SXSW makes big staff cuts, but the hustle never ends for small bands
The increasing world concern surrounding the spread of coronavirus has forced the city of Austin to cancel this year’s South By Southwest music festival. The outcome of canceling this year’s event includes massive repercussions for a city that prospers from the tourism, as well as jeopardizing the very future of SXSW.
In a statement issued earlier this week, SXSW broke the solemn news of company layoffs. “Due to the city of Austin’s unprecedented and unexpected cancellation of the SXSW 2020 events in March, SXSW has been rigorously reviewing our operations, and we are in the unimaginable position of reducing our workforce. Today we said goodbye to approximately one-third of our full-time staff. Those of us in the business of live events know the level of trust required to execute an event of SXSW’s scale, and we are deeply sad to let people go this soon. We are planning for the future, and this was a necessary, but heartbreaking, step.”
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, SXSW’s founder Roland Swenson says there would be plans for a 2021 iteration of the festival, adding, “but how we’re going to do that, I’m not entirely sure.” Variety is reporting that last year the music conference brought in $157 million dollars of tourism revenue to the city.
The coronavirus scare has kept many industry people away from the event. Corporate employees to rock icons and film auteurs have decided to stay home. But what about the small bands who built their spring touring around SXSW? Who can afford to stay several nights in hotels for no good reason or good gigs?
John Trep, founder of The Trep Agency who books bands in the underground realm, says there are lots of repercussions fans are acutely unaware of. “These cancellations are devastating for the talent, the venues and promoters from almost every angle. The scariest stuff, whether it be SXSW, St. Patrick’s Day or spring break plans, is the way these people have stocked up on inventory they won’t be able to sell off. Artists depend on these busy months of gigs to cover their slow months. It’s the same with certain bars/venues. I think some venues may even go out of business over this because their end-of-year numbers may fall so far short.”
Trep remembers all the historical concerns around such worldly health controversies as swine flu and bird flu but doesn’t recall them affecting the touring business or SXSW. But while corporate employees and financially stable artists have the means to live without touring, small bands simply don’t have that luxury. If fans don’t show, merchandise doesn’t get sold. Then something as essential as filling up the tank of the touring van turns into a very real fear.
“The biggest thing is uncertainty of any of a band’s shows happening properly,” Trep says. “Smaller-sized bands depend on merch sales. The door money usually isn’t enough to do more than cover gas. Which means that even if promoters take a hit and give the band a few dollars regardless of turnout, the band don’t sell merchandise. Not only do they not have money to survive on out there, but they're also out the money they put up to stock inventory. It can be a real double-edged sword in a case like this.”
There’s no denying the coronavirus outbreak is changing everything from world markets to stock prices to release dates of blockbuster films. But when it comes to the small underground bands operating in the realms AltPress covers, the hustle got a whole lot harder.
“It would've been easy for us to stay home,” Paul Masbad says, the frontman for New York pop-punk band Live Well, a client of Trep Agency. “However, we worked so hard on this tour. Just because SXSW is canceled doesn't mean the city is just going to shut down. There are lots of gigs that have [been] canceled, but there are still other people wanting to celebrate, throw shows and bring people together.
“We're going to be playing dates all around Texas, as well as the Midwest, South and so on,” he says. “The best we can do is just make sure we're washing our hands and taking on the best infection prevention practices. Lots of vitamin C and being more aware.”