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.

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  1. James Mayes says:

    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.

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  2. WholeMealOfFood says:

    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.

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  3. cackalacka says:

    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 says:

      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. :)

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      • PaddyD says:

        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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  4. Seth says:

    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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  5. GavinW says:

    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.

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  6. Hank says:

    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?

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  7. Mike says:

    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?

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  8. Rebecca says:

    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!

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    • Syam says:

      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.

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