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Parks board to consider SXSW fair pay measure

Friday, June 23, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

A coalition of groups will rally on Monday at Austin City Hall to demand the city require fair pay standards in all future contracts with South by Southwest.

The 5 p.m. protest is being organized by local advocacy nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians, the Austin Federation of Musicians AFM Local 433 and United Musicians and Allied Workers. It will be held before a meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board.

At the meeting, the board is set to discuss Item 6, which was delayed in March to allow for the festival managers’ annual review. The draft resolution recommends that City Council direct the city manager, the Law Department and the Parks and Recreation Department to “ensure that any future contracts with SXSW guarantee fair pay for domestic and international artists performing at City of Austin parks, park facilities, and city-owned property.”

The draft resolution also recommends the city require changes to artist pay and compensation by SXSW before waiving any future fees at Vic Mathias Shores or other city-owned park facilities.

“Since SXSW launched in 1987, musicians have been the festival’s backbone and main draw,” read a Wednesday news release from United Musicians and Allied Workers. “Yet despite SXSW’s consistently growing profits and ever-expanding programming over the past 30+ years, the musicians performing at the festival continue to be exploited with low pay and high application fees.”

The coalition sharply criticized the festival’s compensation offer of a $250 one-time payment per act or free admission to the festival. (Solo artists receive $100 or admission.) It also noted that SXSW admits that few artists choose the financial compensation option.

“While SXSW has maintained these insultingly low wages since at least 2012, the festival has regularly increased its application fees,” read the news release. “For instance, in 2012 the fee was $40, and in 2023 it was $55 – a 37.5% increase. Even without accounting for skyrocketing inflation, these stagnant wages and growing fees have meant an actual decrease in wages for SXSW performers over the past decade.”

United Musicians and Allied Workers noted that Penske Media Corporation, which owns publications such as Rolling Stone, Variety and Billboard, purchased a majority stake in SXSW in 2021.

“Despite hundreds of millions of dollars generated by the festival – and the deep pockets of its new owners – SXSW has refused to negotiate with the artists demanding higher payments,” United Musicians and Allied Workers claimed in the news release. “Musicians deserve better. We invite our media partners to join us … as we work to hold SXSW accountable to pay the musicians upon whom they have built their brand.”

Michael Whellan, a SXSW representative, told the board in March that the festival is “aware of feedback related to artist compensation” and would evaluate the issue during its annual review process.

“(SXSW Music Festival) is really an opportunity for musicians to showcase their talents and engage and network with the media and with global and music industry professionals,” Whellan told the board. “This is not a consumer-driven event like Coachella or Lollapalooza, which is why so many bands opt for the artist’s wristband package. We concur that an examination of artist compensation is something to include in the review. And SXSW would like the opportunity to do so.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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