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SXSW is accused of cozying up to 'war profiteers.' Musicians are boycotting.

People sitting at tables at a U.S. Army booth, talking to folks standing nearby.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
The U.S. Army has a booth at the SXSW Creative Industries Expo at the Austin Convention Center this year.

Austin percussionist Thor Harris has been playing South by Southwest since the ramshackle days, when the festival was a platform for up-and-coming musicians hoping to be discovered by music industry insiders.

This year, it’s different.

"I’ve played hundreds of other music festivals and never heard of any of the other ones having war profiteers as sponsors," Harris said.

Harris is one of more than 60 artists who dropped out of the festival after learning the U.S. Army and defense contractor RTX, formerly Raytheon, are sponsors. They argue SXSW has cozied up to the defense industry and specifically, RTX, a massive corporation that’s supplied weapons to Israel in the war in Gaza. Its subsidiary, Collins Aerospace, is also a SXSW partner.

The boycott started earlier this month, but it’s gained steam after social efforts from activists went viral.

Andy Bianculli from the indie pop band Star Parks canceled a handful of gigs. Out at Hotel Vegas earlier this week, he said he realized the cancellations were having a real impact — albeit an unintentional one.

"I didn't think about the perspective of how much dropping out of … shows affects the clubs and the bookers," said Bianculli, whose band is still performing at unofficial shows. "They're scrambling to fill holes because everyone's dropping out."

This kind of sponsorship isn’t new. Sure, the festival has been a platform for artists, but it’s also been a platform for Twitter and Uber. Over time, defense contractors and even the Department of Defense, the CIA and the FBI have slunk into panels during the festival's tech portion.

Eric Braden of the Austin punk band Big Bill said he had no problem boycotting the festival this year. They didn't even apply to play — in part, because of protests last year over the festival's wage structure and application fees. He said over the last 10 years the festival has become less about the music and more about sponsored events and movie promotions.

"I think there was kind of a turning point this year for me at least, because ... it's not like the first year that they've had some unsavory partners," he said. "Sometimes putting pressure on people, making people feel uncomfortable is important."

Between the sponsors this year and last year's wage protests, Bianculli said the festival's appeal has worn thin.

"Like, how many times do people need to be burned to be like, ‘Well, why be associated with them?'" he said. "Then when you start getting involved with … arms dealers, you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t want anything to do with any of these people. This is insane!'"

The boycott has caught the eye of Gov. Greg Abbott, who said bands who disagree with Texas’ ties to defense contractors should leave, if they don’t like it. Abbott touted Austin's hosting of the U.S. Army Futures Command, a research arm to develop next-generation defense technology, as proof of the state's — and the city's — support of the industry.

SXSW didn’t respond to KUT's request for comment, but tweeted Tuesday in response to Abbott that it respects artists' opinions. It said the defense industry “has historically been a proving ground for many of the systems we rely on today.” The festival added, however, that it "does not agree" with Abbott.

Braden said he's fine if critics view the boycott as sanctimonious since it's not going to stop the war in Gaza.

"When it comes down to it, there's people dying," he said. "There's children dying, and it's OK to be sanctimonious when it comes to that."

Harris said he hopes the festival prompts some sort of conversation about who SXSW partners with. In the meantime, he doesn’t fault artists who can't afford to boycott.

"The thing is, I don’t blame any of these young musicians for being hesitant to drop out," he said. "It’s just really yucky that they are just now finding out about this affiliation that SXSW has with war profiteers."

A protest concert organized by Austin for Palestine and the Union of Allied Workers and Musicians is planned for Thursday on Congress Avenue near the U.S. Army's sponsored stage on Eighth Street.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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