With South By Southwest canceled due to coronavirus, Tampa bands left in lurch

Some artists are still heading to Austin. Others, not so much.
Tampa's Fever Beam was scheduled to play South By Southwest 2020 before the festival was canceled due to concerns over coronavirus.
Tampa's Fever Beam was scheduled to play South By Southwest 2020 before the festival was canceled due to concerns over coronavirus. [ Robert Dennard ]
Published March 7, 2020|Updated March 7, 2020

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A little over 10 days from now, Tampa indie rock trio Fever Beam was planning to be in Austin, Texas, playing an official showcase at the South by Southwest music festival.

That’s not happening now.

“As of right now, they’re continuing on with their tour, going to Austin, and will do whatever shows don’t get cancelled,” said Randy Ojeda, co-founder of the band’s talent agency Cigar City Management. “But obviously this situation is changing daily.”

Never more so than on Friday, when South by Southwest canceled its 2020 edition due to fears over coronavirus, or COVID-19.

Related: Austin officials cancel South By Southwest festival

Like Miami’s Ultra Music Festival and Calle Ocho Music Festival, South By Southwest called off its March 13-22 festival, which typically draws an international crowd, after several high-profile companies and artists backed out.

Thousands of acts head to Austin every year during South By Southwest, and a few of them usually come from Tampa. Among those playing official showcases this year: Fever Beam, alt-pop duo the Young Something and rapper Gat$.

Fever Beam’s showcase was organized by Cigar City Management; it would have been the company’s third straight year hosting an official showcase. After spending six months planning the event, Ojeda said he started hearing Monday that some companies were talking about pulling out of the festival’s digital side, SXSW Interactive.

“As the week went on it became clear to everybody in the industry that SXSW would not happen as planned," Ojeda said in an email, "even as city officials doubled down on SXSW staying on track.”

Things hit a “critical mass” on Friday, Ojeda said. First came cancellation emails from events he’d RSVP’d to. By the afternoon, the city had made its announcement.

“Even if they had soldiered on, the festival would have been a shell of its usual self,” Ojeda said.

“I think it’s difficult to say right now if this is the right call or the wrong call for SXSW. There’s still so much we don’t know about coronavirus and the situation is changing every single day. I’m very disappointed, as so much went into the planning on our end and all of these bands worked really hard to get to the point in their career where they could be a SXSW Showcasing Artist. SXSW is something people dream about attending, so a lot of people are upset right now.”

In addition to the showcase, Cigar City Management was scheduled to co-host a party with Tampa’s Symphonic Distribution, which was sending a team to the festival.

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Other Tampa Bay acts, including Charles Irwin and They Hate Change, had booked unofficial shows in Austin with local promoters Swamp Sister. Speakers from Tampa Bay who had been booked to appear include John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hosptial, and Neil Brown, president of St. Petersburg’s Poynter Institute (which owns the Tampa Bay Times).

Unlike Ultra and South by Southwest, other major music festivals are going on as planned, including this weekend’s Wild Splash in Clearwater and Gasparilla Music Festival in Tampa. Both events are planning to place additional hand-wash and sanitation stations around the festival grounds.

Related: Amid coronavirus fears, Clearwater's Wild Splash adding hand-washing stations

St. Petersburg’s Reggae Rise Up festival, scheduled for March 20-22 has not yet been canceled, but “we are keeping a close eye on the situation and increasing our sanitation assets throughout the festival,” said spokesman Adam St. Simon.

Still, South by Southwest’s cancellation doesn’t bode well for events yet to come, Ojeda said.

“Nobody really gets paid for SXSW, but in fact many bands actually go into quite a bit of debt to book expensive travel and hotel arrangements, as well as clearing their touring schedule for the festival,” he said. “Unfortunately at this point a lot of these artists are in a position where money can’t be returned, flights and hotels can’t be cancelled, and they are trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

That said, he added: “I think those are questions everybody in every industry is asking right now. How long is this going to last? How far will it reach? And where’s the bottom?”

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