The True Cost of Canceling SXSW

The measure of what might have been and inspiration lost as a result of COVID-19 can’t be quantified

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

In March 2008, I sat in the front row for a Mark Zuckerberg interview at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and witnessed one of the weirdest interviews the Facebook CEO ever gave. It was the early days of Twitter, and what happened at the talk became a prescient example of the ugliness and echo chambering that the social media era would bring. That in itself would have been a story for the memoirs, but later that evening, completely by chance, I ran into journalist Sarah Lacy, who conducted that keynote, and shot a quick YouTube video of her that went viral. People still ask me about the incident more than a decade later.

In March 2014, I was walking up South Congress Avenue toward a SXSW event with my brother and his girlfriend, our lanyard-dangled badges flapping in the cool evening air, when a large bus pulled up alongside us. The doors opened and we were invited into a karaoke party bus experience. We ditched all our plans and spent hours traveling downtown Austin on this ridiculous, mobile, disco-ball-equipped lounge. It was the most fun I’ve ever had standing on a bus consuming alcohol.

Last year, in March, I got an email inviting me to a downtown performance by Santigold. I’d never turn down the chance to see one of my favorite musicians, so a few friends and I headed over early the night of the show. We wondered if we were even at the right place as we stood outside Speakeasy, an Austin bar and music venue, the only ones in line for something we weren’t even sure was really happening. An hour later, we realized we were at the post-world premiere party for the SXSW-featured movie Booksmart, which had just screened down the street at the Paramount Theatre. We realized it because we were suddenly surrounded by cast members and celebrities like Nick Kroll and Natasha Lyonne, a rich buffet spread, and music from DJ Dan the Automator. Minutes later, director Olivia Wilde took the stage; it was her birthday and she received a cake before Santigold ripped the place apart with her incredible set.

The reverberations from the cancellation are going to last months, probably years.

I share these stories not to induce retroactive FOMO, but to illustrate that for me, over more than two decades of covering SXSW, the moments that have stood out most have been the ones that were unplanned. I could have never anticipated that Zuckerberg’s keynote would go so wrong. Nothing in my 2014 SXSW schedule accommodated for “Spend all night on a karaoke bus as my brother pretends to be ‘The Captain’ and we sing ‘Love Shack’ while rolling down Sixth Street.” I went and stood in line for a party with no idea it was going to be one of the best I’ve ever been lucky enough to get into.

That is one of the things that is hard to explain about SXSW to anyone who hasn’t gone: It is an event fueled by memorable individualized experiences and an astonishing amount of serendipity. Things just seem to happen at SXSW — unusual, crazy, delightful things — and I am not the only one who has a library of recountable encounters like these.

When SXSW was forced to cancel SXSW EDU (which takes place before SXSW) and its 2020 festival and conference a week before launch, the gut-punch impact was immediate.

The Austin economy, like many others right now, is struggling to figure out how to deal with the spread of COVID-19 and what size of events should be postponed or shut down. Musicians, gig-economy workers, venue owners, hotels, and all the tourist-economy side businesses that support SXSW will take an enormous financial hit, and it’s certain that some of them won’t survive until next year when SXSW plans to return.

SXSW itself had to lay off a third of its staff, people who work for the entire year to help program, schedule, and execute roughly 1,000 pieces of programming, not to mention handle the mind-boggling logistics of putting on the kinds of events that more than 280,000 people attended over a 10-day period in 2019, counting only official SXSW events.

SXSW is not alone, of course; it’s one of many tech-related events canceled this month, from the Game Developers Conference to Google I/O to E3. And in measuring the impact, most people will focus on the economic impact, the hundreds of millions of dollars lost to Austin’s economy, and the headaches involved in so many companies and their workers losing their opportunities to do business at SXSW.

But those measures don’t really take into account what makes SXSW special and what will be lost beyond money, jobs, and a year’s worth of programming work.

SXSW began in 1987 as a smallish music festival, added “film and multimedia” in the CD-ROM-littered year of 1994, and in the mid-2000s began to grow into something huge on the same post-Web 2.0 wave of technology that brought us smartphones and social media apps. Technology, it turned out, was the convergence glue that allowed SXSW to begin to un-silo its offerings, turning its three disparate legs (music, film, interactive) into something held together by the democratizing power of tech and the goal of sharing big-picture ideas over 10 days.

Fashion and design, video games, work-life balance, space travel, health care, politics, sports, and startups began to be major preoccupations of SXSW, so the pool of attendees grew and grew, connecting various industries together through attendees hoping to grow their business, get an idea off the ground, or just go to a bunch of panels featuring people who spoke their particular geek language. It never hurt that March in Austin usually means gorgeous weather and that while SXSW was exponentially growing toward 30,000–40,000 badged attendees a year, the city was also becoming a haven for barbecue, cheap and delicious breakfast tacos, and a strong tech industry. Many who came to Austin said, “I could live here!” and then did a year or two later. SXSW, whether it will admit it or not, has had a lot to do with Austin’s oft-bemoaned influx of Californians, turning the city into a smaller, slackier Silicon Valley offshoot with the benefit of no state income tax.

For many, the core SXSW experience isn’t days of sitting through dozens of panels every year or even getting one’s fill of up-and-coming music acts and world-premiere movie screenings. The experience has less to do with the mass of content and branded attractions and a lot more to do with who comes and what adding tens of thousands of creative-for-a-living people does to the town’s sense of possibility and scale, and to a shared sense of serendipity.

Even representation itself can inspire.

The reverberations from the cancellation are going to last months, probably years. Since it was announced, I have been giving a lot of thought to what the experience cost will be, and whether there’s any way to measure what happens when connections that would have happened simply don’t. I have wondered how many people who would have been inspired by an idea they heard on a panel or who would have had a chance encounter with an investor at SXSW’s Pitch event will simply not have that idea or not get that round of funding that would have made their concept take flight.

Are there criteria for measuring the innovation cost of not holding SXSW for a year? Of erasing, Thanos-like, the friendships that would have formed, the eureka moments not blooming in thousands of creative brains, the feelings of euphoria and delight that come from getting on a weird karaoke bus, now gone? Sometimes just getting to go up and tell someone you admire what their work has meant to you at SXSW is enough to help sustain your spirits till next year. When those moments never happen, what’s the psychic cost? What do our communities, online and off, lose? Will we ever know?

We know that real innovation is expensive, that it requires not only resources and smart people, but the right combination of ideas, timing, and risk. SXSW has always felt like a place where idealistic energy, creativity, and people willing to risk falling on their faces to do something new flowed like buttery queso from Austin’s many Tex-Mex restaurants. You’d see people attend a talk by someone like Martine Rothblatt or Biz Stone and come back a year or two later with their own startup or idea for some ambitious, paradigm-shifting website. Did they work out? Often not, but not every spark has to catch fire to matter.

Inspiration has been in abundance for decades at these SXSW events. SXSW has also inspired by providing a platform for more diverse panelists and featured speakers—an intentional effort by its organizers. Even representation itself can inspire.

For all of that inspiration to go dark, even temporarily, will have a massive, and terrifyingly intangible, consequence.

This is not to say that SXSW shouldn’t have been canceled. None of what makes SXSW special is worth putting lives in danger. But as we look back on what happened and what the tally will be on the world of tech and in the arts, let’s not forget that some costs won’t ever be measurable.

But make no mistake, there’s loss here — many phantom limbs of connections, experiences, and voices silenced.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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