Dr. Stefan Williams, Chemical Engineer, United States Army, Ms. Cassandra Reilly, Deputy Product Manager, US Army, Dr. Thomas Zawodzniski, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for Electrical Energy Conversion and Storage, The University of Tennessee Oak Ridge Innovation Institute, and Mr. Eric South, Manager, Naval Surface Warfare Center participate in the “Future of Power: A Creative Discussion on Possibilities” panel at the Thompson Hotel during SXSW 2024 in Austin, TX on March 8th, 2024. (US Army Photo by Patrick Hunter)

WASHINGTON — The South By Southwest festival has decided to bar the military or defense industry to be a sponsor-level participant in the 2025 edition of the music and technology showcase, organizers announced today.

The move follows protests at the 2024 edition, which included the US Army as a “super sponsor” of the event, as well as visible participation from RTX subsidiary Collins.

In a statement published on the SXSW website, the organizers state that “After careful consideration, we are revising our sponsorship model. As a result, the US Army, and companies who engage in weapons manufacturing, will not be sponsors of SXSW 2025.”

It is unclear how the organizers will categorize “companies who engage in weapons manufacturing,” and whether that means, say, space companies who do work for the DoD would be barred from the show. It is also unclear if the military or defense firms can still exhibit at the event if they are below the “sponsor” level of participation. In response to a request for clarification, organizers repeated the statement and said that is “the only language we have on the subject.”

Army Futures Command spokesperson Lt. Col. Jamie Dobson told Breaking Defense the service does not believe it is fully banned from all future events and did not rule out the possibly of attending SXSW in some capacity next year.

“We appreciated the opportunity to join South by Southwest in 2024. With US Army Futures Command headquartered in Austin, we value any opportunity to join with our community to ignite discovery and make new connections,” Dobson subsequently wrote in a short statement. “The Army will continue to seek opportunities to meet technology innovators and leaders, explore new ideas and insights, and create dynamic industry partnerships because tomorrow is worth protecting.”

While best known as a music festival, over the last decade SXSW has become more and more of a technology showcase — with defense companies taking note. The first notable visit was in 2017, when Lockheed Martin brought a Sikorsky helicopter to the show, and defense presence has been regular ever since — particularly after the 2018 standup of Army Futures Command, which is based in Austin. Both the military and defense industry have viewed the show as a chance to talk with new tech vendors, as well as push the message that the military is open to innovation.

According to Defector, there were 28 events hosted throughout the 2024 SXSW that were marked as tied to the US military. Gen. James Rainey, the head of Futures Command, had a plum speaking spot at this year’s edition. In addition, the Pentagon had a central hub, which hosted a series of panels and events throughout the festival; SXSW’s site states that “For five days, the US Army and US Navy are bringing together creators, explorers, and doers from across the defense innovation ecosystem for an official SXSW House,” with one of the panels listed as “This Quantum **** is Real.”

While there was always some unease about the visibility of the defense industrial complex among some attendees, the issue exploded in a public way this year, with a number of musicians — Deadline reports over 80 acts — cancelling their performances to protest having defense contractor involvement in the show in light of the war in Gaza. That, in turn, triggered criticism from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott of those musicians.

In a March 12 response to Abbott, SXSW stated that “The defense industry has historically been a proving ground for many of the systems we rely on today. These institutions are often leaders in emerging technologies, and we believe it’s better to understand how their approach will impact our lives.

“The Army’s sponsorship is part of our commitment to bring forward ideas that shape our world. In regard to Collins Aerospace, they participated this year as a sponsor of two SXSW Pitch categories, giving entrepreneurs visibility and funding for potentially game-changing work,” the statement continued.

Still, it appears that, at least for the foreseeable future, the protests have had the desired effect.

UPDATED 6/26/24 at 6:25 pm to include a statement from the US Army.