CJLO Takes Austin, TX

CJLO has been heading down to the SXSW festival since 2016 with only the pandemic preventing us from going back. In the planning stages before the festival, there was a renewed sense of energy and excitement for us to platform CJLO to a higher stage. The excitement came to a stop when the team learned that this year the festival was being sponsored by the US Army and by Collins Aerospace (a subsidiary of RTX Corporation, previously known as Raytheon). With that knowledge, there was a shift in our hearts and soon everything began to shift around us as well. 

Squirrel Flower was one of the first artists to publicly boycott the festival, as seen in a statement she posted online. Soon, many other artists began to follow suit such as  Horse Jumper of Love, Scowl, They Are Gutting A Body of Water, Chalk, Sprints, Omni, Mamalarky, Subsonic Eye, Tomato Flower, and Frances Chang, adding up to about 80 in total. In fact, so many artists had dropped that our plans for a live broadcast from the festival got canceled. In response to the artists’ boycott and a tweet by Governor Greg Abbott, SXSW made a statement online explaining and upholding their choice of sponsors, while supporting the right to free speech for the protesting artists.

To say that the team felt conflicted about attending the festival is quite the understatement and it was challenging to know the right way to participate. There seemed to be a moral tightrope that all the SXSW stakeholders were walking with many different people coming to many different conclusions. In this next section, I’d like to share my experience through the performances and statements of three amazing artists who all had different interpretations and individualized decisions on how to partake in SXSW 2024.

The first part of the story starts on South Congress Avenue, or what the cool kids call SoCo, and this was where half the CJLO team stumbled upon an unofficial event called SXSJ or South by San Jose. Founded in the early days of the festival, the creators wanted to present a free alternative to the otherwise exclusive SXSW. When we entered, we were lucky enough to see innovative post-punk group cumgirl8. Not only did they put on a killer set, but they were also vocal about their disagreement with the festival’s sponsors. For fans who follow them, this would come as no surprise as the group publicly shared their thought process about SXSW online. They shared the famous meme of the two red buttons with the choices “Not go to SXSW as a statement” and “Go to SXSW and protest as a statement” demonstrating them being stuck in a damned if you do or damned if you don’t situation. In the end, they decided to boycott all the official showcases put on by the festival and only play at shows that were not directly affiliated with the sponsors. In their final statement on Instagram, cumgirl8 stated their position strongly but opted for compassion for those who may have chosen differently.  

Next, I was quite desperate to see English electronic musician Nabihah Iqbal who was set to play at the British Music Embassy, an official showcase at the Sheraton Hotel on Thursday night. At that point in time, the artist was receiving pressure from her fans online to boycott the festival. She had first stated that she wanted to continue with the official showcases and use her stage as a platform for the cause, citing that there were few artists of Pakistani descent present at the festival, to begin with. In less than two days, she made another announcement that she decided to boycott the festival and to align herself with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) position on the matter. She proved elegant, composed and strong in her own decision despite being subjected to what she described as “aggressive” and “mean” backlash in comments on her previous post. In the end, multiple artists from that specific British Music Embassy showcase ended up boycotting the event including Gruff Rhys, CURRLS, and Rachel Chinouriri. All of them shared their own personal reflections about their decisions online, with Rachel Chinouriri speaking about her own experiences with the aftereffects of war, being the daughter of parents who grew up as child soldiers. 

There was one more act that the team and I had wanted to see, Dry Cleaning, who interestingly did not drop from the aforementioned British Music Embassy event that Thursday night. They were still playing official showcases and were set to play at the Radio Day Stage on Friday. Halfway through their performance, singer Florence Shaw put down her mic and took out her reading glasses and notebook. On behalf of the band, she recited a speech on their position on what’s been happening at SXSW this year. She stated that the band wholeheartedly disagrees with having the US Army and Collins Aerospace as a sponsor, but spoke of how they wanted to use their position at the festival to speak their truth. Here is an excerpt from the speech as transcribed by KXT.org:

“We know that many people working the festival, as well as people attending the festival, also feel that these companies shouldn’t have any place on our planet, let alone at this festival. But perhaps they’re unable to say anything, or lack the platform to do so. We would hope that any station that’s keen and supportive enough of our band to broadcast our set today will include this in their broadcast. Thank you for listening.”

The band then quickly slid into their signature nonchalant indie rock, with Shaw’s soft-spoken flow floating over the heavy sounds. As an attendee, I felt very grateful to have witnessed the group’s speech and I took in another interpretation of the larger issue at hand, comforted by their transparency and collectivist spirit. 

Feeling energized from Dry Cleaning’s performance the staff headed over to another unofficial showcase at rock venue The 13th Floor, where, much to my heart’s desire, we got to see none other than Nabihah Iqbal. Playing a set with just her and her guitarist/saxophonist, she brought her full London nightclub sound to this tiny bar in Austin. She too took the time to address the crowd on her position on the sponsors which was met with applause and when she ended the set with a cover of “A Forest” by The Cure, the audience was electric. 

I could never digest the idea that something as simple as performing or attending a concert could be supporting war or weapons technology. Musicians should not be placed in a moral dilemma when practicing and promoting their art and, much like Florence Shaw from Dry Cleaning said in her speech, many festival stakeholders don’t agree to having sponsors as they do this year. In my opinion, which I understand is only a composite of my learned knowledge, SXSW could still be a great place for promoting musicians and overall a positive experience for everyone involved. With the support, education, and transparency from the artists and stakeholders who bravely shared their opinions online, I feel strongly in this collective spirit that, moving forward, this festival can better reflect artists’ ethics and values, most importantly without the sponsorship from any army or weapons manufacturer. We will all be waiting to see what happens next year.

Lisa Rupnik is the head music director at CJLO and co-host of The Last Stop. She is also an avid record collector, a “no nonsense” film lover and feels that her personality can be best defined by her two favourite bands: YMO and Sparks