August 12, 2020

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Local music industry waiting for virus answers after huge Texas festival pulls plug

A listening party at The Tallest Poppy in support of Begonia's latest album 'Fear'. Begonia is among several local artists that Manitoba Music was including in a provincial showcase at this year's South by Southwest. The annual gathering in Austin Texas was cancelled out of concerns over COVID-19. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

A listening party at The Tallest Poppy in support of Begonia's latest album 'Fear'. Begonia is among several local artists that Manitoba Music was including in a provincial showcase at this year's South by Southwest. The annual gathering in Austin Texas was cancelled out of concerns over COVID-19. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

As summer festival season approaches, people involved in Manitoba’s music scene are watching the coronavirus outbreak with bated breath following the cancellation of a major North American industry event in Texas last week.

On Friday, South by Southwest organizers announced they were cancelling the 10-day music, film and technology festival for the first time in 34 years at the direction of the City of Austin over public health concerns.

Sean McManus, executive director of Manitoba Music, worries the decision and growing fears about the spread of COVID-19 could cause other large festivals to pull the plug on events this year.

"We’re pretty nervous about it," McManus said. "Obviously, we are supportive of the public-health efforts and we want to make sure that people are safe, but I think that it does set a precedent where just based on media hype alone, there could be cancellations."

Manitoba Music had organized a provincial showcase at SXSW, which was scheduled to run March 13-22 featuring local artists Begonia, Boniface, Roman Clarke and Sebastian Gaskin, most of whom were set to attend the festival for the first time.

"It’s a lost opportunity," McManus said. "These kinds of opportunities, when you get to spend a week in close proximity with folks in the industry are really vital, even more vital, I think, for artists based in Manitoba and other places outside of the major centres."

The cancellation is also a financial hit for the organization, as Manitoba Music had already paid for promotional materials, invites and venue bookings related to the showcase along with travel costs for staff and artists. While McManus couldn't put a dollar figure on the total budget for presenting at SXSW, he says it's one of the organization's most expensive annual events.

"Because the demand to be there is quite high, the costs are quite high."

More than 417,000 people attended last year's festival and generated $355.9 million in economic impact for Austin.

On Friday, SXSW organizers told the Austin Chronicle that the festival's cancellation insurance did not include coverage for a disease outbreak, which could affect any costs Manitoba Music can recoup.

"That’s going to be very tricky for South by Southwest and it’s probably going to catch us on some stuff, as well," McManus said.

Manitoba Music has plans to send staff and artist delegations to major festivals in the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia this year, but the schedule remains uncertain as the COVID-19 situation evolves.

"It’s going to be a very unusual year, that’s for sure," McManus said.

Locally, festivals are taking a wait-and-see approach in the midst of summer lineup announcements.

"It’s something we’re thinking about; we’re optimistic it’s not going to be an issue but fully recognize it’s affecting festivals around the world," Angela Heck, acting executive director of the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, said during a Monday-morning media conference unveiling the festival's June lineup.

"We’ll just see how it goes by June."

True North Sports and Entertainment is collaborating on this year's jazz festival and Kevin Donnelly, the organization's senior vice-president of venues and entertainment, was at yesterday's media event. Donnelly told the Free Press that True North staff were meeting to discuss COVID-19 as it relates to events at Bell MTS Place and the Burton Cummings Theatre.

"We’re watching it, as is everybody," he said. "North America is in a different state than other parts of the world. I think in that regard, we’re going to follow rather than lead."

In a statement posted online Monday afternoon, True North said it would be increasing disinfection measures and cleaning schedules during events and encouraging staff and patrons who are ill to stay home.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival released its 2020 lineup last Thursday and is, for the time being, carrying on with preparations for the July 9-12 event at Birds Hill Provincial Park.

"We are preparing for the 2020 Winnipeg Folk Festival and as always, we are keeping the health and safety of our attendees a top priority," said a spokeswoman for the organization via email.

"As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, we will be working with health authorities to plan for a safe event for all."

— With files from Erin Lebar.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

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