Why Doesn't SXSW Hand Out Free Water?

Photo: Hemera

A reader named Shira Bannerman writes:

I just spent the week at SXSW, an indie music festival in Austin, TX, that attracted around 230,00 attendees. (Well, first it’s an interactive media and movie fest, but I only went for the music fest portion. I’d also specifically like to mention that my experience is only reflective of the free concerts, as I didn’t pay for a wristband and don’t know if that experience is much different.)

With all of the free giveaways –- food-related and swag –- one item that was especially difficult to come by was water. At some venues, there were coolers of Fizze Izze’s, PBR and Lone Star beers, coffee drinks, and ice cream, but there was hardly ever any water. Most venues made you empty a water bottle before entering (a practice that makes sense to me since bars don’t want to get into trouble for hidden alcoholic beverages), but there was hardly ever water for refills on the inner side of the fence. One venue (Cheer Up Charlie’s) forced you to leave your empty water bottle outside (a practice I don’t understand). And another venue (Fader Fort) made you empty your water bottle, and then choose between waiting in line for a bottle of water or a beer/liquor drink. The bartenders would not give you both at the same time, so if you wanted to hydrate while drinking your alcoholic beverages underneath that hot sun, you had to spend the time waiting in line for a drink again. It’s hard (if not impossible) for a concert-goer to choose free water (which should be free!) over free beer (which is not usually free). And, discounting what in our minds “should” be free, it’s hard for a 20-something concert-goer to pass up a free beer at any time.

My question is: Why would this ever be a sensible business model? How could putting up barriers to hydrating a drunk and sweating group of 230,000 benefit anybody? Certainly, all of the concert-goers, who had probably been drinking alcohol for most of the day and are consistently out in the hot Texas sun, could use water. I am surprised that I didn’t hear reports of dehydration or of SXSW-ers going to the hospital. Why wouldn’t the city of Austin or the concert hosts be incentivized to give us water –- only so that they wouldn’t have a sick and dehydrated crowd on their hands? And why didn’t Aquafina or Evian use the opportunity to promote their brand by giving out free water for advertising benefits? Who does it benefit to leave so many thirsty, but alcohol-loaded, young people at a city-wide festival? I’ve seen water tents and emergency personnel on-hand for other mass gatherings, like rallies. Why neglect a big, outdoor music festival?

My only thoughts:

  • From what I’ve read, beer is actually “optimal for rehydrating the body,” — even for athletes.
  • We need to know whether there actually were a lot of dehydrated people at the event. Maybe the beer worked out great.
  • I am not sure that water wants to be free any more than information wants to be free.
  • Even if something makes sense at the macro level, there is no guarantee it’ll get done on the micro level.

James Mayes

Noticed that at SXSWi last year, thought it was just the geeks who didn't need hydration! By the way, it's the same at the big music festivals in the UK. #fail.

WholeMealOfFood

From the beer vs water article:

"Half of the students were given a pint of beer after their exercise and half were given a pint of water. Garzon said the hydration affect on the beer drinkers was 'slightly better' than the sober group."

So the study concludes that there is a "slight" difference for relatively small amounts of beer and water. My guess is that SXSW attendees were drinking a little more than a pint, and that the conclusions of that study do not apply.

cackalacka

There are examples of festival events where lack of access to (affordable) potable water lead to riots (Woodstock '99.)

In any outdoor event, folks should be allowed to carry water, or at least fill their canteens. Full stop.

Not having been to SXSW, I can't vouch for that experience, but I have been to a lot of different festivals in different regions, with different crowd types, sizes, and promoter attitudes.

The first aid tent always seems to have more activity when the attendees ability to take care of their body's takes a back-seat to revenue.

Festivals that attempt to monetize every aspect of the concert goer's experience are playing with fire. Perhaps some organizers/promoters feel obliged to stretch this license, after all, if a riot breaks out or folks get hurt, well, they're just stupid drunk kids at a festival that got out of hand, right?

At least, that is how a sympathetic media is apt to spin it.

For a public showcase event that defines a community and makes a tremendous amount of money, water most certainly wants to be free.

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billb

SXSW is primarily an INDOOR event. It is spread amongst a hundred or so bars, clubs, restaurants, and other venues throughout downtown Austin. Most of the time spend outdoors is at the venues that have an outdoor stage, at a handful of tent venues set up in fields, and walking between shows at different venues.

The venues are controlled by their respective owners. Their paranoia regarding what to do with open containers is between them and the TABC. :)

PaddyD

I second this. SXSW is not an event like Woodstock or Austin City Limits (which does have several hydration stations and does allow people to bring their own water bottles). Outside the venues, you are not only (obviously) free to drink your own water, but there was plenty of free water to be had. During SXSWi, Groupon was at every other street corner handing out free water bottles and empanadas.

My one thought about the lack of water at the venues themselves: several of the venues are sponsored by breweries etc. from around the world, who are selling their beer/whathaveyou for cheap or giving it away for free. Since presumably the point of this is to get as many people as possible to try their products, it would be in the sponsors' best interests to make free water not readily available. Because concert-goers also tend to hop from venue to venue frequently anyway, it would consequently be in the venues' best interests to accommodate their sponsors.

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Seth

I have heard that the reason water bottles are emptied or confiscated at the entry to a venue is because they make good projectiles. Especially ones that can do a decent amount of harm to people. I know that I've seen many venues (concert or otherwise) only serve drinks in plastic bottles, where they do not allow you to keep the cap, or in a paper or plastic cup. I'm assuming they do not give you the cap for the bottle so that in case the bottle is thrown, it will, for the most part, empty itself while in the air, and/or on impact the bottle will flex and deform, lessening the impact.

As to why alternative methods of hydration aren't available, such as water fountains, I don't know. As mentioned earlier, I would imagine that the water bottling companies would jump at this opportunity, and setup water fountain stations, such as a large trailer or something. You could easily put many hundreds of gallons of water in a tank behind a truck and park it near a venue, using the truck as a source of electricity to cool the water.

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GavinW

Being a post athletics beer drinker and occasional all day beer drinker, the two situations are quite different. While I won't argue drinking a beer after athletics makes me feel more hydrated than drinking water (I can't notice any significant difference), I will say that sitting out in the sun all day and drinking 12 beer with no water versus 12 beer with water makes for a significant difference in how hydrated I feel during the day and the next morning.

Hank

You have to think the majority of attendants will not be smuggling contraband in a water container, nor using it as a weapon/projectile. Which means a minority (or threat) of a dangerous and irresponsible people forces a far larger group of well-behaved participants into suboptimal positions. So I guess my question is, does preventing people from being their own liquids to large area, well-populated events result in enough gains to continue the practice?

Mike

Wouldn't it make more sense to have asked the organizers at any of the venues you went to over the last week, than to ask the internet to speculate?

Rebecca

At Coachella (in the very hot Indio, CA Coachella Valley) they have a water bottle you can buy for $10 and have unlimited refills throughout the grounds. There were a number of refill places throughout the grounds, meaning if there was a line at one place there were others that didn't. For three days of unlimited water it was amazing!

Syam

I think the idea of hnviag a water cooler is definitely beneficial to all beer drinkers; hey try to benefit from water bottle sales as well maybe? Is it just the Oktoberfest tents that dont have water coolers or other Beer Festivals in general. Been to a few of them, the thought of water coolers never came up, think it would be a really good idea.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.

Caitlin

I think that water should be more accessible at the SXSW music festibal. After attending the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago and the Austin City Limits music festival in Austin, I know that water is a vital area that needs to be straightened out at SXSW. At the two festivals, water was sold for $2 and if you brought your own reusable water bottle, you could get free refills. Water was very affordable and most importantly, very accessible. I thought that this business model was smart because there is such a high demand for water that by having it at a fixed rate of 2 dollars, then you can ensure that anyone can buy a bottle of water or bring their own; it was also very easy to get water because there were so many water stations packed with a large supply of water. With SXSW, many people don't want to drink beer all day and not remember who they saw perform. Many people might just want some refreshing water. As the day goes on, the demand for water goes up since the concertgoers are out in the sun longer and are sweating profusely. The supply of water is sufficient at the festival, but that supply is not very accessible. This would lower the demand of water throughout the day and the amount of people who suffer from dehydration. I do not think it should be free because the goal of SXSW is to make a profit, and with all of the free shows, they try to make a profit as best as they can. By charging two dollars for water, SXSW could possibly make a profit, because the high demand of water would create a steady stream of revenue throughout the day. SXSW already does sell water at the bars, but they should try to create a separate water station for people who just want water; this would create shorter lines at the bar and the festival would meet the demands of the people easier. Do I think water should be more accessible at the festival? Yes. But should water be given out free? No, because the main goal of this festival as a firm is to make a profit.

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MeanOnSunday

Since alcohol is a diuretic it is going to make things worse if you are dehydrated. All American beers are over 4% alcohol, which is more than enough to have an effect. The rehydration article can be generously described as a creative interpretation of what the study actually showed. Of course providing free beer is likely to produce over-hydrated people, so the main adverse effect may be in the lines at the restroom.

Main economic reason for providing beer over water; drunk people spend more money.

There are legitimate reasons for banning/emptying containers and most concert venues I have attended do so. First, people throw stuff (the bar scene in the Blues Brothers comes to mind). Second, when venues that serve alcohol also allow entry to under 21s they have to keep the two strictly separated or risk large fines.

chuck

Cheer Up Charlies was forced by TABC to not allow water bottles in. We carry a mixed beverage permit. By law, the State of Texas prohibits individuals from entering a space that sells mixed beverages to bring any "liquids" in and prohibits any "liquids' from leaving the space. We actually did have lots of free water for our all ages crowd to drink. We also had plenty of free snacks.

Tamara. Owner. Cheer Up Charlies

Keep Austin Weird

Elementary, my dear Shira. Simply follow the money.

Howard

If Shira wilts in the hot Texas sun in mid-March, she should definitely avoid the Austin City Limits festival in September. SXSW temps were in the high seventies/low eighties except for the last weekend when the temps got to the mid to upper eighties. I'm guessing that most folks visiting from colder climes probably enjoyed spring weather.

myers

Um, they do have free water at Sxsw. In a state like Texas, not having water available everywhere is deadly. Everyone uses....Water Fountains. Sxsx is made of a bunch of snobs from The Coasts who consider a water fountain like breathing poor people's air. It's a cultural difference.
In the hot months, an outdoors active person can easily consume a gallon & 1/2 a day.
Sxsw is making water available in quantity, but users don't consider refilling a bottle as viable.
Locally Austin is proud of the quality of it's public water supply from hill country aquifers.

Joshua Northey

One interesting occurrence of this was at a concert I was at when I was 19. It was a blazing hot day and the concert was on the field of a baseball stadium with the only drinks a beer tent and H2O for $5/bottle. Needless to say few bought water and halfway through the show so many people were passing out the fire department made them stop and started hosing down the crowd with a fire hose (which was pretty fun/scary). Always surprised that doesn't happen more often.

Marty

Many venues I was at (including The Parish and The Mohawk off the top of my head) had 5 gallon coolers of water and plastic cups available day and night. It's been that way for as long as I can remember...

Natasha

What you suggested is exactly what happens for music festivals in Australia. There are taps and bubblers at music events so we can keep hydrated. Music festivals in Australia happen in the summer time where temperatures are often over 35 degrees c, fearing that it will hit 40 (100 degrees f) - so we really do need the water! Our water provider, Sydney Water, promotes its cheap drinkable water straight out of the tap at Sydney's large annual agricultural show, the Easter show. Plus Aussies like to drink a lot, even on hot days, so all the more important we're hydrated. I think it's an expectation, maybe even the law, that licenced venues provide free water as part of the responsible service of alcohol policy.