Musicians react to SXSW cancellation: “It’s going to be very, very difficult for a lot of bands to come back from this”

The event in Austin was cancelled at the last minute as the coronavirus crisis escalates

Musicians have been reacting to news that the 2020 edition of SXSW has been cancelled as the coronavirus crisis escalates.

The event in Austin, Texas, which features music, film and comedy, was due to begin on March 13 and run until March 22. Yesterday (March 6), organisers announced the official cancellation of the event by the city of Austin.

“We are devastated to share this news with you,” they wrote in a statement posted on their website. “‘The show must go on’ is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place. We are now working through the ramifications of this unprecedented situation.”

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Austin Public Health officials had originally stated earlier in the week (March 4) that there was “no evidence that closing SXSW or any other gatherings will make the community safer.” However, with cases rapidly rising in the US and across the world, the local government then made the decision to cancel the festival altogether.

SXSW organisers say they are now “exploring options to reschedule the event and are working to provide a virtual SXSW online experience.” They promised to be in touch with registrants, clients and participants “as soon as possible.”

Renowned for its support of new music, SXSW sees thousands of young musicians making the trip to Austin to showcase their work to US audiences for the first time. Many build album promotion campaigns and other US tour dates around their festival visit to make it as cost effective as possible, with most having self-funded or crowdsourced money to finance their trip.

This morning, NME has been speaking to some of those artists affected with all struggling to know how they will recoup any money back from lost flights, hotel cancellations and other showcase gigs. Several of the artists we’ve spoken to had not received any official notice from SXSW and only found out late last night, via social media, that the event had been cancelled – most were due on flights later today and tomorrow. NME has contacted SXSW for comment.

Musician Katie Malco, from Northampton, has lost thousands of pounds following news of the cancellation. “Unfortunately, I was self-funded and I’ve lost quite a lot of money. I had my visa denied the first time I applied (something I know happened to quite a few bands) and had to stump up more cash for a visa lawyer and a second application. Travel alone cost a huge amount of money and I won’t get that back, so I’m really out of pocket.

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“In terms of impact, I’ve missed out on the opportunity to get in front of the US music industry and an international audience, alongside the fact the festival is known for often being a springboard to other things for an artist.”

Malco thinks the impact on the arts industry will be considerable this summer, if the Covid-19 virus crisis continues to escalate. “It will probably only continue to get worse over summer – not just for musicians themselves but for other festivals who struggle to shift tickets or have to cancel, and tour crew who are self-employed. It’s affecting the entire music industry. For an artist like myself, if your tour gets cancelled, you don’t get paid whatsoever.”

Kate Malco
Musician Katie Malco is one of those affected by the SXSW cancellation. Credit: Sam Manville

Despite being disappointed and massively out of pocket, Malco says she understands organisers had no alternative but to cancel when presented with the current situation. “It’s definitely out of the hands of the organisers at this point. I think the reaction is probably justified and in line with what’s happening across the board in terms of large scale international events…there’s very little understanding of Coronavirus right now and an event like SXSW could potentially be a hotbed for it to spread.”

“That said, I think it’s an enormous shame for all the artists and I’m not only gutted that I won’t be playing but I was also really looking forward to seeing loads of sick bands.”

Campfire Social
Wales’ Campire Social have lost over £4000 with the cancellation of SXSW. Credit: Press

Carrie Hyndman, vocalist and keyboard player with Welsh band Campfire Social, has spent months planning the visit to Austin with her fellow bandmates. Despite having some funding towards their trip, the group have still personally lost almost £4500 with the cancellation of the festival.

“We’ve literally spent the last 6 months preparing for this, I think that’s why we feel so disappointed,” Hyndman says. “Our days off have consisted of extra practices and hours in front of the computer, arranging visas, travel planning, scheduling meetings with delegates and working on marketing for the festival. Financially, we’ve been supported by PRS Foundation for around 50% of our costs. However, we have had to self-fund the rest.

“On a personal level, the implications are pretty rough. From booking time off work and arranging business around the trip to the money spent on planning. There are some things we will be able to recoup like our accommodation which has a free cancellation policy, thankfully – however, there are some concerns particularly with the flights as it’s not a decision made by the airline. The cost of our visa is another hit we’ll have to take. Then smaller costs like marketing materials, airport parking and the like are again losses that we’ll just have to accept.”

Hyndman says many other small bands like themselves will face tough times following the cancellation. “Obviously the ramifications of this are huge particularly for smaller DIY artists. The impact of this is massive as apart from the funding we received from PRS Foundation we are completely self funded. The cost for artists travelling internationally is high but the benefits can be particularly rewarding. The prospects of furthering the profiles of so many musicians has been lost at what may have been an integral point in their career.”

Another of those affected by the cancellation are Mammoth Penguins, an indie pop band from Cambridge, who have been planning the logistics of their trip for months.

Mark Boxall from the group explains: “We found out for sure that we had a showcase at SXSW back in December. Since then it’s been a massive project for us. Sorting out travel, where to stay, whether to take our instruments or hire out there. Applying for funding and visas, visiting the US embassy and sitting in a dystopian white room for 3 hours on a Wednesday morning to find out if we would be successful.”

Bandmate Emma Kupa adds: “We didn’t run any kind of crowdsourcing. We applied for PRS funding but unfortunately we didn’t get it so we had to scale back our plans and do everything as cheaply and freely as possible. We have been playing some fundraiser gigs and supplemented the flight costs with our band money that would have gone on recording and other costs towards the next album.

Mammoth_Penguins
Mammoth Penguins are one of the bands affected by the cancellation. Credit: Press

“We are all quite devastated. We were looking forward to the adventure so much and had put a huge amount of work into getting there and making it work. I have spent on average an hour a day emailing, strategising and planning for the trip since the beginning of the year.”

Kupa and Boxall think many bands will continue to be impacted by the cancellation for some time. Kupa says: “There will obviously be a huge financial cost to a lot of bands. Many bands have no funding or backing from elsewhere so personal income or money that would have been spent on recording and other future costs will have been lost. Hopefully, some of it can be recovered from insurance. We will be hoping to get flights and visas refunded but I don’t know at present how likely that will be.”

Boxall adds: “Without having your trip fully funded by someone like the PRS, it’s really expensive to self-fund your band’s journey from the UK for an appearance at SXSW. There are flights, accommodation, gear hire. Then there’s the visas, unless you want to run the risk of being turned away when you touch down in Austin.

“There are going to be a lot of artists feeling sore in the wake of SXSW’s cancellation. Not to mention all of the small businesses in Austin that were gearing up for thousands of paying customers to turn up next week. We’re hoping to be able to cancel flights and get some money back. Hopefully most people will be able to do the same. There will be some artists that bet a lot on SXSW though, so now is a great time to attend a gig, buy a record or a t-shirt, or even just make a playlist and share it.

“The impact on us is manageable. We might lose some money, but people have been so kind in attending gigs and buying merch to support us, that with whatever we can get refunded, we’re not going to be ruined. That won’t be the same for every band.”

False Heads
False Heads were due to fly out to SXSW tomorrow. Credit: Neil McCarty

Another group, False Heads, from East London, are feeling a greater impact having organised an album launch and more US dates around their SXSW appearance. They’d also borrowed money from family and friends in order to afford their trip.

“It’s gutting, really. We all work full time jobs and it is a nightmare,” lead singer and guitarist Luke Griffiths says. “We leant money from friends, one of them had a redundancy package recently and we leant some money from him and we leant some money from a cousin who’d had some inheritance. Our label put some money in as well.”

For Griffiths, whilst he fully understands and supports the reasons behind the cancellation, he does think organisers in Austin could have let SXSW sooner – especially in light of the fact the council in Austin had seemingly sought to reassure organisers just a few days earlier.

“I saw something a week ago where they’d cancelled a big event nearby so I was half expecting it. We were meant to fly out tomorrow so I’d have been fucking gutted if we’d have flown out there and they’d have cancelled whilst we were out there. That’s the only silver lining I guess.

“I understand it must be difficult making a decision like this and there’s obviously a lot going on between organisers and the city of Austin. What maybe is frustrating about what took the organisers so long is that there’s not a lot of money for bands at a smaller level. They’re all working jobs and it would have been nice to have a bit more notice. It’s all well and good all the big companies pulling out because it’s not going to affect them financially, but at a grass roots level it will affect a lot of smaller artists.”

Griffiths adds that if such cancellations continue throughout summer, bands may struggle to recover financially. “It’s going to be very very difficult for a lot of bands to come back from this, if it happens. I hope we can ride that wave.”

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It’s not just artists affected either, with a host of panels and conferences due to take place over the course of the festival, many industry professionals who were due to attend are also feeling the impact. Legendary gig-goer Jeffrey Johns, a staple at festivals and gigs all over the UK, was due the festival next week to speak at a panel on diversity within the live music industry.

Jeff’s parents and Independent Venue Week – for which Jeff is also an ambassador – launched a GoFundMe campaign to get Jeff to SXSW and raised almost £4000 for the trip. On hearing the news, Big Jeff – as he is affectionately known – says he was devastated.

“This would have been my first time going to the US and SXSW. My parents along with Independent Venue Week set up a GoFundMe page which raised the funds for flights and accommodation, which was about four-and-a-half grand. It just feels like a gut punch to have the carpet pulled from under our feet.”

Jeff says the cancellation could cost artists thousands, not to mention the city of Austin where SXSW brings in around $350 million in tourist revenue each year. “I think it’s going to have a hugely negative impact on artists: some of the artists are looking of losses of up to or over £10,000 or more when you look at things such as flights and accommodation.”

SXSW 2015
Austin’s 6th Street during SXSW 2015 CREDIT: Getty Images

“Entire careers will be impacted not just the artists who are heading over there but the venues who are putting on the showcases…It’s the world’s biggest event for music and arts. For some people, this could cost them their career because it is so hard to make a living in the arts at the best of times. You have got to look at the whole thing globally too because tours are currently being cancelled left, right, and centre and there is next to no sustainability for artists without touring.”

For Jeff, news of today’s cancellation doesn’t bode well for other events this year. “I think that this could have an effect on the upcoming festivals all around the world: Coachella, Glastonbury and Primavera Sound – amongst many others. They could all be cancelled yet…It could see a summer where all major festival and sporting events are cancelled or staged behind closed doors.

“It could have a really damaging effect on UK tourism and trade…people don’t really realise how big music tourism is to the UK: it a vital and underplayed part to our economy.”

Now, in response to the news, industry organisations and artists are already calling for gig showcases to be organised closer to home so DIY musicians throughout the UK can recoup some of their losses.

NME are also coordinating a recorded showcase for some of the bands who were set to play at the festival. Further information about this will be published next week.

Joe Frankland, CEO of PRS Foundation – a charitable organisation that supports new music initiatives across the UK – says such showcases would be a huge help to those artists who will lose money following news of the cancellation. Speaking to NME, Frankland said: “I’d love to see something happen, especially if the emphasis is on artists’ profiles being raised as well as bringing in much needed financial support to those who will be out of pocket.”

Frankland says PRS Foundation are “devastated” for those affected by the cancellation: together with BBC Music Introducing, PRS Foundation were supporting 40 artists, bands and songwriters on their journey to SXSW 2020 via their ‘International Showcase Fund.’

We cannot overstate the economic and cultural impact of SXSW 2020’s cancellation for the UK music industry, and we are devastated for the creators and businesses affected,” Frankland says. “PRS Foundation’s International Showcase Fund has supported countless success stories including Sam Fender, Wolf Alice, Dave, Jade Bird, Nubya Garcia and AJ Tracey, and investment between 2016-19 generated £5.3m for the industry and UK economy.”

Dave
Dave has been helped by PRS funding in the past. Credit: Getty

“We know that the 40 artists, bands and songwriters we are supporting through this scheme and our partnership with BBC Music Introducing would have returned with amazing results and this news denies hundreds of UK music creators the opportunity to develop sustainable international careers.”

Frankland says that PRS Foundation are holding an emergency meeting on Monday (March 9) and will be publishing an extensive FAQ page for those affected. For now, grantees affected are being directed here for further information. “Crucially at this point, PRS Foundation and our funding partners are here to support grantees and artists,” Frankland adds.

“We are inspired by the reaction of artists and individuals in the music community who are planning special events in the UK, and we encourage music fans to buy, stream, share and get behind the artists at this difficult time so that they can come back stronger and dominate SXSW in the future.”

One such individual planning a special event is Charlotte Caleb, an artist manager who is now working towards organising a showcase after pulling together a team of people to help. Caleb is hoping to work with British Music Export who are the organisers of ‘British House’ in SXSW, where many UK acts were due to perform.

Caleb explains: “We want to try and recreate those showcases as well as making sure every other UK act is able to have a spot. Acts from Ireland are all up for coming across so this could be amazing. Once we have coordinated we will book out those venues and I am hoping to start selling tickets on Tuesday or Wednesday as we have a very small window.”

Caleb has set up a central email address for enquires (alt-sxsx@csquaredldn.com) and is currently seeking help from venues, creatives, brands, sponsors and the media to help make the showcase a reality.

If you are an artist who has been affected by the SXSW cancellation and are interested in an alternative showcase, please email editors@nme.com with the subject line: “NME X SXSW show.”

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