(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) May 07--
About 40 citizens showed up at City Hall on Tuesday for a 90-minute Austin Music Commission meeting in which the commission fielded concerns, suggestions, complaints and ideas as part of the City Council's ongoing South by Southwest post-event evaluation.
The attendees represented a variety of interests in the local music community, from event planners to business owners to soundman and musician Paul Minor, who played at the very first SXSW in 1987.
Minor got things started by reciting a five-point message he'd posted on Facebook in late March -- shortly after SXSW had concluded what was perhaps the most tumultuous event of its 28-year run. In addition to a fatal car crash on Red River Street and the arrest of a performer on riot charges, the festival dealt with problems such as massive Sixth Street crowds and vastly overbooked party RSVP lists.
Minor's first recommendation was to spread the festival out beyond its downtown core to help relieve congestion. He noted that SXSW once had used farther-afield venues before deciding a central concentration was preferable. "Manor Road, South Lamar, South First, Riverside and West Fifth all have clusters of clubs now that could be viable venues," Minor said, "especially with recent and future improvements to public and private transportation options."
Another key issue Minor addressed was the wide availability of free alcohol at corporate parties, a topic two other attendees pursued further. Mary Baird-Wilcock of event planning company the Simplifiers said she'd like to see SXSW become "less focused on a big, crazy booze town event and more focused on wellness." Danielle Thomas of Big Green House, an event planning and marketing firm that helped to connect event presenters with a beer sponsor, was more cautious about limits on free alcohol, noting it wasn't clear that some of the alcohol-related SXSW incidents stemmed from free alcohol or "from people who were served."
When board member Nakia Reynoso later directly asked Don Pitts, the city's music program manager, "You guys don't foresee that you're going to be cutting out free alcohol?", Pitts responded, "No." Bill Manno, special events commander for the Austin Police Department, concurred, saying, "I think trying to eliminate it completely would be the wrong thing."
A greater consensus seemed to form in discussions of RSVP lists, which have led to enormous lines forming outside venues for events that accepted exponentially more RSVPs than the venue could accommodate. Pitts' colleague Stephanie Bergara noted that early results from a post-event online survey showed strongly negative feedback about the RSVP process.
Baird-Wilcock added that the strategy can backfire, stranding guests outside venues where they would then post negatively on social media about the sponsor. She said she is increasingly inclined to suggest private parties to her clients rather than RSVP events. As for the city's potential actions, Pitts noted the possibility of treating RSVPs similar to advance ticket sales, which the fire code limits to 110 percent of a venue's legal capacity.
Fred Schmidt, owner of Wild About Music, spent several minutes bemoaning the change of culture on East Sixth Street, where his business is located. Where SXSW once brought overseas attendees who would order hundreds of dollars of merchandise to be shipped back home, he said, "now it's packs of teenagers or twentysomethings drunk ... taking selfies and asking to use the bathroom we don't have."
Schmidt acknowledged that Sixth Street's problems extend beyond SXSW, saying that the street "has truly gotten into one of those scary periods." Board chairman Brad Spies, who also works for SXSW, noted that "a lot of these are year-round issues that are exacerbated by the amount of people in town" for SXSW.
Jeff Mettler, manager of Home Slice Pizza, offered a different perspective near the end of the session, commenting that visitors would always tell him what they loved best about Austin was the people. But many Austinites now leave town during the event -- many renting out their homes for the week instead -- and Mettler thinks that affects the nature of the city during SXSW. "For those of you who live here," he implored, "please stay."
While no resolutions were made at Tuesday's meeting, the feedback will help inform the City Council's review process. "There is no easy answer," said Spies, suggesting that a more likely course of action "will be a lot of different, smaller fixes."
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