The South by Southwest Music Conference is a great place for Minnesota bands to try to cash in on the buzz they've earned back home. Friday's cancellation of the 34th annual mega-fest in Austin, Texas, due to coronavirus fears has left this year's contingent of attendees feeling cash-strapped and heartbroken.
For Humbird, the Gully Boys, the Bad Man and Sean Tillmann's Heart Bones — all of whom were booked for several showcases during the mid-March music marathon — the cancellation not only stings emotionally, it will also hurt them financially.
Most also planned peripheral tour dates leading up to South by Southwest (SXSW) starting next weekend. Now, they're juggling the logistics of those other shows while trying to cut their losses on travel expenses to Austin.
"I'll be spending tomorrow figuring out if I can get refunds for plane tickets, etc., but I'm not super optimistic," said Siri Undlin, aka Humbird, who had three different SXSW-related shows booked for her first trip to Austin. "I was excited and honored to be selected as an official showcasing artist."
While she expects to lose a few hundred dollars — "obviously a blow to an independent artist" — Undlin was quick to put her losses into perspective: "I'm incredibly lucky to be healthy and doing what I love. I'm mostly concerned about the people out there who are dealing directly with the virus."
The Gully Boys were also making their first trip to SXSW and had four gigs lined up in Austin, plus three shows in cities along the way.
"We understand it's the public's ethical responsibility to do everything in its power to contain and prevent the outbreak," said drummer Nadi McGill, "[but] we still feel heartbroken to miss out on such an experience."
"We have yet to decide if we should still head down to play our shows along the way and a few of the unofficial showcases we had booked, but as of today, we are feeling defeated."
Members of the Bad Man already made the decision to cancel their other gigs on the way to SXSW, including one in Dallas with Gully Boys and another in Houston opening for their pal Tillmann's new group Heart Bones. They also had a pair of showcases to play in Austin.
"It's a hit to expectations knowing we won't be able to share in the madness we've heard SXSW entails," the band members said, calling the chance "an acknowledgment of all the work we've been putting in for the last three years."
The good news, for once, is that the Bad Man men aren't so good at planning ahead: "In a financial sense, procrastination paid off this time for us, as we didn't have any hotels booked, but some folks probably aren't as lucky to be behind the ball as us."
A SXSW vet who has performed there dozens of times under his Har Mar Superstar guise, Tillmann had planned the release of Heart Bones' new album around the music conference. His band also started a tour last month that was to culminate in Austin.
"The expense to us is just the lost promotional opportunity, which can't really be measured but I think in this case could have been pretty significant," Tillmann said.
Heart Bones co-vocalist Sabrina Ellis lives in Austin and he has many other friends there, so Tillmann was more concerned about the negative impact the cancellation will have on the Texas capital city's still vibrant but economically challenged music scene.
He and his bandmates are weighing options to go ahead and play a gig or two in Austin next week, if only to show support.
"It's been an outright scramble trying to figure things out," he said, "but we want to do what we can to help out and keep the venues in business."
The cancellation also came at a cost to 89.3 the Current, which just last week announced the lineup for its annual SXSW day party but then had to quickly sideline the shindig. It was a good one, too: Margo Price, M. Ward, Seratones, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Margaret Glaspy and more were to play for the St. Paul-based station on March 20 at Barracuda nightclub.
Students from the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul also had to drop their plans to head to Austin, including involvement in the SXSW Edu conference, an offshoot of the music fest.
"My students were so excited to perform and share their stories of transformation with other teachers and students," said instructor (and would-be chaperone) Scotty Herold. "I wanted to see the students shine."
As Tillmann recognized, though, SXSW is when Austin shines for the rest of the world. In a widely circulated Facebook post slamming city officials for their decision to shut down SXSW, veteran Austin concert promoter Graham Williams alerted, "The amount of venues that use that week of slammed bar sales to get them to the end of the year — especially after the slow winter months — will shock you. If Austin IS the music capital of the world, how is it going to treat its music business community, and what's the next step here?"
For music fans who've flocked to SXSW in years past, the next step might be to travel to Austin some other week in 2020. No, there won't be hundreds of great music options per night, but there's still plenty to choose from on an average night — and with no wristband lines, velvet ropes, Dorito's stages, oversized Pepsi banners or $400 two-star hotel rooms.
"I think we need to do what we can to keep the energy alive in Austin," Tillmann said.