Late changes to ticket pricing create confusion ahead of SXSW festival

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Confusion around pricing and concern about the Sydney South By Southwest festival’s impact on the wider events landscape in Australia have emerged as key issues ahead of the inaugural event, two days ahead of its launch on Sunday.

The NSW government is believed to have spent more than $12 million to host the festival’s first foray internationally since it was launched in Austin, Texas, in 1987. But key cultural and business figures have criticised the complicated cost structure for event access – which includes platinum and industry badges, wristbands, passes and rush-release tickets for movie screenings – and the hefty price tags.

South by Southwest annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival in Austin, Texas, is coming to Sydney for the first time.Credit: galinast

While the festival has been promoting headline guests including Chance the Rapper and Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, eager fans can’t see them or attend major individual events without purchasing a platinum or industry badge.

Platinum access starts at $1895, which includes everything from conference keynotes to film launches, VIP meet-ups and VIP networking invitations. Secondary access at $1295 provides access to industry-specific events, for tech, music, screen and gaming, as well as networking opportunities at the festival precinct at Darling Harbour and various inner-city venues around Chippendale.

“Cheaper to fly to Austin,” Matt Barrie, tech entrepreneur and chief executive of online freelance website Freelancer said. “Wonder if anyone bought a ticket?”

Chance the Rapper will reflect on 50 years of hip-hop at SXSW Sydney.Credit: AP

The ticketing structure for SXSW, which includes speakers from Silverchair’s Ben Gillies to filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, and performances from Ben Lee and Barkaa, is modelled on the one that operates at the Austin festival, according to organisers.

Festival wristbands for gaming, music and screen events are being sold for between $180 and $330. The cheapest tickets are $40 for one day access to the event’s expo. There are some free events being held at Tumbalong Park, featuring a range of musicians over the seven days of the festival.

On Wednesday, less than a week out from the event’s launch, SXSW started offering individual “rush” tickets for screen events for $25, after initially advising that a platinum pass or screen wristband would be required to attend. Festival organisers would not comment on how pre-sales for the event were going, but industry sources say sales have been underwhelming and tickets are being given away for free.

“A lot of consideration went into the cost of the badges, taking into account the offering, duration, the cost of SXSW in Austin and the cost of other industry conferences in Australia and beyond,” a SXSW spokesperson said. “SXSW Sydney is also longer (Sunday-Sunday) than many other conferences and across far more venues, from boats docked in Darling Harbour, through Haymarket, Ultimo and Chippendale up to the Lansdowne.”

The state government’s decision to fund the festival, via Destination NSW, for an overseas event brought to Sydney, has attracted ire from some local festival organisers.

The BIGSOUND 2018 conference where drummer Dave Grohl’s mum Virginia Hanlon Grohl spoke.

Kris Stewart, chief executive of the annual music conference BIGSOUND, which is in its 22nd year, says the scale of the state government’s investment was “potentially pretty disruptive to a lot of the partnerships and organisations that already exist, many of whom have been through some tough years”.

In 2022-23, BIGSOUND received $4 million worth of public funding from the Queensland government over four years.

Samuel Bright, who founded the CLIPPED Music Video Festival as part of Vivid Sydney, said: “SXSW has a great reputation, history and function in Austin, Texas.There is no doubt a number of good people working to get it off the ground here, and for artists or filmmakers selected to be part of it, they could get some value or prestige.

“However, it does feel unfair for local festivals, events and curators that Destination NSW invested so much by importing SXSW to ‘compete’ with rather than ‘boost’ or ‘cultivate’ the local event community, with many struggling to survive. Whether it’s games, technology, films or in our case music videos, imagine how many local Australian festivals catering to these specific sectors could have been supported to grow longer term and achieve these same goals.”

Richard Sowada, who runs the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, said “statement” events such as SXSW, Vivid, Melbourne’s Rising Festival and Hobart’s Dark Mofo imposed a “superstructure” on cultural festivals, rather than having them grow from the grassroots.

“If we have learnt anything from COVID it is festivals need to emerge from the ground up, like the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals, which have a strong local base and are not an imposed, obvious commercial venture like SXSW,” he said.

Janine Collins, the chair of Performance Space, which is celebrating its 40th year in the same week as SXSW, says the festival competes with existing arts companies and venues.

“It came as a huge surprise that Destination NSW was so willing to invest so much in a program of this scale,” she said.

Destination NSW declined to confirm the exact amount it has spent to bring South by Southwest here, saying it is commercial in confidence.

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