The music portion of South by Southwest has endured a tumultuous week. The festival, once an exemplar of cool, has seen artists pull out of their official showcase performances over the past few days—first as a trickle over the weekend, then, by Monday evening (the first official day of SXSW Music), as something of a flood. By Tuesday afternoon, more than eighty artists had announced that they wouldn’t be performing, citing two factors stemming from the bombing and starving of Palestinian civilians amid Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza and the U.S. government’s accelerating military aid to Israel. One factor is the presence of the United States Army as a “super sponsor” of the festival, one of the above-the-fold names listed on all of SXSW’s promotional materials. A second factor is the inclusion in the festival of panel discussions and other speaking events featuring representatives of U.S. weapons manufacturers, including RTX, formerly Raytheon, and its subsidiary Collins Aerospace. 

What started as a decision by a single artist (Chicago’s Squirrel Flower) ballooned into a movement, which wound up gaining the support of some of the festival’s biggest names. On Monday, rising Brooklyn pop and R&B star Yaya Bey, a major get for the festival, announced that she would be skipping her official festival performance. Instead, she would be playing a free show at an event sponsored by the democratic socialist–aligned Working Families Party. 

There seemed to be little pushback to the announcement from fans, other artists, or the industry folks who come to SXSW to network and scout for talent. Rather, the boycotts have largely been celebrated by the broader festival community. The highest-profile backlash seemed to come from Governor Greg Abbott, who tweeted to the boycotting artists, “Bye. Don’t come back.” 

Abbott’s response led festival organizers, after days of silence about the artists’ decisions, to finally issue a statement. In a series of tweets from the event’s official account, the fest wrote that “SXSW does not agree with Governor Abbott,” while also explaining that “the defense industry has historically been a proving ground for many of the systems we rely on today.” The statement argued that as part of the festival’s goal of fostering ideas about the future, “We believe it’s better to understand how their approach will impact our lives.” This year was hardly the first in which SXSW included sponsors and panelists that might raise similar flags to those skeptical of U.S. foreign policy. Last year the Central Intelligence Agency hosted a panel and maintained a booth at the festival’s trade show.

This year’s controversy comes at an inflection point in SXSW’s history. After the 2020 edition of the festival was canceled, the first major U.S. event to pull the plug amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the business that runs it was in dire straits. It sold a 50 percent stake in 2021 to Penske Media, which controls a portfolio of lifestyle brands including Variety, Billboard, and the Hollywood Reporter, and the festival returned as an in-person event in 2022. That year was bleak—the hip tech companies that had been fixtures throughout the previous decade were largely absent, and the festival economy was buoyed by cryptocurrency cash, a bubble that even the tech enthusiasts who typically populate the first few days of SXSW seemed to sense was on the verge of bursting. The festival culminated with a joyless Dolly Parton performance that was minted as an NFT, or non-fungible token, for blockchain enthusiasts to buy as a piece of digital property. It marked a steep fall for an event that over the years had grown from a local party to an international powerhouse. 

SXSW was widely regarded as one of the coolest events in the world for more than a decade. But nothing remains cool forever, and this year’s boycott by many of its scheduled performers puts the festival’s credibility at risk once more. Which leads many fans, performers, and sponsors to wonder: Can SXSW keep its cool?

Most major American festivals are fairly straightforward: the promoters book artists and pay them to perform, and fans buy tickets to attend. SXSW operates in a more complex and delicate ecosystem. The festival barely pays the majority of its performers. (Through 2023, solo artists received $100, while bands got $250; amid protests last year, those numbers went up to $150 and $350, respectively). There are no official grounds. The event takes place throughout Austin, primarily downtown, in individual venues—some of which require attendees to purchase a badge for a chance to get in (music badges start at $995 for a walk-up purchase). Performances in some other venues are not only free; they ply attendees with free booze, food, and other giveaways. Those enticements can range from draft beer to handmade craft cocktails, from stacks of pizza to catering by famed pitmaster Aaron Franklin, from branded sunglasses to free iPads—all of which has helped foster a sense that attendees are always missing something better, if only they knew it was happening and were important enough to get in. 

That fear of missing out has long been critical to SXSW’s appeal. During the fest’s dizzying height, about ten years ago, sponsoring brands and record labels sought to top whatever they or their competitors did the year before. In 2011, Vevo sponsored an exclusive Kanye West showcase that started at 3 a.m. The following year, American Express booked Jay-Z for a semiprivate show. How do you top that? A 2014 Samsung event headlined by Jay and Kanye.

This served a few important purposes. Foremost among them was hype, which has long been its own currency at SXSW. Brands thrive on hype, and if the perks of holding an Amex card or the latest Samsung phone were that you might get an otherwise-impossible ticket, well, those firms decided that was worth paying megastars a million bucks (Jay-Z’s rumored fee for his 2012 gig) for an hour of their time. 

The presence of superstars, meanwhile, encouraged artists a tier or two less famous to follow suit. If Kanye and Lady Gaga do SXSW, then Lana Del Rey probably should too. And if you’re an artist hoping to achieve Lana Del Rey–size success, your team will insist that you play the festival, since that might give you the chance to perform in front of the talent buyers or booking agents who work with her. The presence of your team, meanwhile, makes even less famous artists eager to perform at the festival—and so on and so on, until there are two thousand musicians filling the streets of Austin, most of them performing for next to nothing. 

Throw in abundant money from tech companies, and the appeal was obvious—a midtier indie rock band could come to Austin, collect a five-figure check to play a set at some social media start-up’s party, and then spend the rest of the week hoping to be discovered by whoever its manager thought were the right people. And the crowds—amped up on free drinks and an endless buffet of breakfast tacos—loved it. When the getting was good, even band members who worked day jobs back home could feel like they were Van Halen in 1978. 

That era of SXSW started waning even before COVID, but the pandemic effectively killed it. When the festival resumed as an in-person experience in 2022, the music lineups were smaller and the ladder that saw artists of every level come to Austin was now missing a few rungs, compared to previous years. That artists were expected to travel to Austin on their own dime to play at a loss with fewer incentives, combined with a renewed sense of political awareness in the music industry, led to a mini labor uprising in 2023, as artists protested the festival’s payment policies. By this year, the list of official showcasing artists seemed downright short. One record label head told me that telling his out-of-town acts that they should travel to Austin for the festival and play for free would be embarrassing. It sounded like a requiem for the coolness SXSW Music once radiated. 

Tech, film, and other industries have always had a role at SXSW, but the festival’s cool factor has always come mostly from music. Film brings celebrities—on Tuesday night, fresh off his Oscars performance of “I’m Just Ken,” Ryan Gosling hosted the world premiere of his forthcoming action blockbuster The Fall Guy—while tech brings money and a certain business gravitas and prestige. World leaders speak at SXSW because of the tech portion of the festival (which has evolved into a broad dialogue touching on mental health, social justice, and more). Part of the festival’s mythology is that X (formerly Twitter) launched there, even if it’s not entirely true. (Twitter actually launched in advance of the 2007 festival, but the adoption of the platform at that year’s event by attendees seeded it with the users who would turn it into the most influential platform of the 2010s.) Venture capitalists attended with checkbooks ready, and start-ups and founders whispered tales of receiving on-the-spot funding as if they were telling bedtime stories. 

As SXSW fully entered the mainstream, that changed the tenor of its sponsorships. Tech brands that were, at least in their time and to their intended audience, synonymous with “cool” maintained a presence—one might spot Mark Hamill at the Twitter House or catch a set from Anderson .Paak or Kacey Musgraves at the Spotify House. More old-fashioned brands looked to piggyback off the prestige of the cool ones in the hope that their glow might rub off. In years past, you might find Questlove spinning records at an event thrown by a greeting card company (“Analog by American Greetings,” 2016). 

In 2024, though, the tech titans are distinctly uncool. Most of them don’t maintain much SXSW presence at all (although Amazon did host a large activation for its Prime TV series Fallout; at the official preview party, one could spy Elon Musk downing shots with director Jonathan Nolan, an image that would have been extremely cool in 2014 and that was rather the opposite ten years on). In place of the tech giants, many of the brands at this year’s festival seem downright pedestrian. 

Pourri, the North Texas company that makes the Poo-Pourri restroom air freshener, has bought a huge presence (it, too, booked Questlove for a DJ set, along with other musicians). Sharpie—the permanent-marker brand—rented out Rainey Street bar Icenhauer’s to create the Sharpie X Paper Mate Studio. Meanwhile, laundry heads could check out the Tide Laundry Experience, an installation created to promote “the biggest laundry innovation of the 21st century,” which turned out to be slightly different Tide pods. Other activations included ones hosted by Porsche, an upscale brand but not exactly a fresh one, and Delta Air Lines, where SkyMiles members could get a free sweatshirt. In that context, it’s not really a surprise that RTX and the U.S. Army sponsored events. The identity of SXSW as a bastion of cool is flagging. 

In some ways, though, the lack of cool at SXSW is reflective of a larger trend: Everything is uncool these days, so what is there to try to latch on to? Musk’s ownership of X has turned it into a politically divisive entity that’s bleeding active users as well as advertisers. Apple, which hasn’t maintained an active festival presence in years, is busy promoting a $3,500 headset that only dorks want to be seen wearing in public. Labor issues similar to the ones that have roiled SXSW Music have stained Spotify’s reputation. Before the screening of Gosling’s The Fall Guy, when the festival showed brief footage recapping the previous day’s events, every time a speaker or guest on-screen talked up the possibilities of artificial intelligence, nearly all of those in the 1,100-person audience rained down boos.

If the protests this week are nothing but a memory by the time SXSW 2025 rolls around, it’ll probably be because the festival managed another successful pivot. This has long been part of the SXSW playbook. In its early years, cowpunk and rowdy alt country were the festival’s bread and butter. In the “indie sleaze” era of the early aughts, it was supported by Brooklyn hipsters, or twentysomethings from Austin who wanted to look like Brooklyn hipsters. By the mid-2010s, SXSW Music was more of a hip-hop festival than anything else. In 2024, one could make the case that it’s actually most relevant as a Latin music event. On Wednesday night, 24-year-old Mexican star Peso Pluma, the fifth-most-listened-to artist on Spotify in 2023, headlined Rolling Stone’s Future of Music showcase, while other major Latin music figures, including Christian Nodal, Kevin Kaarl, Polo Gonzalez, Santa Fe Klan, and Young Miko, were booked to perform during the festival as well. At the time this story was published, none of them had announced plans to boycott their scheduled events. 

Latin pop music hasn’t been a defining presence at previous years’ festivals, but finding new veins of cool to tap into has helped SXSW survive for nearly four decades. That knack for reinvention will likely be a key element in the festival’s future success, regardless of the specific form it takes. It faces new challenges in the form of protests around both its choice of sponsors and speakers and its labor policies, but so far, history hasn’t rewarded those who’ve bet against it.