SXSW Wants More Control Over Downtown Austin And Permit Limits On Unofficial Events

The free alcohol may not flow so abundantly at SXSW 2015. Event organizers have asked the city of Austin to cut down on the amount of permits it hands out to unofficial meet-ups, sessions and parties that run in tandem with the main festival. It cites overcrowding and too much free booze from parallel events as safety issues.

What started as a small music festival with 700 attendees back in 1987 has blown up to approximately 80,000 officially registered badge holders last year. That’s a full 10 percent increase in population for Austin.

The Interactive portion accounts for the majority of those who go (32,000 participants in more than 1100 sessions). This tends to be a more mature crowd that can afford (or has their company pay for) the pricey tickets. The Film event rounds out to a little over 18,000, while Music, the smallest of the three, peaks at just over 2700 badged attendees. Keep in mind that these stats only include actual paying customers and not the insurmountable throng of visitors who flood – and pretty much take over – the town during the month of March.

SXSW has spawned several separate festivals that run alongside the main portion. Artists, both big and small, will play free concerts at various venues throughout the city. Each festival overlaps at some point, adding even more to the chaos. Several brands and startups throw massive celebrity bedecked parties, host their own sessions, meet-ups and giveaways. All of this serves to encourage tens of thousands more to show up and run amok in what has been called the “spring break for nerds,” sans credentials.

City officials don’t know the exact economic impact of all the events that took place in 2014, but estimate it probably surpassed the $218 million mark set in 2013. That’s some great cash for the city, but the impact of the crowds obviously puts a burden on police, government and residents. The situation is so bad during the month of March that many of the folks who actually live there shut down business and flee town.

Austin experimented with limiting permits this last year but continued to issue those on a first-come-first-served basis, irking SXSW executives.

We’ve been hearing rumors that the SXSW organization had threatened to pull out of Austin altogether if the city didn’t curtail the unofficial events and give the festival more control over sanctioned experiences. An official announcement from the SXSW organization clarified that is has been “…careful not to imply a threat to relocate SXSW, and have also explicitly stated that is not our position numerous times.”

SXSW engaged the services of Populous, a global consulting firm that specializes in planning major events, earlier this year. Populous’s own report made back in August suggest the festival, “will eventually need to make decisions about whether or not they can continue to exist in their current format and location,” if changes are not made.

The report was adamant that increasing negative feedback from festival-goers and sponsors was ruining the reputation of SXSW. It also concluded that the unofficial events were posing more of a risk than the official festival and that the city lacked an integrated plan that would include both SXSW events and non-SXSW events. According to the report:

“Activities not affiliated with the SXSW event (or splinter events) actually are creating more of the overcrowding problems and unruliness than the event itself, due to the numbers of people attracted, imprudent control measures, the availability of free or cheap alcohol, RSVP tactics, and crowd consumption.”

The Populous report then suggested the city should allow SXSW to add signage throughout town, directing folks to official events and that it should have more control over which unofficial events are able to function during the festival.

“It is understood that there are issues about fairness and constitutionality in this discussion. However, in Populous’ experience, other cities have found solutions to allow prioritization of key economic development initiatives and business – like festivals and events – that directly contribute to the public benefit in return for an event environment that allows for a safe and viable operation.”

SXSW sent a letter to Austin’s mayor, mayor pro tem and the city council in early September asking them to give the festival priority in the permitting process and suggesting they need certain requirements needed in order to continue operations in Austin in the future

“​The changes Populous recommends – also the things it will take to preserve SXSW in Austin for decades to come – can be easily achieved with a modicum of political will.”

The City of Austin responded to the mayoral letter by issuing a 2014 post-event evaluation report. This included several bulleted initiatives to alleviate the traffic and deal with the visitors:

  • Staggering cut-off times of temporary events so all do not end at the same time, thus avoiding the massive influx of people into the streets trying to get to another location.
  • Evaluation of all permit applications, including sound, temporary change of use and temporary use, by the Austin Center for Events to allow for a more cohesive response. This one-stop shop alleviates the previous scenario where an applicant went to a City department, got a permit and thought that was all that was needed.
  • Establishing earlier deadlines for outdoor permit applications to more effectively manage the
    cumulative impact of all events.
  • Assigning more Public Assembly Code Enforcement (PACE) personnel throughout the SXSW period to ensure the safety for those attending various events.
  • Creating a Unified Command Center for quicker response when issues arise.

The city also gathered community input and has concluded that the two biggest concerns from residents are 1) alcohol consumption and 2) venues that run way over capacity.

Both pose major safety issues. Four Austin residents died and 20 others were injured in a horrifying crash this last year after a drunk driver piled into a crowded street during one such unofficial event.

SXSW 2010

*Text in bold added for emphasis.