot of people to take on more than one job in order to stay here, especially if you’re a creative or a contractor. Because we have this huge event that provides so much of that creative work, it’s created this second economy for people who are already struggling to make it.”
I Lost My Gig was set up about an hour after SXSW was canceled. It has a simple layout and purpose: Provide a platform for those who’ve lost work to share what they do, how much money they’re out, and offer up direct donation links via Venmo, Cash App, and PayPal. The site boasts testimonials from DJs, musicians, engineers, photographers, videographers, visual artists, designers, caterers, bartenders, florists, and others, with losses ranging from $800 to $40,000. As of Friday, the site had received nearly 500 submissions with reported losses totaling $3,725,000. (The Lashleys and Paynter have been vetting each submission to make sure they’re all on the level.)
The results, they admit, have been mixed, but the overall impact has been positive. They’ve received messages from people who’ve woken up to avalanches of Venmo payments, and others who’ve received just a trickle. But, Shelly says, one woman who didn’t receive much told her “it was less about making the money and more about having her story told.” Shelly continues, “I think we’d love it to be monetarily successful for people, but we also want to give visibility to this huge industry of people who are really impacted by this.”
The decision to cancel SXSW has also left the festival’s most “visible” people — the hundreds of touring artists who flood Austin each spring — in a difficult spot: Travel and lodging costs can be exorbitant, but few bands come close to making back the money they spend just to play SXSW. Brooklyn indie-rock musician Mal Blum had four of their five shows canceled and decided to pull out of their one remaining unofficial gig, which hadn’t technically been called off. Blum was bummed, but said they were surprised to see so many tweets calling for donations on behalf of bands.
“We weren’t getting money to go to South by,” Blum says. “If we cancel the rest of our tour, then yes, please give us money.” (One day after speaking with Rolling Stone, Blum did end up postponing their entire spring tour.)
Blum has played SXSW seven times, and has often done so at a loss. While plenty of bigger acts receive adequate paydays, most bands, especially those that end up playing something like six shows in four days, are barely compensated. Many showcases — both official and unofficial — don’t pay at all, prompting bands to either strike up side deals with brands or sponsors, or hope a promoter is kind enough to slip them some money under the table. Blum notes that while most corporate-sponsored festivals will pay smaller bands between $700 and $5,000 and provide access to the rest of the festival, SXSW, because it hosts hundreds more artists than a regular festival, offers just a stipend of a couple hundred dollars. But, if you take it, you forfeit your access to any official festival events, thereby limiting your ability to attend other showcases and meet other bands, managers, label people, agents, journalists, and publicists. While the myth of “exposure” as currency has largely been punctured in the indie world, Blum says SXSW is one of the few places where it still holds weight.
“It’s sort of like money itself,” they jokes, “in that we all believe in it and thus it functions.”
Blum acknowledges that they’ve still benefited from SXSW in this way, and adds that the cancellation could be particularly devastating for a band that’s structured an album release around the festival. But the gauntlet bands run themselves through in order to make the most of this situation often has brutal consequences. Blum says three of their SXSW appearances have ended in a terrible illness, including a case of mono contracted from a microphone. When SXSW was canceled outright, Blum admits, they first felt it was a weird decision, “But then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I get sick every year when there isn’t a contagious virus going around!’ ”
While Blum won’t be among them, a slew of bands and fans will still arrive in Austin next week, and there will still be plenty of shows for them to play and attend. Many unofficial shows will go on as planned, but a new festival has already emerged to fill the void South by Southwest was forced to leave. Red River Cultural District, a merchant’s association that comprises 50 live-music venues and other establishments in the titular area of downtown Austin, where much of SXSW takes place, organized We Can Do Magic. The festival will run March 16th through the 22nd, with shows scheduled at the same venues that were previously slated to host official SXSW events. RRCD also launched a GoFundMe campaign, “Banded Together ATX,” which has so far raised more than $25,000 to provide relief for those in the live-music community.
“We had to rebook all those spaces last minute,” says Cody Cowan, executive director of RRCD. “We had to band together, share booking contacts, share agents, talk to all of our local musician allies, and really rebook, top to bottom, every space. It’s ridiculous that we were able to work like this and pull it off in the timeline.” (A current lineup and schedule is available on the RRCD website, and more events are expected to be announced soon.)
We Can Do Magic can exist because official Austin health guidelines still allow for public events with a maximum of 2,500 people. (As of Friday, Travis County, where Austin is located, reported two cases of coronavirus.) Still, the festival will be taking extra precautions, with venues increasing their sanitation budgets to allow for deep cleanings prior to events, while hand-washing and sanitizer stations will be added throughout the district.
The chaos and uncertainty that’s followed the cancellation of SXSW shows just how important the festival has become to Austin; and the desire to help those affected most, and literally create a whole new festival in its absence, shows just how tightknit the community is in the “live-music capital of the world.” And in these efforts, the city may end up reclaiming a bit of the old, weird Austin that prevailed before the tech companies, venture capitalists, and Doritos stages arrived.
“There will be some sense of ‘going back to the roots’ of what SXSW once was, with an emphasis on local talent, brands, sponsors, etc.,” says Courtney Goforth, director of marketing for Hotel Hot Burrito, an ownership group that oversees venues like Barracuda, Hotel Vegas, and Kinda Tropical (Barracuda is an RRCD member). “There are still plenty of national acts that have already routed tours through Texas that will still be coming. For the most part, there’s a lot that’s remained intact, it’s just a matter of filling in some holes where artists have had to drop. … There may be a few half-erected ‘activations’ floating around Rainey Street that give off an apocalyptic vibe, but people are definitely going to still be partying — just washing their hands more.”