Yesterday, musicians playing SXSW this year received their contracts and noticed some disturbing verbiage that included “notify[ing] the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities” and threats to report to ICE anyone who happened to “adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase”:
Told Slant, a band from New York, tweeted that they had cancelled their appearance after reading the contract. Both SXSW officials and musician’s advocacy nonprofit the Future of Music Coalition say this is not new language, but in a Trumpist era of nightmarish immigration sweeps, such a threat takes on new meaning—particularly for any undocumented musicians living Stateside, who would effectively be forced from their homes if SXSW decided they were somehow harming its bottom line. (This is, remember, a festival that once was fine enough letting a tortilla chip corporation build a giant vending machine stage in the middle of Austin.)
SXSW CEO Roland Swenson responded to the initial outrage against this language, telling the Austin Chronicle rather glibly that it was out of context:
“All this stuff in there about getting deported and immigration – that’s just us telling them this could happen if you’re doing this other stuff. It’s not us saying we’re going to try and have you deported, it’s us warning them that if they violated the terms of the visa that got them here, that’s what could happen.”
Swenson dismisses the Told Slant controversy as a way for an artist to get publicity.
“I think that everybody has figured out that a quick way to get your name out there is to accuse us of conspiring with immigration authorities, but we’ve been on the right side of immigration issues,” Swenson said. “We’re doing a show with bands from the seven banned countries and we came out publicly against the immigration ban last month. I don’t know why this guy did this. He’s just confusing this very complicated subject.”
And yet, Austin is a sanctuary city and a supposed liberal oasis in Texas’s conservative folds, and so it would behoove SXSW as a company and brand to understand the sensitivities of bringing up ICE in a contract during a time when ICE is quite literally tearing people from their families.
At any rate, SXSW is being pressured to come up with a better response; today musicians and other artists have banded together in protest, signing a petition as well as an open letter which demands the festival rescind that language in artist contracts as well as issue an apology. Among the musicians who signed is Austin-based “musician and worker” Milo Royal, who pointed out larger issues attributed to SXSW:
“SXSW has directly contributed to growing gentrification in our city. SXSW is responsible for the ongoing destruction of families homes and businesses. Locals here who play music and directly contribute to the economy can no longer live here due to stagnant wages and rising rental costs. We are one of the largest growing cities but all of our PoC are getting forced out because this ongoing culture is unsustainable. ICE is targeting hard working people in Austin so this comes as a slap in the face to everyone that lives here when we are already vulnerable and the administration wants to make an example of us because we a sanctuary city.”
Other signees include Downtown Boys, Helado Negro, Priests, Zach de la Rocha, Chastity Belt, The Kominas and many others, mostly from the punk and indie scenes. As the Future of Music coalition, a musician’s advocacy nonprofit, points out in a great FAQ, it’s clear the language is truly about preserving SXSW’s profit margin.
Over the years, SXSW developed a robust tradition of unofficial parties and side events alongside the official events; today, some people go to the festival only to attend these parties. The easier it is to get the SXSW experience without paying for a badge, the less incentive there is to buy a badge, and badge sales are an important revenue source for the festival. Contractual language addressing this has reportedly become more forceful over time, though accounts vary on how strictly the policy has been enforced.
But to quote that same FAQ, it is certainly a “reckless and meanspirited” way to go about it.