This Week with David Rovics
This Week with David Rovics
South By Southwest By Middle East

South By Southwest By Middle East

It turns out there are a lot of artists who don't want to play for exposure while children in Gaza are dying of it.

One of the US's biggest festivals, South By Southwest (SXSW) is happening now in Austin, Texas.  And it's having problems, as scores of artists and speakers billed at the festival are canceling their appearances last-minute.  

The idea of doing a festival gig for the exposure, it seems, is a lot less attractive when hundreds of thousands of starving children are simultaneously at risk of dying of exposure, in a genocidal military campaign being waged with weapons made by the corporate sponsors of the festival you're booked to play at.

There are a few different pieces of background information related to this story that seem worth highlighting. 

First of all, to put the United States into context broadly for any foreigners not familiar with the state of affairs here with concern to the military and the arts:  the US has roughly 1% of the arts funding that the European Union has, to contrast a couple of relevant political entities with each other.  Of the funding for the arts that exists in the US, most of it goes to military bands and other military-sponsored musical endeavors.

When I share these bits of information with people, I'm usually seeking to emphasize the dramatic overall difference in funding for the arts here in the US, compared with the part of the world where I do most of my touring, Europe.  The differences are very dramatic, most especially the fact that in Europe the gigs for a musician who knows which way is up involve a union scale guaranteed fee, whereas in the US this is rarely the case.

But just as relevant as these public policy differences between the EU and the US is the other thing -- the significance of arts spending by and within the US military.

The US military puts on concerts around the world for their soldiers -- to be cool, to maintain morale, for recruitment purposes -- with lots of different kinds of music.  This has been the case for a very long time.  They understand the power of music.  That's why there are things like national anthems, Army jingles, and USO tours.  That's why they're so active in giving or withholding access to their military machinery depending on whether they approve of the script.  And that's why they sponsor festivals.

This can be awkward, for certain socioeconomic and historical reasons, when it comes to festivals with the kind of progressive vibe that SXSW has long cultivated.  There are various aspects to this awkwardness.

On the purely economic front, if you're expecting your bands to be fine with Raytheon sponsorship, you might consider paying them.  The arms industry is well-known to be a very profitable one in the US.  Any Europeans reading this might be surprised to learn that this festival does not pay the vast majority of its performers.  In lieu of payment, they are given a "free" pass to attend the rest of the festival.  They are quite literally playing for exposure -- it's not a punch line to a joke between musicians, it's just a simple fact.

On the historical/cultural front, festivals like SXSW, with an indy rock kind of background, while today very mainstream indeed, are harkening back at least to some small degree to the free festival scene from the 1960's that was the inspiration for so many of the festivals that began their run sometime later.

The free festival scene in San Francisco and across the continent had a sort of long-hair, anti-war missionary quality to it.  The general belief was festivals should be free, performers should play for free, and the festivals should happen often, thereby undermining martial culture, American patriotism, and the genocidal American war in Vietnam.

As this kind of political and cultural orientation got commercialized and turned into products by the capitalists, it was all but inevitable that you'd eventually end up with festivals that cost a lot of money for most people to attend but where performers played for free, which were, rather than being any kind of statement against the militarist status quo, actually sponsored by the military.

While there's probably nothing surprising, under the circumstances of these various contradictions, for a festival like SXSW to have a cascade failure like this, it's worth noting how potentially devastating these moves could end up being for the future careers of some of these artists.  Especially for those who were planning on getting booked at other major festivals in the US in the near future, I'd expect they'll have problems.

Whether these principled artists canceling their appearances at SXSW know the extent of the obstacles they'll face after this point would seem to me to be a real matter of uncertainty, because we can be sure that if any of them ever recorded a song that focused on US military support for Israeli apartheid, the fact that they got booked to play in the first place was an oversight on the part of festival management.

Stay tuned for info on likely gigs in Amherst on March 30th and New Haven on March 31st!

Other upcoming tour plans include:

  • Australia in June/July — including Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne

  • Backyard Tour from Portland to San Francisco August 8-22

  • November in Scandinavia

  • March 2025 in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland

This Week with David Rovics
This Week with David Rovics
If I do an interview, whether as the interviewer or interviewee, or a livestream event, new song, audio essay or various other things, it’ll often go out as a podcast here.