Few things—especially over the past few months—have become more contentious to Austinites than SXSW: It’s a barrel of fun that unleashes the most talented, famous, and interesting people in the world on the city, offering free opportunities for music and fun to countless locals and visitors (who in turn spend their money at local bars and restaurants and everywhere else, making for a massive economic impact), and bringing a focused spotlight of international media attention that other cities only get when they manage to host the Olympics or something; or it’s a parasitic public hazard that drains taxpayer coffers, leaves the majority of the city’s residents out of the party, saps resources that could be better used elsewhere, and only offers real benefits to the rich, out-of-town hipsters who use the city as a toilet for a ten-day stretch before taking off for New York or LA or London or Tokyo or wherever it is those people come from.
Which side of that divide you’re on, if you’re a member of the Austin print media, apparently comes down to whether you work for the Austin American-Statesman daily paper, or the Austin Chronicle alt-weekly.
“If you take a look in the mirror, you will see who now is balancing the special events budgets: Austin taxpayers,” wrote the Editorial Board. “Matters are made worse by the annual freebies the Austin City Council gives away in fee waivers that don’t pay for themselves.”
The Chronicle—which shares partial ownership of SXSW—took issue with the Statesman‘s reporting and editorializing. Nick Barbaro, the Chronicle’s publisher and SXSW co-director wrote a scathing rebuttal (opening it with a paragraph full of disclosures—and here I want to add that I have contributed to the Austin Chronicle in the past) calling out what he saw as factual errors in the daily’s reporting:
Here are the primary factual errors regarding SXSW in last Thursday’s “Fees come up short in paying for Austin’s special events,” and this Wednesday’s editorial “Make big events pay their own way”:
1) The opening sentence of the Thursday article – along with the lead graphic chart – is flatly, factually wrong, setting the tone for the entire piece: The city did not grant “$755,644 in fee waivers for the weeklong event.” This factual error is repeated in the editorial.
2) Similarly, the city of Austin did not “spend $23.9 million to support such events as SXSW …” – you get to that figure only by including all routine expenses, and counting fee waivers as actual cash spent.
3) In closing, the editorial board notes that from 2009 to 2013, ACL Fest promoters C3 “contributed $440,548 to charitable causes, including the Austin Parks Foundation. By contrast, SXSW made no charitable contributions to the city during that period.” Well, the city is not a charity, so no one makes charitable contributions to it, but during that time period, SXSW did make over $1 million in charitable contributions to local civic charities, including $350,000 to the Austin Parks Foundation, specifically earmarked for parks improvements. Not that that’s relevant to anything, of course, except to illustrate the Statesman editorial board’s disdain for facts in their overweening hatred of all things Chronicle.
Barbaro’s piece also discusses something that presumably drives him up the wall, which is the conflating of all events that occur in downtown Austin during the week that SXSW occurs with SXSW itself, explaining that “SXSW LLC is not the same as SXSW Week,” and that:
Only perhaps a quarter of the people Downtown during SXSW Music weekend are SXSW customers. SXSW didn’t encourage the rest to be there, and we’re not responsible for them. We pay rentals, fees, security, etc., for the events we put on for our customers, but we don’t run the whole Downtown spring-break phenomenon, and we don’t profit from it. Indeed, we are very optimistic that the current review process will lead to an improved policy regarding event licenses for the Downtown area during SXSW, and a reduction of the spring-breakish atmosphere that has never been a benefit to our event.
He also goes on to argue with the Statesman‘s premise that the biggest problem involving SXSW are fee waivers issued by the city of Austin, going so far as to list all of the fee waivers granted to the festival during the week. Many of those are for events—like the free and open-to-the-public Butler Park concert series—that Barbaro says the festival would stop doing if they had to pay for them fully.
Statesman managing editor John Bridges appeared in the comments section of the Chronicle‘s piece to argue with Barbaro’s take, and Barbaro responded “bullshit,” officially turning this into #AustinMediaBeef2014. Bridges explained that when Barbaro claimed a “factual error” regarding the amount of money spent including fee waivers, he neglected to mention that the Statesman’s following sentence clarified that the figure included other numbers the paper considered part of the fees. Barbaro, for his part, rejoined that Bridges’s position would be akin to his paper reporting that:
“During the last year alone, the Cox newspaper chain cold-bloodedly murdered some 47,894 men, women, and children, across the breadth of the U.S. That number includes deaths from vehicular accidents caused by cars advertised in the classified sections of all their papers.”
That’s a fine “oh, snap!” comeback, but behind all of this bickering are a few things that are very much worth considering. Comments from people not involved in the media war between the Statesman and the Chronicle brought up some of the more salient points about what, precisely, SXSW means to the people in Austin who don’t attend. A commenter using the name “OpEdFun” brought up the fact that the hotels along I-35 in North Austin are equally packed with SXSW visitors during the festival, but those parts of the city don’t see the same benefits to the event that people who attend or live downtown might:
I don’t see how all parts of Austin are benefiting from SXSW. Our neighbors are concerned that your business is raking all of the profits, and taking our resources as well. The Rundberg area has the highest crime rate in the City, and you’re taking our police officers away to attend to your special events. We also significantly contribute to the hotel taxes (hotels along I35) that aren’t going back into our community at all!
It’s a fair point, especially as it relates to the fact that there are a finite number of police in Austin, and putting them all downtown to protect the masses of people who are in the street for SXSW every night does necessarily mean that there are fewer to police neighborhoods that don’t enjoy the fringe benefits of Lady Gaga showing up. (I’m one of the people who is in the street for SXSW, and I’m quite happy to have those police out there—but let’s acknowledge the imbalance.)
Barbaro’s point that SXSW LLC is not the same as SXSW Week is well-taken, but the notion that SXSW doesn’t encourage the countless throngs of non-badge-buyers to show up doesn’t quite ring true, and the claim that they’ve “never been a benefit to our event” is downright disingenuous. SXSW’s prestige as an international destination is because of an ecosystem that includes officially sponsored showcases and keynotes, countless day parties full of booze and artists who perform for free, a massive conflagration of brands there to interact with consumers, and a whole lot more. It’d be impossible to take away the free day parties, the brand interactions, and the teeming throngs of spring breakers and maintain the international spotlight that attracts the Lady Gagas and Bruce Springsteens to the event. Barbaro’s handwringing about how SXSW LLC doesn’t want all of these people at the event and doesn’t get anything out of having them there just doesn’t ring true, unless one believes that he really does wish that next year’s festival could be a return to the good ol’ days where the keynote speaker was Mojo Nixon and Poi Dog Pondering was the marquee band on the bill.
The future of SXSW is in flux, because it always is, and there’ll be a year at some point where the thing tips over, and Barbaro will inevitably get his wish: “Cool” is a mass hallucination, and at some point, Samsung will decide not to bring in Kanye and Jay-Z, and Doritos will decide that it’s not worth setting up their giant vending machine stage for Lady Gaga to play in, and MTV will decide to bring the Woody Awards to South Beach for Spring Break instead, and the whole festival will lose its luster for the people that both the Chronicle and the Statesman seem to agree are undesirable temporary Austinites during that exhausting, stressful week. That’s the nature of anything that’s cool: At some point, it’s not, and it’ll happen to SXSW because it happens to everything else.
In the meantime, the questions about the money that’s spent on SXSW every year will continue to be asked, and they’ll be valid. That doesn’t mean that writing that “the city of Austin spent $23.9 million to support events, such as SXSW” before noting that “it received just $13.3 million in fees” isn’t muddy language designed to confuse the issue (why not just say “the city spent $10.6 million?”), or that adding fee waivers and city expenditures together as one number doesn’t confuse the issue—but that this sort of soul-searching certainly has a place, in a city that seems to deal with some legitimate collective psychological scars every year after the festival ends.
But those psychological scars aren’t a new thing, either: In 2011, the festival reached a “change or die” moment when the waves of toxic entitlement that caused violence (or near-riots) at performances from Death From Above 1979, The Strokes, Kanye West, Screeching Weasel, and more led the festival to take a good, hard look in the mirror. The solution settled upon there was to fold the sort of off-brand events that Barbaro decries in his editorial into the festival more directly, adding a layer of “official” approval to things like the Woodies, the Doritos Bold Stage, the Samsung #NextBigThing events, and other things that both make SXSW the major attractor of international attention that it is and bum out so many who are left feeling alienated from the whole thing. (That year, in the midst of the recession, the economic impact of the festival on the city was $167 million, which also soothed some of the hard feelings.)
It’s possible, of course, that a real solution to all of this isn’t coming—but that the expense and hassle of SXSW is probably mitigated by the economic impact of the festival. Ask a downtown barista, who can make a month’s rent in a week, if she’s happy to be serving coffee to all of the tourists, and she’ll probably grudgingly nod, even if it did take her an extra twenty minutes to get through traffic and into work. And while some of the big events that the festival receives fee waivers for can be expensive, they’re also vital to the city and the sense of community that keeps SXSW from being exclusively a playground for the wealthy, young, or out-of-town: the Butler Park concert series (which formerly took place at Auditorium Shores) costs nearly $20,000 in fee waivers, but it’s also the place where families can come early, take their kids, and spend hours in the park watching some of the talent attracted to Austin each year. Events like that are vital to making sure that SXSW actually helps serve the community, as opposed to just burdening it. If that’s not worth paying for, what is?
Ultimately, this debate will continue for as long as there is a SXSW—or at least as long as it’s an event that people are paying attention to. And on the day that the debate dies down, that’ll probably be a loss for Austin.