Early October is the least SXSW-y time of the year in Austin. For one, it’s almost equidistant from both the previous festival and the next one. Meanwhile, the Austin City Limits Festival has the Texas music press focused on a different big event. And the kid-brother SXSW Eco conference that occurs this time of year? Well, while, it’s a useful meeting of minds on an important topic, it doesn’t exactly register as a cultural force. 

But in Austin today, SXSW is all the news. That’s because the takeaway from a new report created by Populous, an international design and planning firm—whose other clients include the Super Bowl, the World Cup, and the Olympics—includes a headline-grabbing bullet-point on its 8th page:

If SXSW cannot sustain success and growth in the future, like any business they will eventually need to make decisions about whether or not they can continue to exist in their current format and location. It is very possible that SXSW will have no choice but to entertain notions of bidding their event to other cities to sustain their business model. This would be a serious matter for all parties considering the significant financial impact and returns SXSW provides to the community as well as the contribution to the brand and PR value of the City.

Immediately, local media seized on the idea that SXSW is implicitly threatening to move out of Austin if the massive changes suggested in the report regarding the way the city and the festival interact aren’t made. The Austin Business Journal ran with the headline “Festival overload could force SXSW to move away from Austin, report says,” while Culturemap Austin asked, “Bullying tactics or lack of options? SXSW says without changes it may leave Austin.” At the Austin American-Statesman, the sensational question of whether SXSW might move gets discussed a little less sensationally. They quote SXSW co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson saying, “SXSW is so tied up in Austin and we reflect each other so much that I can’t really imagine that happening” and they focus on one of the huge changes suggested by the report: the creation of a safety plan that limits the number of non-SXSW events. 

The safety plan, as outlined in the report, is fairly bold. The access restrictions on 6th Street include “soft searching” street entrants for prohibited items; banning buskers from playing music during the festival; and restricting events that take place in adjacent parking lots. 

The fact that a SXSW-commissioned report asks the city of Austin to frisk people who want to walk on 6th Street during the festival is striking, but it’s not the biggest change that the report suggests. The report also asks the city to create a class of event it describes as “signature events,” or “major recurring events that would be eligible for special assistance and permissions from the City.” SXSW, obviously, would be the first among the signature events, but it’s not hard to imagine that, say, the Formula 1 race or the Austin City Limits Festival might want to grab some of that “special assistance and permissions form the city” for themselves. A bigger question is what that might look like, and the report’s suggestion is substantial: It recommends the creation of a “Legal Injunctive Zone,” or a “Clean Zone.” According to the report, the “Clean Zone” would be a perimeter around some part of the city that:  

protects the brand equity of SXSW and its sponsors but would be made to work with existing businesses and their interests so as to uphold sponsor values and private property rights—in return this may involve a financial exchange linked to the permit process that provides the City with additional funding for security and safety personnel.

The report also observes that:  

The current policy of the City with respect to the permitting process as ‘first come, first served’ and/or ‘must treat everyone equally’ appears to have become detrimental to event planning process and management of the key stakeholder interests. The SXSW event is one of the largest events in the world, and bespoke treatment is needed to facilitate a continuing safe event in Austin.

What exactly the prospective “Clean Zone” would entail isn’t fully defined in the report, but it’s described as being similar to zones enacted during the Super Bowl, NCAA Final Four, Olympics, FIFA World Cup, and others. A clean zone that was enacted in Minneapolis around the MLB All-Star Game earlier this year had language that resulted in a Teamsters boycott and lawsuits: 

The original language stated that no temporary licenses or permits could be approved in designated areas of the city “without additional approval of Major League Baseball.” The new language, which passed unanimously Friday, says the city will not grant such permits or licenses “without conferring with Major League Baseball.”

“The original resolution seemed to indicate that the Major League Baseball had a role in [the approval],” amendment sponsor council member John Quincy said Friday. “I wanted to make sure that everybody knew this amendment said Major League Baseball would be conferred with, but the city retains those authorities.”

In short, the report is asking the city to walk back its mandate that everyone must be treated equally, and justifies this move using the language, to “protect the brand equity of SXSW and its sponsors”.  

The “brand equity” of SXSW’s sponsors, in relation to the event, comes into question every time one of the major sponsors—let’s say Samsung—ponies up big bucks to the festival to run official SXSW events, while Nokia or Blackberry pay a few thousand dollars to someone with a bar on East 6th Street and hold an event that, in the minds of the people in attendance, is still a part of their SXSW experience. 

It’s reasonable, then, for SXSW to fear losing their sponsors to an independent venue down on Rainey Street. But restricting unsanctioned events would also effect the business owners in downtown Austin who have come to expect that, in a city with a “must treat everyone equally” approach to permits, they can make a whole lot of money every March by allowing a company that may not pony up to SXSW to turn their bar/restaurant/coffee shop/whatever into the Spotify House or the CNN Grill or the Charleston Chew Ranch or the Valvoline Premium Blue 10W-30 Party Truck or whatever. If you’re a dentist’s office that hosts “Mouth By Mouthwest,” and suddenly you can’t have bands play a fundraiser unless you’re paying SXSW fees, well, that’s the sort of thing that could have a chilling effect on the entire event.

“Clean Zone” ordinances tend to pop up in cities with one-time events like the Super Bowl or the All-Star Game, and their constitutionality is usually challenged quickly: The ACLU sued the city of New Orleans over theirs before the Super Bowl in 2013, resulting in a settlement that restored most of the rights that were restricted before the event. A federal lawsuit filed in Dallas was settled in 2012 after a man was cited by police for having a van with Best Buy logos on it within the Super Bowl clean zone.

The language in the Populous report for SXSW is familiar to those who’ve followed the clean zone issues involved in the Super Bowl—the phrase “ambush marketing” is used a lot—but the logistics of SXSW mean that the same approach can’t be taken. “Clean zones” tend to end up in lawsuit settlements that are either late-breaking compromises, or months (or years) later cash payouts, as in Dallas. But the questions surrounding a SXSW clean zone would be harder to kick down the road, given that the event happens every year. 

Without knowing the specific language that SXSW would request in a clean zone ordinance, it’s hard to spend too much time critiquing the proposal. But suffice it to say that, while it’s important to bring as many ideas and voices to the question of “how the hell does SXSW continue to evolve,” proposals like this seem to have some holes.

That puts SXSW in a tough spot, ultimately. The idea that it needs to make some changes going forward seems to be universally recognized. Various reports have been commissioned by the festival itself and the city of Austin, and there are competing editorials in Austin’s daily and weekly papers. SXSW, as an organization, has made clear that the unofficial events—what it’s apparently begun calling “ambush marketing”—cause them some headaches that they’d rather avoid. It’s also clear that snuffing these unsanctioned events would diminish the energy and cultural significance of what we’ll call “the SXSW Week.” 

SXSW gets the credit when an unsanctioned event makes international headlines because, say, Kanye West shows up. It also gets the blame if somebody gets trampled to death in the rush to get inside the venue. It makes sense that the SXSW organization wants to take more control of the SXSW Week, and the fact that it’s considering to move—most likely an empty threat, given that the organization’s SXSW V2V in Las Vegas is struggling, and the NXNW event in Portland collapsed in 2001—suggests that they’re willing to leverage whatever they can to get there. 

Update: SXSW has since issued a statement about the Populous report, the text of which appears below in full.

We’ve been careful not to say anything that implies we’re trying to ban unofficial events because, even if we could, we wouldn’t try to do that. We totally get that unofficial events are part of the appeal of SXSW, though the line between “official” and “unofficial” can be hard to distinguish.

The Populous report is their expert assessment and opinion, not ours, and we agree with most of it, but not all of it. In our own statements we’ve been careful not to imply a threat to relocate SXSW, and have also explicitly stated that is not our position numerous times.

What we’re asking the City to do is put a limit on the number of permits issued for events that require temporary permits, based on location, capacity and infrastructure. The City did that for the first time this past year, and we think it was a common sense move that should be a standard procedure. Parts of 6th Street are severely overcrowded and can’t support more pop-up events. The majority of the unofficial events are in existing businesses and this would not affect them.

The most important part of what we’re asking for is a comprehensive safety plan that will include not just SXSW events, but every other significant activity downtown during our event. Marketing companies are fond of the tactic of keeping everything a secret until the last minute to avoid scrutiny. SXSW, the unofficial events, and the City all need transparency in order to plan for safety properly.

Link to the Populous Executive Summary – http://sxsw.com/report