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Here's What SXSW's Cancellation Means To Members Of The Austin Community And Beyond

Julia Reihs
Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced the cancellation of South by Southwest on Friday.

South by Southwest brings in a huge amount of money for local businesses and the community, and the festival could be just the first of several big events called off amid fears of the coronavirus.

Small businesses, gig workers and others who depend on these events for income will struggle, and the ripple effects could be felt for a long time.

"You're going to see a lot of people who are having a hard time paying rent – both as businesses and as staff," Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District, told KUT.

Hear from some of the people affected by SXSW's cancellation:

Music Venue Owners

Stephen Sternschein, owner of Heard Productions, talks at Empire Control Room on Saturday with members of the music industry in Austin about organizing after SXSW's cancellation.
Credit Julia Reihs / KUT
Stephen Sternschein, owner of Heard Productions, talks at Empire Control Room with members of the music industry in Austin about organizing after SXSW's cancellation.

“We're gonna get through this. It's gonna suck. It's really scary – especially for the groups that are most at-risk. But, I think that the world is a f- - - - - -  scary place all the time, and there's so many different ways you can go. And part of the reason why we throw music events is to give people a break from the harsh reality that we're hurtling through space at millions of miles an hour on this little rock, and we're just specks of dust. So, yeah, coronavirus? Whatever. It's just another thing.”

“Some folks are coming to town just to collect money. Those folks are not coming anymore. That's great. We don’t need those people. We need people who care about new ideas, new music, making new connections, and we can still do that regardless of whether there's a huge South By logo at the top of the stage.”

– Steve Sternschein, managing partner of Heard Presents, which operates Empire Control Room and the Parish

Service Industry Workers

"[I'm] out so much money that I don’t even want to say it. Our spot isn’t a regular bar, without the events, we have no work."

– Rebecca Charles, a special event bartender, via Facebook


“Being in Austin you don’t get to see a lot of people from LA or New York, industry wise, very often. So this was a good reason to do [SXSW] and timely for me for sure. I make pop music, there is a very small community of us here in town, but we still have to reach outside of the city because the city is not set up as a pop loving city so much.”

 – Dossey, an Austin-based musician and official SXSW artist this year, who was hoping to find label representation at the festival

“The past couple of years we played, it’s always led to opportunities for us. We ended up with a European booking agent after playing it a couple of years ago. We did a record with a label from Nashville after playing it a couple years ago. So every year we play we seem to meet somebody that helps. So that’s what we were looking for this year, and now we won’t have that necessarily.”

– Jonny Wolf, a member of the Austin-based band The Ghost Wolves

Bars, Restaurants And Food Trucks

Carlos Acosta, owner of Rosarito, opened a second food truck in anticipation of South by Southwest.
Credit Mose Buchele / KUT
Carlos Acosta, owner of Rosarito, opened a second food truck in anticipation of South by Southwest.

"I'm still in shellshock. Basically, January and February is very slow for most businesses, but especially for food trucks because of the weather. So South By is when you're able to make those two months back in a week and then some.

"This year we had it pretty organized. That's why we opened this second food truck. We made a timeline to open a week before South By. So I can see every small business in Austin doing the same – buying new equipment, hiring more people.

"I think it [the impact] is going to be huge. Some businesses may even close. We're probably going to feel it in a month or two ... maybe even more."

– Carlos Acosta, owner of Rosarito Food Trucks 

“Last week I just didn’t hear from [catering clients] anymore. I don’t know what’s going on ... and lo and behold, I read those three companies aren’t coming anymore. Those were definitely big losses.

“The media exposure you get with South by – if some giant company is doing an event with you, they’re promoting you. Last year we did UberEats, which is probably the type of marketing campaign I couldn’t afford. ... You lose out on that.

“There’s probably been a lot of ups and downs since 1958 and we’ve weathered them. So, we’ll make it.”

– Carmen Valera, co-owner of Tamale House East on East Sixth Street, on catering bids she’d sent to companies coming to town for SXSW

"Naturally, the cancellation of SXSW is going to hurt my business very negatively. The sheer loss of the amount of people alone affects my bottom line, my staffs tips, hourly pay, etc. 

"However, we are a live music venue and bar 365 days a year and I still have over 100 bands coming to Austin to perform. I am hoping the people that do still come to Austin as well as the locals come out and support all of us during this trying time. My building was sold and on January 1st, my rent was increased 88%. We were counting on SXSW income to help make up that price inflation. 

"Me and my staff are more worried about being robbed or stabbed by a local homeless vagrant than we are catching coronavirus. The cities decision to cancel SXSW will have a permanent and negative effect on a lot of local businesses. We may not survive. We are gonna try and do the best we can given the situation.”

– Rob Hicks, owner of Dirty Dog Bar

Short-Term Rental Owners

"Because we operate year round, it’s not catastrophic, but March is our best month of the year, of course, because of SXSW. Our little Airbnb business helps supplement my parents’ retirement, and helps my husband and I to keep up with rising property taxes in East Austin. SXSW canceling sucks, but we totally understand why it had to be done.”

— Kate Kniejski, who runs an Airbnb with her parents. Her weeklong booking canceled because SXSW isn’t happening.

Ride-Hailing Drivers

"Austin's still going to need services across the board. It's just work. Don't worry about what you've lost, worry about what's in front of you."

"As long as I can replace my 30 trips a night, it has no effect on me."

– Henry Reynolds, a driver for Lyft and Uber. Reynolds says SXSW would typically mean an additional 60 trips for him on average on top of the 130 rides he gives in a typical week.

"I'd rather have health than money. Health is more important than money, any time." 

– Tony Vasquez, a Lyft driver from Austin

"I think it sucks. I think it's going to be very bad for the city because there's going to be a lot of lost tax revenue, but also a lot of services and lot of people were expecting that money."

– Dan Oesterman, a driver from Austin

“It’s affected me and my family. Myself and my son that attends Texas State are four-year Uber drivers! And we just lost over $7,000.”

Ruth Rodgers


"I lost $2K, not to mention potential work I would have gotten from building relationships with these clients that I was really looking forward to working with. Not to mention publications my photos would have gone to."

– Deleigh Hermes, an Austin photographer and filmmaker, via Facebook


“This is so crazy. It doesn’t really seem real. ... For our little lives and our little film it’s completely devastating."

“South By is different than Sundance or Cannes because it feels more welcoming on a basis simply of having also the music festival ... everyone is welcome there. We’ve met some of our closest friends.”

“Our art exhibition is not living on. We have thousands of dollars of equipment that is just sitting in a warehouse in Austin right now that has been shipped from New York.” 

– Celine Held who, along with her husband Logan George, was premiering two films at SXSW. The filmmakers live in Brooklyn.

“We are an Austin-based company — all the creative team for Bat Bridge Entertainment that worked on this. This whole film was shot here, edited here, finished here, so to have the opportunity to premiere it at South By, arguably the greatest film festival in the world, and having the local angle — the people that made it, the people that are in the film all being there watching it — it’s a huge loss not being able to do that. 

“The other part of this is that South By can be a slingshot of sorts for momentum and publicity and creating buzz for a project, and that opportunity is lost now.”

Pat Kondelis, director and executive producer of Outcry, a five-part documentary that follows the story of Greg Kelley, a Leander High School football player who was accused of a crime before his senior year. The controversial case polarized the Austin-area community. Outcry was going to premiere at SXSW. 

“I think for a truly independent film like ours, where we raised the money in small amounts at a time and did it kind of totally by ourselves and then gradually acquired a team who believed in the vision …, I think [premiering at SXSW] would have been an opportunity to have the film be reviewed. 

“I’ve been trying really hard and I think it’s very important to keep the longview, which is that it’s not just our film, it’s lots of other films …and also what’s really important is the health and safety of everyone who lives in Austin and everybody who would be coming. It’s 10 years of work that brought us to this point, but those other things are also really important considerations, too.”

Kate McLean, a director and screenwriter of Freeland, an independent film that was set to premiere at SXSW

“At the moment everyone’s sort of scrambling to figure out what happens next. But I’m sure there’s a lot of films in the same boat as us where we have other festivals lined up that we were going to screen at, but that can all be affected by the fact that they are no longer screening at South by Southwest. It’s sort of a tricky position. Everyone has to rethink their festival strategy, their sales strategy.” 

Rose Tucker, producer of We Don’t Deserve Dogs, a documentary that was scheduled to premiere at SXSW. She and director Matthew Salleh make up the film production company Urtext Films. Three years ago at SXSW, their documentary Barbecue was picked up by Netflix. Salleh says “no one knows exactly what’s going to happen in terms of distribution” this year now that the festival is canceled.  

"Aside from submission fees, the cancellation didn't hurt me financially. We did however lose exposure and potential networking opportunities. Due to lack of funding and resources, it took five years for Lovebites to get produced. So for an Austin filmmaker like myself, having my film screened on a large platform like SXSW would have made all of these hardships worth it.

"SXSW is a brand that means something to people here and around the world – It means credibility. It's a platform that kick-started a lot of Indie filmmakers' careers and I was hoping for the same fate. Prior to Lovebites' acceptance into the festival, I felt underestimated and frankly people didn't fully support me. Once I made the announcement that Lovebites was premiering at SXSW, I noticed people were giving me a second look and sadly that's what it takes.

"On a hopeful note, I love how the community has banded together to find venues for filmmakers to screen their film. I hope SXSW does get rescheduled and that Indie filmmakers like myself will get the added exposure needed for the careers later this year."

– Chinwe Okorie, an Austin filmmaker whose short film was set to have its world premiere Sunday

Event Company Workers

"The team has put [a lot of hard work] into it and not being able to come to life is actually very sad, because it’s almost like you built a house and then it burned down before you got to see it. To me, that’s the sad part. It’s not about collecting a cancellation fee and not doing it. It’s really not seeing it coming to fruition.” 

– Cindy Lo, CEO of Red Velvet Events, which helps create experiences for companies to reach attendees during SXSW

“I'm disappointed, but I understand the reasoning behind it. I feel bad for everyone affected by the decision. I haven't lost any money but [I did lose] the time and commitment spent supporting the event.” 

– Michael Burnett, an application support specialist with Capital Metro and volunteer stage manager for SXSW, who spent weeks working on the Sheraton BackYARD venue

Tech Workers

"Just a couple weeks ago, I had almost no days off in March, April and May. Most of us [in the industry] were planning to have a record year for income, and I was planning to make a significant CapEx in more production equipment come June.

"Instead, I’m now looking at every way to push off expenditures and reduce cash flow to a minimum to keep my business alive and pay my mortgage. Thankfully I have a nice savings for an emergency like this to buy some time."

– Kyle Santeen, who works in live event technology, via Facebook

Pet Sitters

“Most people go out of town around this time for spring break and a lot of people come in to town for South by Southwest, so I usually get lots of clients. But so far I’ve had almost half of my clients cancel because they’re too nervous to travel or because the thing they were traveling for was canceled."

– Andrea Estwick, owner of House of Dogs, her only source of income for the past two years. She says she’s taking a nearly 50% paycut with SXSW cancelations. Her clients during SXSW include event staff and musicians “who need to be at the event all day, but want to be with their pet at night.” She says this is her second busiest time of the year; the holidays are first.

This post will be updated as more reactions come in. 

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