It seems like a lifetime ago, but it’s only been two weeks since the city of Austin pulled the plug on this year’s South by Southwest due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
SXSW, which was scheduled to take place March 13-22, was in a unique position at the time, when cancelling major events seemed like mere caution, not the widespread mandate it’s become since the novel coronavirus evolved into a full-blown pandemic.
In the days following SXSW’s announcement, other festivals, sports leagues, museums, theme parks, and more events across the world shut down or suspended operations. Such measures have wreaked havoc on the global economy (the cancellation of SXSW cost Austin a reported $355 million) and there is little sign of improvement, as government officials here and abroad have reinforced the familiar chorus of “stay home.” Several states here have forbidden large public gatherings, and President Trump this week stated that no one should assemble in groups larger than 10 people.
Yet despite these daunting setbacks, a SXSW festival of sorts forged ahead.
It didn’t have the scale of the regular event or the official SXSW title, but a small group of artists and organizations created a patchwork, scaled-back experience of various events across Austin that was surprisingly optimistic.
SXSW was canceled just a week before it was scheduled to begin, which left many attendees wondering what to do with their flight and hotel reservations. Some had already arrived in Austin. Watching it all unfold gave Nick Huggins, a freelance CFO for startups, the idea for a side project: Stranded in Austin, a website designed as a resource for local business still powering through the COVID-19 outbreak and would-be SXSW attendees looking to make the most of their trip. The site went up a day after SXSW’s cancellation and features a rundown of all the SXSW adjacent events still taking place.
I decided to put together a resource for everyone who is still coming to Austin despite SXSW being canceled. The goal is to organize the community here and continue to support and promote local businesses and startups. Let me know what you think! https://t.co/5FxS01x29M pic.twitter.com/FnF9c8Rmiw
— Nick Huggins (@MrNickHuggins) March 7, 2020
“I wanted to give those people a platform to connect with each other and still have those valuable conversations,” says Huggins, who’s also the Austin chapter leader of the global travel community Travel Massive. “And, above all else, to continue to support the local Austin economy, which has taken a huge hit.”
Stranded In Austin also has a WhatsApp chat group for people interested in connecting and networking while in Austin.
“A lot of people in the group are, I’ll say, cautiously optimistic [about the COVID-19 outbreak],” says Huggins, who plans to keep the site running past SXSW as a general resource for Austin-related events. “Everyone’s taking the proper precautions, of course. But, the people that were here still wanted to get some value out of their trips.”
Several restaurants and events that had plans to stay open eventually did shut down, including Lucy’s 10th Annual Fried Chicken Revival and music showcase Utopia Sessions, but the New York City–based news site Grit Daily managed to complete its full week of programming with panel discussions and tech demos.
“We wanted to keep the spirit of South By going. And what that means is it’s about the community building,” says Andrew Rossow, cofounder and managing editor of Grit Daily. “It’s about ensuring that for those individuals, brands, and everybody that’s been part of the South By tradition still had somewhere to be, something to take part in. We don’t stop living. We do take caution, always. But we wanted to keep the community of Austin hopeful and happy.”
The healing power of music
The music scene at SXSW has always been one of the event’s driving factors. In 2019, SXSW’s music showcase was its most attended festival, more popular than film, interactive, gaming, and so forth. Even outside of officially sanctioned SXSW shows, it’s commonplace for musicians to perform in bars or even on sidewalks during the festival.
Australian artist San Mei had eight shows set up at SXSW before she and her crew got the call that the whole thing was being canceled.
“It wasn’t that bad yet—all the quarantine measures weren’t really in play. So we just came anyway,” Mei says. “We were like, We’ve got this cool Airbnb, we’ll just do some, like, stripped-back videos, get some really cool content, make the most of the situation.”
But as the number of COVID-19 cases began to escalate, and with mounting pressure on venues to close their doors, Mei soon found herself in Austin with no gigs. That is, until the owner of one of the venues that she was going to play but decided to close offered her a more personal gig.
“They were like, ‘Just come play at our house.’ They provided a back line, and we just put on a rock show for, like, five people that night,” Mei says. “I’m so happy we played this cool show and made friends and did what we came to do. We lugged all our gear from the other side of the world, so at least we got to use it once!”
That lemons-to-lemonade attitude is what’s driven many other musicians and artists to take their acts online in an attempt to connect with their fans. Sure, it’s a temporary fix to a severe issue that we don’t yet know the longterm ramifications of—industries across the board, including, film, music, hotels, restaurants, and so forth. are only beginning to feel the squeeze of COVID-19.
The return to the “old” SXSW vibe
Canceling SXSW dealt a devastating blow to Austin’s business and artistic community, but in some weird way, it also helped bring the scale back to a more personal size.
“People liked the smaller format—it felt more to them like what South By was years ago,” says Jennifer Bonine, CEO of AI development company PinkLion, who spoke at at Grit Daily’s event. “It created [a feeling] of getting back to its roots, which sometimes happens when you face challenges—it takes you back to what’s important.”