SXSW Reflections

Missiles bad : Music good

A difficult week for sure.

I was fortunate to be able to have the space to process all of the information coming out during this last week about SXSW and their choice of sponsors. An instagram post from the artist Squirrel Flower alerted me to the fact that the US Military was now a major sponsor. Raytheon (RTX) Collins Aerospace and BAE systems were also involved in panels and being platformed.  60 artists pulled out. At first I decided that I would address the issue at the beginning of my talk and still deliver the rest of my information to artists (I like to help) but my body was telling me something else. I had a couple of days of stomach churning sleeplessness.

Everyone has their own situation and can choose to protest (or not) in their own way, for me, the weight and legacy of speaking at SXSW is a heavy one. I’ve spoken at 13 out of the last 15 years and aspired to speak there for five years before that, closely tied to the beginning of my journey as an educator/author/speaker. For those of you that don’t know, the selection process to speak is tough with around 3500 or more submissions for just 300 slots and, even though band pay is poor – speaker payments are non-existent.

I had a whole presentation ‘welcome to the music business you’re f*cked’ that I abandoned to start to try to explain why I wouldn’t be speaking and to find the place where I wanted to be.  I was concerned about anyone that was coming to my talk for information – I like to help artists not make things harder. My position as a recently inducted Fellow of In Place Of War (an organization that uses creativity to conquer conflict) made my decision concrete.

I’ve always tried to be inside the building, challenging the norm and being a part of the process – not outside throwing stones – so, I decided that I would still stand on stage in my allocated room (12ab) and say what I felt I had to.

I felt better and worse at the same time.

As my slides came together I tried to find confirmation of the US Army’s role – but, it seemed like it had been carefully camouflaged – with the elevation of the army to be a ‘Super Sponsor’ it meant that they weren’t included on the signage for ‘main sponsors’. Then I looked into Raytheon RTX – and found the CEO stating that “this current war is going to be great for business !”

Talk about a rug being pulled out from under your feet. I started to think about my responsibility for being involved in all of this then stopped myself – what would that look like? ‘I’m sorry I didn’t think to check for missile manufacturers and war profiteers before agreeing to speak at a music conference?’ and I started to think about the legacy, the idea of SXSW, the hope, the community it used to represent. Our shared decades….OUR SHARED DECADES.

I brought my son here, my students from SAE and Millikin University, met the mayor of Chicago and the mayor of Austin (way back) and shared chats, ideas, playlists and smiles with so many people who I might have otherwise lost touch with. I didn’t feel as though the legacy of SXSW was exclusively SXSW’s to do with whatever they wanted.

The idea to not present became inescapable.

Some more bands dropped out.

A few presenters too.

My slides started to take shape. I wanted to address SXSW as I might a friend of 2+ decades who had made a mistake. Not screaming and cut and dried, in the end one of my slides said


I wondered if my feed might be cut or the mic turned off?

I explained my relationship with In Place Of War and suggested that people follow a QR code to learn more. I chatted with people who I love and respect while I was inside the decision making process. And thank you so much to all of you!.

Tuesday, the night before, my ‘presentation’ Gov. Abbot tweeted to the bands who had pulled out “don’t come back”  – FFS man, educate yourself! Although the role of the music portion of SXSW has diminished over the last ten years, music built SXSW and the $400 million a year it generates for the city.

One of my last slides quoted SXSW disagreeing with the Gov, but then they went on to talk about valuing the dialog with military tech and and and……I don’t really see a dialog between myself and missile manufacturers anytime soon and, in any case, the point of leverage to have had any meaningful conversations might have been before you let them all into the building to do whatever the F they want? Not after?

After my event, (it went well, people applauded and said they appreciated the information and stance, a few walked out when I criticized the Governor, everyone appreciated the blueberry muffins ) I was at an event for Iceland where delegations from other countries shared stories and frustrations. None of this is as simple as it might seem – although yes, at its core it is, missiles bad, music good. But I got to witness some of the agony of people who had probably spent the last 12+ months acquiring funding, work permits and plane tickets. And working towards this moment. Sometimes it takes a minute to turn the oil tanker around.

Then the Irish bands pulled out

I can’t imagine what this was like for a new young band, indebted to a few organizations for the opportunity to mix, mingle, play, grow, to go home having not played. It is a small comfort to let them know that this isn’t the place anymore where bands get a break, it’s all hopes and dreams and aspirations.

For all of those caught in the middle of this, I ask you to give them some grace for them to deal. We were all blindsided all for sure, (thanks again Squirrel Flower) I was fortunate to have some space and time to have this decision develop like a slow motion polaroid on the kitchen table – not everyone had the luxury of that time or space.

My wish to speak to SXSW as a long time friend that made a mistake has now developed into more of a feeling of anger, I think you knew what you were doing and you decided you just didn’t care. That sucks honestly.  Your ill-conceived badly-timed email for me to ‘sign up for 2025’ cemented my feelings that you have lost the plot and it has jeopardized my willingness to attend 2025, I’m hoping you will do better.