SXSW cancelled due to coronavirus: so what next for music?


By now, you’ll surely have seen the news that the SXSW festival and conference has been cancelled by the City of Austin itself due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak – a decision that SXSW has promised to respect, while exploring its options to reschedule and/or hold some of the conference parts online. You may also have gasped at the news that the organisers do NOT have cancellation insurance covering “communicable diseases, viruses and pandemics”.

The cancellation was simultaneously not a surprise – given the current situation, a gathering of 400,000 people from across the world looked increasingly dicey – and a big shock, in terms of what it says about the stage we’ve reached in this outbreak. So what now? On the local level, a number of fundraising campaigns and initiatives are underway to help businesses and musicians in Austin itself: the Stand with Austin Fund is taking donations, while Banding Together ATX wants to put on 10 days of replacement showcases to help venues and artists for example.

Globally, however, the realisation is sinking in that if SXSW can be cancelled  barely a week before it was due to begin, pretty much every large-scale music festival and concert is under threat. Promoters will be carefully scanning their own insurance policies to judge where they stand – Billboard has a good piece on that – while Friday also saw confirmation of the speculation earlier last week that the Ultra Music Festival in Miami has also been ‘postponed’ – like SXSW, at the behest of the city itself.

From Glastonbury’s 50th anniversary festival in June down to stadium, arena and even concert-hall gigs – the French government had already banned indoor events with more than 5,000 people, but this weekend lowered that maximum number to 1,000 – thousands of music events will now be under threat. Conferences and awards too: all may have the question of whether to go ahead taken out of their hands by local governments and city authorities, depending how the efforts to at least delay the peak effects of the outbreak go.

Large companies are already encouraging staff to work from home if they’re able to – Apple is the latest example – with work-related travel (see again: conferences) also rapidly being blocked. But it’s the live music impact that may be most punishing for our industry: from the artists whose festival bookings were a crucial part of their revenues, to the grassroots venues who, even if they’re still open, may see cancelled gigs and low footfall.

Recommendations? Keeping things in perspective is obviously key: the main concern with coronavirus is not ‘how much will the music industry suffer?’, and that’s reflected in (for example) the official statements from SXSW and Ultra Music Festival accepting Austin and Miami’s decisions. In terms of practical steps, expect more fundraising efforts (and industry bodies exploring the potential for relief funding), while for individual artists the outbreak may encourage some digital improvisation: for example, exploring whether livestreams and tips economies can replace some of those lost live revenues.

The message to the music industry is the same as that to people generally: don’t panic. But SXSW’s cancellation does feel like an important spur for, this week, people to think hard across the industry: if 2020’s live music market is being completely up-ended by this outbreak and the efforts to tackle it, what do we need to do to ensure our artists, venues, promoters and others come through in a fit shape to thrive once the crisis has passed?

Written by: Stuart Dredge