Is SXSW Really Worth It?

(#sxsw) The following guest article by ReverbNation cofounder and EVP of Music Industry Relations Lou Plaia takes a critical look

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 at SXSW and its relevance to musicians.  The ReverbNation platform is now used by more than one million artists, bands, managers, labels, venues, festivals, tours and music industry professionals.           

We all know that SXSW is one of the most important conferences in the music industry. With over 12,000 annual registrants and the highest revenue-producing event for Austin’s economy, it’s clear that those who are serious about their music careers are making the trek to Texas every March. What was once a regional artist showcase has now become a platform for musicians, filmmakers, tech start-ups and even corporate brands to make some noise and reach key influencers across industries and the media.

But has anyone stopped to think if it’s all really worth it? Last year, almost 2,000 bands were scheduled to perform—and that’s not counting the ones who weren’t officially registered. As SXSW continues to morph into a world-renowned phenomenon, the landscape is becoming increasingly oversaturated which begs the question as to whether or not the return is worth the investment. The answer, quite simply, is yes. But only if you are reasonable with what you expect your return to be.

Generally, three types of bands go to SXSW: those that are just starting out, those that have minor recognition, and those that are about to break or have already. Each tier – especially the guys who are deeply buried under the radar – needs to be realistic with what they want to get out of SXSW in order to make the most out their experience. If you’re looking to make industry inroads and you’re new to the scene, it’s probably best that you save your gas money and work on perfecting your product before hitting the festival. However, if you’re a small band looking to network with other bands and build your resume, SXSW is the perfect place to do that.  As anyone who 

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has ever been to the festival knows, SXSW is as much about networking as it is about discovering the next big thing, and it’s important that bands make as many contacts as they can while there. Forming alliances with fellow musicians can lead to touring opportunities that will help build your fan base. Making yourself known to industry folks is the first step in forming beneficial relationships, but don’t forget to follow up post-Austin and leverage all those new contacts!

As for the buzz bands, it’s most important that they perfect their product before conquering Austin. That means, they should be paying attention to how affective their music is to the people it has already been exposed to. Investors want a band with word of mouth value, so it’s important that you first focus on how your product is being received as opposed to how many people it has reached. Learn where and when your audience is engaged—routing a tour through Austin, prior to SXSW is a great way to do this—and be sure to leverage and expand on these moments. Bottom line: get your product right and nurture the fans you have already. There are lots of people who can help you expand your audience, and with a perfected product, you’re more likely to meet them while in Austin.

For the bands that have already made their mark, SXSW is a great place to establish your credibility and break away from the negative connotations associated with the music industry. An established artist who plays SXSW is not only demonstrating a commitment to the craft, but also an edge that is important within an overly-saturated industry.

SXSW can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, in that it can expose you to a large volume of the “right” people, and a curse in that it’s easy to get lost in the noise.  Essentially, if you know what you want to get out of the festival, and are both realistic and strategic about it, you’ll see why thousands of people flock to this music Mecca every year.

12 Responses

    • James

      Couldn’t you say this about any festival or gig? It’s the band or their manager that decides if a gig is worth it or not and it’s up to them to make sure that they make it a worthwhile thing

      In reality, this is a reflection of the music industry as a whole – most bands will end up wasting time and money at some point and many will break up, reform, etc.

      Also it’s important for each band to determine what set of criteria make any gig “worth it” and for them to make sure they do everything they can to meet those objectives

  1. alden

    I’ve basically concluded that Sxsw is genuinely a waste of time and money unless you have a serious following. Unless you’ve got an ongoing tour already that goes through Austin or you live really close (like San Antonio or Dallasd or something) this is going to be an super expensive and tough place to gig.

    It’s too crowded and there are way to many other bands to get noticed, plus this place is really expensive in terms of flights, transportation, and even couch surfing and food.

    I say skip it

    • Michael

      very correct sxsw is now just a wank fest. it’s basically past it’s prime – way past, but the wankers don’t know it yet. plus it’s a good excuse for some of the la music drones to get out of the smog and go to san antonio. m..

  2. Seth Keller

    Having been at various times over that last 16 years, I’d say SX’s really only worthwhile for bands that have a buzz or following going into the event. Even then, without multiple shows (at least four) artists will probably find themselves lost in the chaos unless they are the “it” artist going into the fest or playing at one of the much coveted daytime corporate-hipster parties. It’s not the “big break” it was, say, eight or 10 years ago when it was much smaller and artists actually got record deals from shows there and when getting a deal was a priority.

    If you’re an artist going for the experience or to put it on a résumé to say you did it, then go and have fun (if you can afford the trip). If it’s for any other reason, then you’ll probably be disappointed.

  3. @Bel_fatjacks

    Bel Ellis
    Is it TOO big now to serve its purpose?

  4. Sy

    Of course it’s not worth it. If you took all that time, mental energy and MONEY and spent it just doing what you do as a musician … the returns would be higher.

  5. Jason Miles

    It would be interesting to go back a few years and see which bands and artists are still relevant and have had real success since appearing at SWSX. I’m willing to bet that over 90% faded into oblivion. I’ve always said real talent is thin out there and there are very few artists that are truly unique enough to sustain careers

  6. REMatwork

    In 2011, a baby band is successful to the extent that it nurtures its fan base and interacts with it in a quality manner. Treat your fans well, and you will do okay. You treat your fans well by visiting the city in which they live and offering them a quality experience in that city, in between their day jobs. It is no way to treat a fan base to make them schlep all the way to Austin and pay outrageous prices for meals, travel and lodging. And as far as the people in Austin to see other bands that might see your band … don’t forget they’re there to see other bands. How big a fan if you are they going to become, really? You’re just as likely to roll into Des Moines or Sheboygan and pick up a couple of new fans that way.

  7. @DominiqueFricot

    Dominique Fricot

    I’m gonna forego reading that article and answer the question. Yes it is.

  8. RC Peters

    As an agency owner who resides in Austin, and is currently attending everything I can during by SXSW, I think it is a mandatory event for bands to be apart of. I think that if a band is attending from out of state, they should pick up every single possible gig they can. It is unbelievable the amount of official, and ‘unofficial’ parties going on. If you are new to the festival, just take into account there are over 2000 bands in town during the week, with live music starting at 12pm, going on all day and all night. One gig is not going to make you famous out here, however if you are stacking gigs, you chances of being heard by someone that counts is increased.

    My biggest beef with SX, is the ‘majors’ performing. It actually hurts the festival in my opinion, and it’s not what SX is about. When hungry indie bands are performing, and across the street is Foo Fighters, you think they are going to be as stoked about their SXSW showcase? Also, the Strokes are playing a massive show tonight, when Thursday is arguably one of the strongest nights for the festival.

    I think having bands do this during that week is rude, and takes advantage of the built in audience already in town. Foo Fighters and Strokes have no right performing during the festival which is and has always been about discovering new music.

  9. Marilee P

    This isn’t unique to SXSW — any gig that a band has, depending on a number of factors, can be a waste of time and money.

    Many tours end up losing money when not properly planned, and all bands and their management are responsible for making sure that every gig they agree to play is ultimately a good use of limited time and resources.

    I know that SXSW is going on right now so that’s why the topic but why didn’t Lou extend this to all gigs? Seems fishy to me since so many companies are competing with Reverbation right now that are heavily invested in SXSW