SXSW emphasizes safety this year

Thousands of people jam Sixth Street in downtown Austin during last year’s SXSW festival.
Thousands of people jam Sixth Street in downtown Austin during last year’s SXSW festival. AP

Snoop Dogg, J. Cole and TV on the Radio will be there, but what’s really getting attention at this year’s South by Southwest music festival is safety.

After a driver plowed through a barricade and into concertgoers during last year’s event, killing four people and injuring many others and leading to a spate of lawsuits, Austin officials and South by Southwest organizers looked into how to make this year’s festival safer.

With the 2015 gathering’s gaming and film portions already underway, SXSW’s centerpiece music events will kick off today under greater police scrutiny and with several new safety precautions in place. Among them are efforts to cut overcrowding at the hundreds of concerts, to reduce the amount of free alcohol given away and to move up the curfew in the self-described “Live Music Capital of the World.”

Even before last year’s crash, overcrowding concerns led to the cancellation of a Lady Gaga show on a gargantuan stage built to resemble a Doritos vending machine. Afterward, criticism only increased for the annual event, which started in 1987 as an obscure showcase for unsigned bands and is now derisively seen by some as a trendy spring break event run amok.

“I kind of think that on the ground, it’s not going to look different to most people,” co-founder Roland Swenson said of the changes implemented for this year’s event, where more than 2,100 bands are slated to perform.

“Except a lot of thought will have been put into everything that happens.”

Snoop Dogg, rapper Ludacris and singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham are among the biggest acts on the schedule so far. But SXSW is also known for hosting surprise shows by the likes of Kanye West and Prince.

One of the most significant changes is the 25 percent cut in permits issued for downtown “pop up” events, which tend to offer free drinks and attract people who may not be able to get into the festival’s main shows. There will also be more police working, brighter downtown lighting, tougher security checks and stricter line management during the event.

Some promoters and concert organizers have described a slower embrace of SXSW this year, though not all blame last year’s deadly incident or the new safety policies put in place this year.

“I think generally what we’ve seen is that there’s less people interested in doing stuff this year than in years previous,” said Bobby Garza, general manager of Transmission Events. “I’m not really sure why that is.”

Last year’s tragedy

Authorities have said that Rashad Owens, now 22, of Killeen, was driving drunk and fleeing police on March 13, 2014, when he drove a stolen car through a crowd of festivalgoers on Red River Street. Jamie West, 27, of Austin and Steven Craenmehr, 35, of the Netherlands, died at the scene.

Deandre Tatum, 18, of Fort Worth and Sandy Le, 26, of Austin died later.

More than 20 people were injured, including Tatum's girlfriend, Curtisha Davis of Fort Worth. She spent 10 days in an Austin hospital with a broken neck, arm and leg, among other injuries, and later recuperated in a rehabilitation clinic in Fort Worth.

Tatum was a 2013 graduate of Trimble Tech High School.

Owens was indicted on a charge of capital murder and 24 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He remains in the Travis County Jail with bail set at a total of $5.4 million. A trial date has not been set.

A report commissioned by the city found that access to free alcohol and overcrowded venues left Austin confronting “critical” public safety issues.

Swenson doesn’t expect smaller crowds after SXSW estimated that 376,000 people last year attended its full range of events. Doritos, one of the most visible brands at SXSW in recent years, isn’t returning, but Swenson said the overall number of major sponsors is about the same.

“Certainly the stakes are higher. We’re certainly being scrutinized by everyone, even more closely,” Swenson said.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

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