Page Two: SXSW Is for Lovers

Looking for clarity in the hate-intoxicated haze

Page Two
(This is the first of two columns that will be devoted to SXSW 07. A much longer version of part one, below, will be posted online.)

1) This may well be the most depressing, dispiriting "Page Two" I've ever written. Although it will be a sad and futile undertaking, I'm going to try to clarify some issues regarding South by Southwest in general and SXSW 07 in particular. Essentially, I am addressing the question of when I stopped beating my wife, if I have actually done so.

Even worse, this is just part one; next week, there will be even more on SXSW. After that, I promise not to bring up SXSW in this column again, at least for the rest of this year.

2) Of no real consequence to so many is that SXSW 07 itself was extraordinary. Internally, SXSW staff and volunteers appeared to feel as though it went splendidly. Those attending SXSW events offered the kindest of compliments and the most enthusiastically appreciative comments.

3) But the backlash against SXSW has been unusually vicious this year, especially on the Internet. The local daily continues its schizophrenic approach to SXSW. There is no shot too cheap to take or accusation so baseless as to make it not worth repeating or accurately reporting. At the same time, the publication goes out of its way to co-opt SXSW.

Given the daily's track record of opinionated reporting and unresearched editorializing, we cannot take their unprofessional assault personally. This is just the way they always are.

The mostly incredibly vicious, vitriolic, and hateful local blog reactions were not surprising. As usual, SXSW itself was deemed evil and destructive, while directors and staff were accused of all kinds of corrupt activities and vile intentions and assigned the most base of motives.

4) There are two major areas of discussion regarding SXSW 07 that raise legitimate concerns (keeping in mind that "concerns" and "damning, vicious assumptions" are by no means the same thing). The city waived $90,000 in fees for SXSW 07, and since I have recently written about how the city has not given SXSW financial support, I have to address this issue.

The other area of concern is that a number of non-SXSW parties were shut down during the Festival, and many blame SXSW for this. They insist that SXSW specifically targeted certain parties, which they had the fire marshals close down.

These accusations not only made the backlash more public than usual, but were taken as a license – especially by the most hate-intoxicated, self-righteously enraged bloggers – that anything they felt like saying about SXSW could and should be posted. Many felt they had the right to state any charge against SXSW that came their way – not as a possibility and/or an accusation, but as an undeniable truth. Although these charges were sometimes rather disingenuously framed as "questions," they almost always were in actuality offered as statements of absolute fact.

5) There also were many posts actively supporting and/or defending SXSW. Others claimed no special affection for SXSW but still found the assault and accusations dishonest and distasteful (the good news is that, regardless of the bloggers' positions, most of them acknowledged that in any case I am a complete and total asshole).

6) This column is not for the naysayers, the haters, and the outraged. It is for SXSW staff, volunteers, and registrants, as well as to all those thousands throughout the community who aided, participated in, followed, and/or enjoyed SXSW. It is also for the vast majority of our readers, who probably don't really care that much. Still, the implied contract between those of us who produce The Austin Chronicle and our constituents (readers, advertisers, etc.) is that we will be as honest, fair, and forthcoming as we can be.

7) SXSW and city managers and staff stay in contact all year. Specifically focused meetings begin many months out in order to make sure the event goes smoothly and safely for all. Making sure that SXSW and the city are all working together and are in sync is Carlyne Majer, SXSW's official liaison with the city. This has allowed those in charge of city services to realize that we are as concerned with safety and people's well-being as they are, are determined to work with them, and are not scheming as to how to dodge regulations or ignore ordinances.

This year, we explored the idea of extensive Downtown street closures as being the safest way to host SXSW, as well as making the most logistical sense. This involved pie-in-the-sky dreaming about what could be done, accompanied by detailed considerations of how it would work. These closures and considerations would in no way generate any additional income for SXSW, but rather were undertaken to improve the public's safety and access, as well as to facilitate the movement of tons of equipment and supplies in and out of the area each day by bands, venues, and other Downtown businesses.

As this planning progressed, SXSW began to get a realistic idea of the costs. They were high and rising, so we told the city that perhaps we should go with the status-quo plans that had been in place in past years.

The city came back to us, saying that safety was important and that they would waive the fees. We happily agreed.

Although SXSW has been bringing in millions and millions of dollars to Austin for more than two decades, this was the first significant financial contribution by the city to SXSW. The value to the city of citizens' and visitors' well-being, safety, and happiness, as well as the resulting impression of Austin that is generated, should be obvious. It is worth noting that $15,000 of the waivers involved fees for the rental of barriers that the city already owns.

Certainly, there are those who still dispute or dislike the waivers – some because of ongoing beliefs and/or concerns about the city budgets, others because they hate SXSW or the Chronicle or the city or me, personally. But none of this money ended up in SXSW coffers; it went toward public safety. Some will argue that, of course, it benefited SXSW, because otherwise we would have had to pay it. Except that we were willing to undertake a much less ambitious – but still solid, approved, and workable – safety plan.

Now, in that discussion there are a number of reasonable, if opposing, points of view. But this one action was quickly projected into a series of assertions and statements against SXSW that are not true.

SXSW spent more than $26,000 hiring extra cops for security that supported the closure.

SXSW had 25 venues (out of 70 SXSW venues) inside the street closures. Many other bars and restaurants also enjoyed a safer atmosphere.

The waiver affected only this new safety plan and did not have anything to do with most of the fees SXSW pays. More than $200,000 will go to the city for Convention Center rental and services, parks rentals, other street closures, and police security.

8) The Fire Department had a list that SXSW gave them that contained every official SXSW event and venue. They get this list every year to make sure all our locations have the proper permits and inspections.

SXSW also gave them a list of parties and venues of about 80 non-SXSW events – the same ones that were widely advertised and reported on blogs, in the Chronicle, and in the Statesman. None of the events on this list was highlighted or singled out in any way.

The Statesman reported the Fire Department also had a third list, made up of complaints from neighbors and other businesses.

There has long been a general assumption on the part of venue owners and those who throw their own parties during SXSW that the fire marshals focus their visits primarily on official SXSW events. I don't know whether this is true or not. I do know that some non-SXSW parties assume this, so consequently many non-SXSW venues are dangerously overcrowded and/or completely disorganized.

SXSW makes sure that the venues officially used are up to code, meet safety standards, and have gotten all the right permits. This isn't a gift or based on special knowledge. Again and again, we check with the city and, especially, the Fire Department to make sure these spaces are safe and in compliance. During the event, fire marshals, police, TABC, and building inspectors regularly and often visit SXSW venues and parties. On many occasions over the years, SXSW venues have been ticketed and/or emptied and/or earned the fire marshals' intervention.

All SXSW asked was that exactly the same kinds of standards and inspections be applied to all events going on in the city, including SXSW and non-SXSW events. This is not the first year we have made such a request. This is all about safety concerns.

SXSW has no ability to get the fire marshals to close a party. None. Nor would we try. The Fire Department, Police Department, TABC, and other city and state service organizations would react with extreme hostility if we even tried.

The fire marshals chose the venues they visited. If they find no safety and/or crowding problems, that the correct permits have been obtained, and overall the venues they visit are in compliance, they do nothing. This is true of SXSW and non-SXSW events.

If the venue has crowding problems, doesn't have the correct permits, and/or is not in compliance with the standard safety rules, then they act. Again, it makes no difference whether the venues are or are not part of SXSW.

During SXSW 07, fire marshals visited many, if not most, SXSW events, as they always have done. SXSW venues are not exempt. They do not show up "with the intention of shutting them down." They are probably much happier when a venue is in compliance, because that makes everything easier.

I don't care what anyone says; no event was shut down because SXSW requested it. The fire marshals work for the city, but their real, concerned focus is on safety, not politics. Fire marshals and police are often at SXSW events – not poking around, but checking up in order to protect public safety. That is their job, their mission, and their only goal.

9) Among the many posts attacking SXSW was one that asserted there were "well-documented efforts on their behalf to shut down private parties and alternative SXSW events ... carried out by the fire marshal as far back as 1994."

In response, SXSW co-director and Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro offered: "That's a pretty bald accusation, not backed up by any facts, and not true. I honestly don't believe there have been any such efforts. The 1994 reference is ludicrous, and 'well-documented' is dishonest rhetoric, and it's hard to see it as anything but malicious. And I would turn the last sentence around onto you: This letter seems a clear effort to fan conspiracy theories, and to avoid open communication."

Yes, there will be even more next week. end story

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SXSW 07, South by Southwest, Austin fire department, non-SXSW parties, SXSW party closings, anti-SXSW

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