SXSW Considering Turning Austin Into The Olympic Village, Complete With 'Brand Equity'-Protecting 'Clean Zones'
from the the-worst-people-to-ask,-and-the-worst-answers-to-get dept
Whether you believe Austin’s SXSW to be a venerated institution or believe it’s outlived its usefulness, you probably believe the last thing it should do is morph into a many-tentacled IP monster a la the Olympics or the Super Bowl. And yet, that appears to be something those behind SXSW seem to be considering.
SXSW consulted with Populous, the design and planning committee that has worked with organizers for the Olympics, the World Cup and the Super Bowl in the past. Dan Solomon of Texas Monthly notes that most of the outrage aimed at this partnership has very little to do with impending IP ridiculousness and thuggery, but rather at the possibility that SXSW might have to relocate at some point in the future.
Immediately, local media seized on the idea that SXSW is implicitly threatening to move out of Austin if the massive changes suggested in the report regarding the way the city and the festival interact aren’t made. The Austin Business Journal ran with the headline “Festival overload could force SXSW to move away from Austin, report says,” while Culturemap Austin asked, “Bullying tactics or lack of options? SXSW says without changes it may leave Austin.”
But that’s not the biggest story here, says Solomon. He quotes SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson as saying its basically “unimaginable” that the conference would be held anywhere but Austin. It’s not the nearly-nonexistent threat of relocation. It’s the potential re-imagining of SXSW as a something more notable for its IP enforcement than for its many concerts and events.
The more disturbing recommendations are laid out in terms that wouldn’t look out of place in Philip K. Dick’s dystopias. Or Anthony Burgess’s, for that matter.
It recommends the creation of a “Legal Injunctive Zone,” or a “Clean Zone.” According to the report, the “Clean Zone” would be a perimeter around some part of the city that:
“protects the brand equity of SXSW and its sponsors but would be made to work with existing businesses and their interests so as to uphold sponsor values and private property rights—in return this may involve a financial exchange linked to the permit process that provides the City with additional funding for security and safety personnel.”
The report also recommends “soft searching” attendees for “forbidden items” — presumably anything not bearing a major sponsor’s logo — as well as busting up nearby events not officially sanctioned by the SXSW committee.
In order to ensure the profitability of SXSW, the city will have to abandon its equitable treatment of vendors and event organizers.
The current policy of the City with respect to the permitting process as ‘first come, first served’ and/or ‘must treat everyone equally’ appears to have become detrimental to event planning process and management of the key stakeholder interests. The SXSW event is one of the largest events in the world, and bespoke treatment is needed to facilitate a continuing safe event in Austin.
Note that the report conflates profitability and protection of sponsors’ interests with “safety.” It speaks highly of “brand equity” and uses these buzzwords to justify the deployment of tactics sure to land SXSW on the receiving end of First Amendment lawsuits.
“Clean Zone” ordinances tend to pop up in cities with one-time events like the Super Bowl or the All-Star Game, and their constitutionality is usually challenged quickly: The ACLU sued the city of New Orleans over theirs before the Super Bowl in 2013, resulting in a settlement that restored most of the rights that were restricted before the event. A federal lawsuit filed in Dallas was settled in 2012 after a man was cited by police for having a van with Best Buy logos on it within the Super Bowl clean zone.
The organizers may feel the current business model — one that allows non-SXSW entities to benefit from the influx of attendees without kicking back a portion of the revenue — is unsustainable in the long term. It may be, but the workarounds suggested here are much worse, especially in the long term.
“Clean zones” tend to end up in lawsuit settlements that are either late-breaking compromises, or months (or years) later cash payouts, as in Dallas. But the questions surrounding a SXSW clean zone would be harder to kick down the road, given that the event happens every year.
SXSW may be making more of an effort to protect its image and secure its legacy, but following these suggestions will only make the event more famous for the antics of its IP enforcers than for the concerts and conferences held under its name. It’s one thing when a once-in-a-decade or once-in-lifetime event puts a city under the control of “brand equity” martial law. It’s something else entirely when it’s year after year.