Is Playing SXSW Worth It?
Posted on March 30, 2015
March 30, 2015 | by Jonathan Diener
If you listen to music or have the internet, there’s a good chance you are at least familiar with the music festival called South By Southwest. On paper, SXSW is a cesspool of the music industry elite meeting up in Austin, TX looking to sign the next big thing. To me, it’s an excuse for my overworked industry friends to avoid emails for a week and get wasted on free booze while accruing as much SWAG (stuff we all get, not THAT kind) as they can. I sat down at a classy restaurant (Cici’s Pizza Buffet) with my friends in the band, ANA, who told me about their experience driving from Flint, MI to Texas and back to be a part of this mess so we could find out the average band’s perspective.
About three weeks ago, ANA were given an offer to play a SXSW showcase. Having heard of its allure and praise for years, they immediately agreed to play it. I chimed in with my touring veteran bitterness explaining that there are hundreds of bands playing all over the city and it is very much a small fish, big pond situation. We shot ideas back and forth about playing shows on the way down and brainstormed how to make it worthwhile for them. The busy work schedule of the band members led them to make the unfortunate decision of driving straight to Austin from Michigan and back, considering most people in their twenties don’t have the luxury of taking abrupt vacation time from work. The guys were green and ready for adventure. They lucked out by playing a local show the night before and from ticket sales and merch, they made enough money to cover gas for the entire trip. It was the perfect situation and now money wouldn’t be a factor in whether their adventure was a story of success or failure.
The guys jumped into their Chevy Tahoe, full of gear and excitement of not knowing what would happen next. For the next 20 or so hours they drove through state after state until they reached Arkansas and noticed oil all over their trailer. It turns out their rear differential was leaking and had to be fixed to ensure the show could go on the next day. After asking several small town folks for help, they were informed that most of the businesses were closed because people partied too hard on St. Patrick’s Day the night prior. Something that could only happen in Arkansas to a band on tour. Four hours and $100 later, the guys fixed their vehicle, morale was at a standstill and the trip continued. Tomorrow was the big day and at 1:40pm they would be rocking the stage in front of the most important crowd of their lives.
Early the next day, ANA rolled up to the Dirty Dog Bar to load in, set up and see what all the hype was about. The harsh reality of the situation set in quickly when they were informed that their 1:40pm set time was moved over an hour back to 12:20pm, they were not getting paid, their show was not an official SXSW event so they wouldn’t get passes to see other shows and they had to be out of the venue by 5:30pm before the real show started that night. Their friends in town didn’t have enough of a heads up to get to the venue so the band ended up playing for about twenty people, including the other bands and bar staff while literally thousands of people were walking around the streets right outside. They didn’t sell any merch and actually gave away one CD. Their show’s headliner, Sid Wilson of Slipknot, also played to about a dozen people. If you’re not sitting at the cool kids table, or in this case, a big showcase, you’ll be struggling like they did.
This begs the question: Is playing SXSW worth it? I believe so, but under the right circumstances. The most important thing bands need to learn is that playing a show based on principle alone is not worth it. Saying you’ve done something versus having a worthwhile experience are two completely different beasts. There will always be a side stage at a major festival for smaller bands that are listed in barely legible print at the bottom of a flyer. You might not even be listed and your band’s existence may be implied in the, “plus many more!” section. Of course you should be appreciative to get such a cool opportunity based on namesake alone, but you should also know how to take advantage of the system and stick out if you choose to participate. Hand out as many stickers, CDs or creative things like flash drives to everyone walking on the street. Force them to remember you without being annoying and giving them something tangible and useful in return. If you don’t, you risk wasting your chance.
Playing in town during SXSW doesn’t mean you’re on the festival, just like a guy who appeared in the liner notes of a Metallica album didn’t actually produce the album. Remember that it’s OK to say no if it means saving money. You’re never locked into a show unless you sign a contract, so don’t lose hundreds of dollars because you feel bad. People seem to forget that money and morale are equally important in a band’s longevity. Save the money you would lose on touring and invest it into recording new material, a good publicist or just general online promotion. Build your own hype until you get offered a showcase full of bands you’re familiar with and blow that room away.