What happened was that a drunken driver plowed through a police barricade, killing two people and injuring another 23. Some festival aficionados seemed to see an intoxicated driver’s causing havoc on a packed Austin street as the inevitable outcome of an event that had lost its innocence.
Similar heartbreaks happen all the time. In northwest Austin last month, a drunk driver took the lives of a couple stopped at a busy intersection. No one in northwest Austin implied that the junction of Balcones Woods Drive and Research Boulevard had somehow led to the traffic deaths.
Nonetheless, music bloggers at the Los Angeles Times posted an item titled “A tragic wake-up call for SXSW?” It noted that “the incident comes amid widespread debate over the expansion of SXSW.” A New York Times article was headlined “After Fatal Crash, Soul-Searching for South by Southwest.”
Sure, the “scene” surrounding the festival had become crowded and rowdy, fueled by alcohol and drugs. But that’s the formula, tolerated to various degrees, in nightlife zones across this and other continents, including more “normal” weekend nights in Austin’s Red River District.
Some background for the uninitiated: The South by Southwest festival began modestly in 1987 as a place for new music acts to show their wares. It has since grown into an extravagant blowout mixing music, technology and film.
Gawkers by the hundreds of thousands now mill around celebrities and brands vying for a piece of cutting-edge cred. That Frito-Lay paid Lady Gaga over $1 million to sing (and get covered in paint vomit) at a stage renamed for Doritos suggests that SXSW is no longer the homey get-together it once was. Journalists from all over cover the promotions, the publicity stunts and even the music.
Not surprisingly, many longtime attendees feel that SXSW has lost its intimacy and, with that, its cool. And many Austin residents have grown grouchy at the annual invasion and takeover of their downtown streets. Some leave town when the festival rolls in.
So perhaps the critics are right to call for a rethinking of the entire enterprise. (Your writer remains agnostic on the matter.) But again, the deadly crash was not a sign from above that SXSW had somehow done wrong by becoming too big and too commercial. In America, over 10,000 deaths a year are tied to drunken driving.
Of course, local shops, barkeeps and city tax collectors might praise the numbers of attendees. Certainly, the merchandizers from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue like what’s happening.
For those who miss the purer, more intimate gathering of yore, my heart is totally with you, but the reality is this: The SXSW festival you loved is over forever.
The thing to do is start another pure, intimate music confab, perhaps in west Texas — far from a major airport and steering clear of the art scene at Marfa. Sterling County, a dry county (dry as in no alcohol served), would be promising. Call the festival West by Southwest or, better still, something lacking all charm.
Eventually, giant commercial interests wanting to siphon off your authenticity will again take over. For a while, however, you’ll have a go.
What the SXSW traditionalists should avoid is feeling that their festival somehow sinned by getting so big and gaudy. This was as beyond their control as was the drunk driver.
Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal.