AUSTIN (KXAN) — For years as South by Southwest has happened in Austin, so have a string of “unofficial” SXSW events. These events are often hosted by local businesses away from the downtown core where the bulk of the festival events happen. Despite the cancellation of SXSW 2020 on Friday amid concerns over COVID-19, this year’s unofficial SXSW events, as well as “alternative” SXSW events, appear to be gaining momentum.
The official festivities were supposed to begin Monday with SXSW EDU, the education conference. Then SXSW was to last from March 13-22. SXSW said on Friday that they are “exploring options to reschedule the event” and to provide a virtual SXSW experience for 2020 participants. As of this article, the details of how that virtual experience will work are still unclear.
Kick Butt Coffee in Austin has hosted unofficial SXSW events for the past 12 years, welcoming in musicians to play live on their stages. When the announcement came out that SXSW 2020 had been canceled, Kick Butt Coffee owner Thomas Gohring said, “my mouth dropped to the floor. “
“After a few minutes, I thought, ‘is this going to hurt us?'” he recalled.
Gohring said unofficial SXSW is as important to Austin live music venues as Black Friday is to retailers. He explained that currently, Kick Butt Coffee has needed to dip into savings to stay afloat, but was expecting the dollars generated through unofficial SXSW would carry his business through the summer.
“I’m guessing a lot of venues like ours had the same idea, like OK, ‘well they didn’t say everything is canceled, what really is canceled and what isn’t?'” Gohring recalled.
“And now there’s this groundswell of support for the unofficial South by,” he explained.
Members of the Austin and SXSW community have spent the days since the SXSW cancellation announcement trying to rally around the local workers and businesses who would be hurt most by the cancellation. According to a 2019 report, SXSW had an impact of more than $350 million on Austin’s economy. An economist who spoke with KXAN last week explained that many businesses make as much money during SXSW as they do in an entire quarter.
The Austin Community Foundation has launched a “Stand with Austin Fund” for donations to “individuals and small businesses most negatively impacted by the cancellation of SXSW and least able to recover on their own.” Local leaders made a video calling on Austinites to keep spending at Austin businesses and to donate to this fund.
A fundraiser called “Banding Together” was started by the Red River Cultural District to provide financial relief for artists venues and events within the district. By the time of this article, that fundraiser has garnered more than $11,600 in donations.
The T3 Agency in Austin has also raised more than $5,700 in an effort called South By South Best. A GoFundMe page for the effort says T3 is planning to give all this money away directly in “surprise tips and other creative ways to service workers, hospitality staff, bands, and others who are the backbone of SXSW.”
Austin-based company Wunderkreks planned to make 25,000 cookies for SXSW and has taken to social media to ask for the public’s help in not letting these cookies go to waste.
Dan Mesich, who runs the bar and helps book artists at Kick Butt Coffee, explained that without the official SXSW festival this year, the event planning and economic activity in Austin for unofficial SXSW is falling on the shoulders of local businesses.
“This year, I believe it is the first year I’ve ever been to where pretty much everyone that’s local is doing everything,” Mesich said. “Especially with a lot of the big corporate people and companies pulling out, that’s all that’s left is each other and to help each other and lift each other up.”
Mesich believes that people will still be looking to go to events in the coming weeks even though SXSW is canceled.
“The show must go on,” he said. “And you can’t live in fear, you have to keep doing things as smartly as you can.”
Mesich has 80 acts happening at his venue over the next 13 days (he was particularly excited about a band called Daikaiju who wears kabuki masks and sets their instruments on fire). He estimates that 80% of those acts will be local artists.
Gohring has a few words of advice for those who plan to attend the unofficial events at Kick Butt Coffee: “wash your hands, don’t touch your face, don’t shake other people’s hands and come see some great live music.”
Gohring expects Austinites to attend these unofficial events but also hopes to draw in some of the out-of-town visitors who intended to visit the official events.
Some SXSW registrants still heading to Austin
With a cancellation happening so close to the actual SXSW events, many people were not able to cancel their plans to travel to Austin or get a refund on their travels.
Elizabeth Garcia, a senior editor with But Why Tho? A Geek Community, found she was unable to cancel her flight or change it without incurring fees. Despite the SXSW cancellation, she is still planning to come to Austin.
Garcia writes TV and comic reviews and had been credentialed with a press pass to cover screenings at SXSW, which would have been the first major film festival she was credentialed for. With aspirations of applying to be a Rotten Tomatoes critic, she expected that writing at the SXSW Film Festival would help her odds.
Garcia said she was approved for press credentials in the summer of 2019, booked her flight to Austin in December, and was setting up interviews with directors right up until the announcement that SXSW had been canceled. She and some of her colleagues still decided to make the trip to Austin because it’s their understanding that some film screenings will still happen in Austin, just not under the official banner of SXSW.
She had questions about why SXSW was canceled in the first place, saying, “if this is truly about safety, they would have grounded travel, they would have canceled all of the other events in the area. While the ongoing crisis with the coronavirus is very scary, it makes me feel that this particular decision was made out of panic and not out of rationale.”
The decision to cancel SXSW will also impact Garcia’s finances. She was expecting to write 15 to 20 pieces at SXSW and now she expects she will only have the chance to write around five pieces. She feels she can’t afford to scrap this trip to Austin.
At this point, Garcia feels the present risk of COVID-19 is, “not severe enough for me to justify the loss of income, and unfortunately, that’s kind of the decisions I think myself and many people who are in similar roles as myself have to make.”
Plenty of people are organizing in Austin events just for people like Garcia who had every intention of attending SXSW or SXSW EDU. Local tech entrepreneurs spoke with KXAN last week about their plans to turn SXSW panel discussions into podcast episodes registrants can listen to.
Facebook groups discussing “Alt SXSW 2020” have cropped up as have groups looking to help vendors impacted by the cancellation of SXSW sell overstock items. Many on social media have also been sharing websites and Google Docs with compilations of alternative events. On social media, hashtags like #AltSXSW and #AltSXSWEDU have gained traction among registrants still looking to meet up and share ideas.