SXSW Music 2011: Was This Year's Festival Cursed?

A camera rig collapsed, a musician attacked a fan, police maced the crowd, and more: Has the conference gotten too big for its skinny jeans?

"Hey riot police, can we just play one song and then we'll promise we'll stop?"
–Sebastien Grainger, Death From Above 1979

When people talk about last year's SXSW, they think back to Bill Murray taking an impromptu turn as a bartender at a hipster bar on Austin's east side. And when they look back on this year's SXSW, they'll remember getting maced at the surprise Death From Above 1979 reunion show.

The talk in Austin is all about whether or not SXSW Music has gotten too big for its skinny jeans. The mayhem at the free Strokes show Thursday night was merely a precursor to several meltdowns and accidents in the days that followed. At a late show Friday, synth-pop act OMD had just come on stage when one of their camera rigs collapsed and injured four in the audience (SXSW said it hadn't known about the filming ahead of time).

There were some truly ugly moments, too, and I'm glad I didn't witness any of them in person. Ben Weasal, a singer from the punk band Screeching Weasal, punched a female audience member in the face (she had spit some kind of liquid at him) and fought against a female staff member before being ejected by security at their showcase at the Scoot Inn on Saturday night. (The Los Angeles Times has a thorough report on the incident, and a video can be seen here). Weasal apologized today, and the band canceled their next show in San Antonio.

At the Beauty Bar the same night, Death From Above 1979 played their first show in five years on a tiny back patio stage that abuts an alley. They had announced the show via Twitter two days earlier, and the venue had to stop letting people in an hour before they went on. Soon a crowd amassed in the adjoining alley, clamoring to see and hear the band through a chain link fence, and before long you had this:

I spoke with one of the staff there yesterday, who was on the other side of the fence trying to keep it upright, and he felt that while it was a dangerous situation, it had been overhyped a bit. "It's not as big of a deal as people are making it out to be," he told me. For one, shortly after the fence was knocked down, the crowd actually moved out of the way so that it could be put back up. The band got to finish their set after the crowd chilled, and no one was seriously injured. Yes, some police maced people, but some in the crowd were spitting on them, and the one person who was tasered had assaulted one of the police horses. "For next year," he told me, "we're building a brick wall."

But all of these mishaps and acts of violence and disorder (coupled with a rare, full "super moon" hanging over the whole affair) has many asking, was SXSW 2011 cursed?

The official SXSW response has been to blame the free and non-official events, which take place during the day, for attracting too many people (of the undesirable sort) and not managing crowds effectively. But the incidents this year all occurred at official SXSW showcases, and you only had to observe the line management at some of the more popular ones to see that "sanctioned" shows didn't necessarily mean that they were organized ones. Now SXSW officials say they going to try to limit the number of sound permits for free shows next year. It strikes me as a knee-jerk reaction and worse, an evasion of responsibility.

Sean O'Neal, writing for The Onion's A.V. Club, had some perspective on the issue: "Speaking as an Austinite who's been going to these things for 14 years, whether as a journalist, performing artist, or just a fan, I'll always remember SXSW 2011 as a sort of tipping point. But as to where it can possibly go from here, I don't think even those in charge know right now."

Unfortunately it looks as though those in charge are going to target the free shows, a much-needed opportunity for emerging artists at the festival to connect with fans and build buzz, which is a shame. It's all about the music, until it isn't.