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What's the SXSW festival have to do with U.S. support of Israel's war in Gaza?


Thousands of musicians have descended on downtown Austin this week to play the South by Southwest festival. For more than 30 years, the festival has been a platform for some of the biggest established bands, as well as up and coming recording artists. But this year, dozens are boycotting over the festival's sponsorship by U.S. military contractors months into Israel's war in Gaza. Andrew Weber, from member station KUT reports.

ANDREW WEBER, BYLINE: Andy Bianculli of the Austin-based indie pop band Star Parks has seen successes at South by Southwest headlining official showcases, and it's been good for his career. But it slowly became too corporate for his taste, and it never paid well, so he was on the fence about playing it this year. This week he got off the fence.

ANDY BIANCULLI: How many times do people need to be burned to be like, well, why be associated with them? And then when you start getting involved with arms dealers, you're like, well, I don't want anything to do with any of these people. This is insane.

WEBER: The arms dealer in question, RTX, formerly Raytheon, one of its subsidiaries is an official partner of this year's festival, so is the U.S. Army. Last month, Austin activists launched a campaign to boycott the festival, arguing South By has cozied up to, quote, "war profiteers" and that RTX has supplied weapons to Israel for its war in Gaza. The boycott started quietly, but by Wednesday night, more than 80 musicians had dropped out of South By, quote, "in solidarity with Palestine."

Eric Braden of the punk outfit Big Bill had already made up his mind about ditching the festival this year. Last year, South By raised its wages for artists, but only after sustained protests. When he saw the campaign to boycott the festival this year, he signed on, marketing the band's shows as Anti-South By. For years, the festival has featured the CIA, the NSA and defense contractors on panels and in its programming during its tech portion. But he says nobody really ever talked about it.

ERIC BRADEN: I think there was kind of a turning point this year for me at least. It's not, like, the first year that they've had some unsavory partners. But I think sometimes putting pressure on people, making people feel uncomfortable is important.

WEBER: And there has been pressure, but not necessarily on the festival. Star Park's frontman Bianculli says he's talked with talent bookers at local clubs who are seeing an unintended impact.

BIANCULLI: They're scrambling to fill holes because everyone's dropping out.

WEBER: The protest also drew the attention of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who told artists the state was proud of its connections with defense contractors. Abbott said if artists didn't like it, they could leave the state. South By responded, saying it didn't agree with the governor, but that the defense industry has, quote, "historically been a proving ground for many of the systems we rely on today." That didn't sway the artists. Those boycotting plan to make some noise in downtown Austin this evening with a protest concert.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Weber in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.

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