“We are devastated to share this news with you,” SXSW organizers stated last week. “'The show must go on’ is in our DNA, and this is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place.”
The decision, made in tandem with city officials declaring a local disaster over the threat of coronavirus, has been regarded as unfortunate, but necessary. Festivals are the latest sector of the entertainment industry to suffer as a result of the potentially deadly virus spreading worldwide, and, though others canceled plans first, SXSW is widely seen as the tipping point. Officially postponed Tuesday evening from April to October, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was the next big event on the hot seat.
And, as summer festival season approaches, it won’t be the last.
“This is the beginning of the virus,” said New York-based entertainment attorney David Chidekel. “What’s happening is, people from a preventative standpoint are starting to go, ‘I’d better cancel this thing because if it goes wrong, we’re going to look like the greedy scumbags who didn’t do anything.’"
SXSW reported more than 400,000 attendees last year. Coachella, located in a California county that has reported multiple cases of the novel coronavirus, is expected to attract around 250,000. And Stagecoach, the country music festival following Coachella that was also pushed to October, has drawn more than 70,000.
Even if a city doesn’t declare a local disaster or limit the size of sanctioned gatherings, Chidekel said there is the threat of a “PR disaster” looming over large-scale events scheduled for the near future. From that standpoint, he continued, there isn’t much of a downside to canceling. If the outbreak gets worse, organizers will have been at the forefront of people trying to stop it; if it doesn’t, they’re still among “the people who prudently put [their] financial interests on the back burner to make people safe.”
The Washington Post reached out to several festivals scheduled for the next couple months. The two that responded, BottleRock Napa Valley and D.C.'s Broccoli City Festival, are both set for May and stated that, as of Tuesday, they plan to move forward while staying in communication with health officials.
The financial loss of scrapping a festival can be staggering, climbing to the millions. SXSW organizers confirmed to the Austin Chronicle that they did not have insurance covering cancellation triggered by “bacterial infections, communicable diseases, viruses and pandemics.” General policies don’t cover this sort of cause, Chidekel noted, adding that “they will going forward, I guarantee you.”
When it comes to paying performers, canceled music festivals might not have too much of a financial obligation. With the exception of headliners who might be paid upfront — “the one percent, so to speak,” Chidekel said — most artists sign contracts subject to a “force majeure” clause, which relieves the festival of performing its contractual obligations when the circumstances are beyond its control.
Tom Leavens, a Chicago-based attorney who served as general counsel at Pitchfork Media before its sale to Condé Nast, used to help coordinate the Pitchfork Music Festival and said force majeure clauses are “very standard” across industries. While the coronavirus outbreak itself might be enough to trigger the clause, Leavens said that government declarations of a local disaster, like in Austin, provide a safe harbor.
“It’s a stronger argument for [South By Southwest] to be able to make, if they’re prohibited from going ahead because of government action,” Leavens said. “Whatever licenses have been granted or taken away, whatever resources the city would otherwise provide, would be taken away … they can’t be faulted for that.”
There’s a case to be made for postponing a festival that parallels what likely went down with the latest James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” whose release producers delayed from April to November. The decision was costly, given the money spent on publicity thus far, but they are more likely to make it back in the fall, when theaters in China, the world’s second-largest film market, will hopefully be open again. Similarly, music fans might be more willing to attend Coachella in October.
While some artists have canceled or postponed tours, smaller music venues don’t seem to have been hit too hard yet. Audrey Fix Schaefer, communication director for I.M.P., which operates D.C. stages like 9:30 Club and the Anthem, stated that they have increased sanitation efforts but haven’t had to cancel any shows. But the situation is evolving, she added. It’s difficult to predict how it will progress.
“You’re going to be seeing more of this,” Chidekel said. “It’s going to affect sports, it’s going to affect — again, the James Bond thing, right? Shocking. This is the tip of the iceberg.”
This post has been updated to reflect Coachella’s postponement.