Why Your Band Hated Playing SXSW (and How To Make It Better Next Year)

SXSW Music Festival, Austin, TX

Right before my panel ‘How To Launch a Music Career From Scratch at SXSW last week,

I got a call from Forbes writer (and musician) Danny Ross to give my thoughts for his piece, “3 Reasons Why Indie Musicians are Over SXSW.” I was the balancing voice in what seemed to be a sea of disgruntled former SX musicians.

For the record, I’ve never played an official showcase at SXSW.  I’ve played quite a few unofficial showcases over the years and have spoken on a few official panels.  Technically, SXSW doesn’t allow you to play unofficial showcases if you get an official showcase — but everyone does it. (This year, however, bands coming from out of the country were much more cautious about doing it for fear of deportation).

If you’ve never been to SXSW it’s unlike any other music festival.

Hundreds of Austin venues of all sizes (coffee shops, bars, restaurants, small music venues, large music venues, BBQ joints and the convention center) host thousands of bands from around the world for a week in March.  Some of these venues are “official” (officially sanctioned by SXSW with their official sponsors) and some venues are “unofficial” which basically means they are not affiliated with SXSW corporate.  But oftentimes you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which is which other than the fact that badges or wristbands are required to enter official venues and anyone can enter the unofficial venues.

Bands typically play anywhere from 1 – 10 shows at various venues around town during the week (at official and unofficial venues).  There is also a conference portion of the festival which hosts panels and keynotes by the movers and shakers of the industry.

The best thing about getting an official showcase is that you get an artist wristband which enables you to attend all panels, keynotes, exhibit hall, the artist lounge and any official showcase.  Artists are given the option to receive a wristband (for every member of the band) or $250 total in cash.  I’ve never heard of an artist choosing the cash option (because that would be, frankly, idiotic).

There is a right way to do SXSW and a wrong way.

Most artists do it the wrong way their first couple times, get burned out and return home bitching about how SXSW has gotten too corporate and everything sucks — continuing the cycle of negativity that is ever so common in local music scenes around the country.

First off, let me just give you a tip: successful people don’t stew in negativity.

They don’t surround themselves with negative people. They don’t engage in unproductive bitching sessions. Successful people learn from setbacks. Successful people analyze how to make bad situations better the next time around.  Successful people surround themselves with positive people who inspire them, not depress them.

So, step one: stop bitching all the time.

The wrong way to do SXSW is to get 1-2 showcases, drive straight to Austin just before your showcase (with no preparation to get industry people at your shows) and leave right after, while sulking in your overpriced Airbnb at how you weren’t “discovered” at the almighty showcase which had horrible sound and 17 people in the bar. Then spending your only time off to go see your friends’ bands playing other shitty showcases so you can all commiserate later when you’re back home.

The Right Way To Do SXSW:

The right way to do SXSW is route a tour around it (if you can).  Line up as many showcases as possible and every moment you’re not performing you’re out networking (or having members of your team out networking).  What does networking mean?  It means, if you have an artist wristband (or badge) going to as many panels as you can to learn from the experts (while taking notes), chatting with the panelists afterwards (they all stay after to chat), exchanging business cards and meeting the other go-getters who showed up the panels as well.

Don’t think anything comes from attending the panels?  Well, two years ago I attended the ‘How To Get Music on NPR’ panel where the music programmers explained exactly what kind of music they want and how exactly they like to receive it.  Directly following the panel I walked up to the music director for ‘All Things Considered,’ handed her my CD with the tracks circled that fit her format (she JUST told us).  The following Wednesday my song was played on ‘All Things Considered’ for 14 million people. Boom.

The right way to do SXSW is getting out to as many other showcases of bands you have some kind of connection to but you aren’t close friends with.  Meet the people wearing badges who showed up.  Meet the other artists in the room.  Collect business cards. Strike up conversations in line at the food trucks.  RSVP (in advance) to every “party” with free food and go eat there.  (Follow @SXSWPartyList @rsvpster and @freeatSXSW)  You don’t have to spend much money on food if you do this right.

Spend plenty of time well in advance of SXSW inviting people out to your shows.

Which people? Well, first you need to define your objectives.  Do you want an agent?  Which agent?  A manager?  Which manager?  Why?  How about an attorney?  Who do you use for distribution?  Who is your PRO?  What venues do you want to play?  Which promoters do you want to get in with? Radio stations? Everyone is there. Make a list. Hunt down contact info for everyone and email them why you want them to come to your showcase.

The reason you had a shitty time at SXSW is only because you didn’t do it right.

Can you get “discovered?” Absolutely.  Everyone in the industry is in Austin.  And they’re going around checking out music just like everyone else.  Last year when I was walking around with a manager friend of mine we were desperate for some food during a torrential downpour.  We darted into a hotel and asked the front desk where we could eat and they pointed us to their penthouse restaurant.  When we got up there a fantastic singer/songwriter was performing for a listening audience.  We stopped and listened to him and my manager friend ended up working with him and less than a year later he got a publishing deal from this manager.  We didn’t even end up getting food!

And this past Saturday at an unofficial showcase I helped curate, Angie Keilhaur, who has been kicking ass on her own for the past few years touring non-stop and releasing records and music videos on her own was stopped by attorneys, managers and agents after her 30 minute acoustic set to discuss representation.

Discovery happens. But if it doesn’t, your trip is not a bust.

SXSW is about meeting people. It’s about seeing more music in a 5 day period than you thought was humanly possible.  It’s about learning from experts on panels.  It’s about eating BBQ.  It’s about drinking Lone Star and staying out too late.  It’s about getting crepes from a food truck at 3am.  It’s about running into people on the street.  It’s about starting beautiful relationships.  It’s about staying positive and making the best of the situation.

SXSW is an investment in your career.  You will take an immediate financial hit (as you do when making a record), but you never know how it’s going to pay off down the road.

Ari Herstand is the author of How To Make It in the New Music Business, a Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and the creator of the music biz advice blog Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter: @aristake

About The Author

Ari Herstand
Writer, Musician, Whiskey Drinker

Ari Herstand is the author of How To Make It in the New Music Business (Dec 2016 - Liveright / Norton). He has been a DIY musician for over 10 years, has performed over 600 shows around the world and released 4 studio albums and 2 live albums. He has had songs featured on multiple TV shows, commercials and films and has shared the stage with Ben Folds, Cake, Matt Nathanson, Joshua Radin, Eric Hutchinson, Milk Carton Kids and Ron Pope. He created the music business advice blog, Ari’s Take in the Spring of 2012 to help DIY musicians navigate the independent world of music. Herstand was born and raised in the Midwest and got his start in the Minneapolis music scene. He rose to prominence locally and consistently sold out the 800 capacity Varsity Theater. He became the go-to musician in the scene for music business advice before he moved to Los Angeles in the Summer of 2010. Currently residing in West Hollywood, Herstand still spends a good portion of his time on the road touring. When at home he splits his time writing music, writing articles, writing his book (out December 2016 with Norton Publishing), playing shows at the Hotel Cafe and acting in TV shows (see him in his co-star appearances on Mad Men, 2 Broke Girls, Aquarius, Transparent, The Fosters, and others)

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3 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Vail, CO

    Ari: please name ONE artist discovered at SXSW.

    Exactly.

    SXSW scams desperate smaller artists just like Sonicbids.

    • Avatar
      Read before commenting

      I believe he named two… someone didn’t read till the end #facepalm

  2. Avatar
    Neighborhood Douchebag

    It’s a lot of $$$ and there are so many other places where you can get noticed better. Your local scene, opening for a rising artist or just working your audience online are some ways to more cheaply grow without taking such a big hit.