“F— South by Southwest! We don’t need ’em!” shouts Fionn Reilly, lead singer of the buzzy punk band Enola Gay, named after the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. As the small but energetic crowd roars approval, his band tears into another riotous, Rage Against the Machine–influenced number on the outdoor plaza in front of Austin City Hall. Behind the stage, Palestinian flags wave in the humid breeze.

This wasn’t Enola Gay’s original booking at SXSW. The band was scheduled to play official festival venue the 13th Floor in the early hours of March 14—the kind of showcase that has, in the past, helped rocket international bands such as Enola Gay to stateside notoriety or even stardom. A few days before the band’s scheduled show, however, Enola Gay, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, joined an exodus from the festival’s official roster that has grown to include more than eighty acts.

The decentralized boycott kicked off on March 4, when Chicago-based Ella Williams, who performs as Squirrel Flower, announced her decision to drop out of the festival “in protest of SXSW’s ties to the defense industry and in support of the Palestinian people,” referencing the estimated 12,000-plus children killed in Gaza and the International Court of Justice’s finding that Israel’s reckless conduct of its military offensive there “plausibl[y]” amounts to genocide. Williams was inspired by an Instagram post by the Austin for Palestine Coalition (APC) calling for “War Profiteers Out of SXSW.” Among the protesters’ issues with SXSW is major sponsorship by the U.S. Army (other “super sponsors” include the Austin Chronicle, Delta Air Lines, and Porsche) and the presence of defense companies, including Collins Aerospace, a subsidiary of RTX Corporation (formerly Raytheon), a supplier of weapons to the Israeli government.

Several alternative venues have sprung up to welcome boycotting acts, none more comprehensive than this stage outside city hall, organized by APC, which has more than 25 bands scheduled through the end of the weekend and is termed “Anti-SXSW Fest.” Among those acts is Shalom Obisie-Orlu, from the Washington, D.C., area, who goes by the stage name Shalom. She says it has cost her a lot to come to Austin—she built a whole ad hoc regional tour around her SXSW gig, during which she’s faced expensive car trouble. Still, she’s cheerful and unfazed about her decision to boycott. “It just seemed like the explicit and obvious right thing to do,” she says. “I don’t feel like an inflated, overfinanced military that’s actively aiding and abetting a genocide is ever worth, like, ‘Maybe I can have somebody see me.’ ” (The boycott has its detractors: a tweet from Governor Greg Abbott urging the bands to leave Texas and “don’t come back” garnered more than 18,000 likes. Another X user wrote “No one has ever heard of, or will miss, ANY of these DB bands! … Go book a show in Palestine and see how that goes!”)

The midafternoon turnout at the city hall stage is much smaller than what artists typically hope to get at a SXSW showcase, and there are almost certainly fewer record-industry bigwigs in attendance. One musician, arriving a few hours into the show during a set break, looks around and then asks, “Are we the first ones to play?”

Early on, the majority of those on hand for the event seem to be friends and allies of APC. One is a 23-year-old music fan who gives his name as Beto G. He’s here to discover new bands he might like, with a curious eye on their politics—as he’s seen announcements of bands dropping out, that have piqued his interest in their music. “I know that the principles that brought them to this event coincide with the principles that brought me to the event,” he says.

As the afternoon progresses, more fans turn out. One, who prefers not to give her name, is a passionate music fan from Pennsylvania who has paid her own way to SXSW Music ten times. She’s wearing an official SXSW badge and wonders if she should take it off to avoid being judged by the activists present. She says the SXSW Music experience for badge holders has been spoiled by the protest. “It’s very confusing, because sometimes [the withdrawal] is happening day of. You go, and it says that somebody’s going to be there, and they’re not. I fully respect what’s happening, but [it’s] more challenging this year.”

That challenge may prove troublesome for SXSW, which charged $995 for a standard music badge this year and $2,095 for a platinum badge, which also offers access to film, tech, and education programming. The music portion of the festival has long been groping for a raison d’être since streaming has made it possible for record-industry reps to easily peruse the work of up-and-coming artists online, without the need for the in-person experience that SXSW once delivered better than any other festival. At the same time, the tech portion of the fest has grown ever larger, though some of its appeal to attendees relies on the simultaneous festivities going on at SXSW Music.

SXSW has released a series of statements on the musician boycott, praising defense manufacturers as “often leaders in emerging technologies” and saying that SXSW “welcomes diverse viewpoints. Music is the soul of SXSW, and it has long been our legacy. We fully respect the decision these artists made to exercise their right to free speech.”

For those who follow media news, that warm sentiment may ring hollow. In 2021, privately held Penske Media Corporation bought a 50 percent stake in SXSW from local cofounders. Last October, Penske, which controls many top entertainment media publications, including Billboard, Deadline, the Hollywood Reporter, Rolling Stone, and Variety, made waves for firing the popular editor of Artforum for publishing a letter expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people. The move was broadly criticized as chilling to free speech in the entertainment press.

At city hall, the mood is possibly even more sour toward SXSW organizers than it is toward the Israeli government or the builders of bombs used in air strikes on Gaza. Another performer on hand is Jess Cornelius, a Los Angeles-based artist who has played the festival in the past. She agrees with the principles of the boycott and has hand painted a T-shirt reading “NO WAR PROFITEERS,” but her plan had originally been to just voice her convictions from the stage at her official showcase and donate her three-piece band’s $350 gig fee to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, an organization similar to the Red Cross. Then she learned how poorly SXSW was supporting music acts this year.

The venue she was booked to play for her official showcase would not provide a drum kit, amps, or other equipment, and she was told she’d have to pay for all that herself. “It would have cost me to play,” she says, not even including travel and accommodation. So she joined the boycott.

Cornelius’s concerns will not be new to followers of the issue of musician compensation at SXSW. Last year, Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board unanimously approved a recommendation that SXSW increase performer pay. “I’m a native Austinite, I’ve lived here all my life, and over the years I feel like I’ve just seen South by Southwest get a little bit worse every year,” says Brian Weldon, who helped organize the APC show, from the stage. “Honestly, I feel like what we’re doing here, this DIY, last-minute thing, is the coolest South by Southwest show I’ve been to, at least in recent memory.”

Another speaker, Cliff Clive, who set up information panels on the Israel–Hamas war for concertgoers and downtown pedestrians to read throughout the week, is more triumphant. “We are tearing down SXSW,” he says from the stage. “This is so embarrassing for them. The city of Austin has been sick and tired of what this festival has been doing, where it’s been going for years. Things will have to change next year—they cannot do this again.”