Is SXSW Worth It for Musicians? A Photo Tour of Austin’s Biggest Music Festival

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Is a trip to the annual South by Southwest festival worthwhile for musicians? Judging by the fact that over 2,000 official acts, representing 53 countries, played in over 111 Austin venues this past week, it seems that many artists would say “yes”.

Crowds of music fans at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Crowds of music fans at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

For many of them however, the trip may cost more than they directly earn in performance fees or music sales. So why do so many artists still keep coming? I decided to ask everyone I could find, from labels execs to local musicians, publicists to established acts, to see if they felt their own trips to SXSW paid off.

Although the official numbers aren’t in yet, it’s worth noting that this year’s SXSW festival appeared to see somewhat lower attendance than in recent years. A bartender at Buffalo Billiards, located on the main 6th Street drag said, “Last year, every single night we had complete buyouts [of the venue with] an open bar and a packed house. This year, we don’t have too many buyouts, and you don’t even need a badge to come and hear the music.”

The seeming reduction in attendance may be due to the lack of the big-name headliners: There was no Kanye, no Gaga or Springsteen. Some smaller but significant artists who are supporting major new releases, such as Hozier and George Ezra, also opted out of showing their faces at SXSW this year.

One early indicator of attendance could be found in the number of hotels that were not sold out this year. Vanessa Ferrer from Merch Cat reports that she was able to switch from a far off hotel on the outskirts of town to a room at the W hotel near the center of the festivities in the middle of SXSW week, a feat practically unheard of in recent years.

But if the attendance was slightly lower, you wouldn’t get a sense of it by looking on the crowds clogging up 6th Street. There is still the allure to Austin during SXSW, where it continues to feel like everyone you’d want to meet in the music industry has decided to descend on a single city for an entire week.

The 6th Street scene at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

It’s the kind of environment where you could find yourself standing in a line at a taco truck, only to discover you’ve been waiting next to the person you’ve been emailing for the last 6 months. And it’s still a festival where artists and executives alike can reap real benefits if they go about their trip in a smart way.

Legendary rockers The Zombies used SXSW to perform sneak previews of songs slated to appear on an upcoming release, playing at the Rolling Stone party, and Stubbs BBQ, where they performed to a packed crowd that included Bill Murray. I was there, taking photos for them, and they seemed to end up as one of this year’s buzz bands, making Rolling Stone‘s 50 best moments of SXSW list, and Billboard’s top acts too see.

The Zombies take the stage at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

The Zombies take the stage at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Trevor Gale, Senior Vice President of Writer-Publisher Relations at the performing-rights organization SESAC, and a 12-year veteran of SXSW, said: “It is the biggest music event of the year. SESAC pays for their whole team to go. It’s very important for us to meet everyone in person, network and show our support.  SESAC has nearly 100 affiliates and many writers and artist who are performing here.  So we need our whole team here to show our face and try and go to all the events.”

For record labels, a trip to SXSW is an opportunity to see countless new bands in one place, which can be an efficient and productive way to scout artists and make connections. But having a presence here comes at a real price for labels:  Jojo Gentry from MPress Records has been hosting a showcase for the past 9 years at SXSW, and in 2015 she saw an overall 30% increase in prices. Between hotel bookings, venue rentals, flights to the festival for her NYC-based team, free drinks and performances, the costs were significant.

Depending on the scale, a presence like this can easily run into the 5 digit range, even for a small label. But those costs don’t keep her away. “MPress Records has to have a presence here at SXSW and be part of the noise,” Gentry says. “For our artists, I think it’s a great resume builder to say you played SXSW.  Next year will be our 10th year anniversary at SXSW, so we want to plan something big.”

MPress Records has set up shop each and every year at SXSW for the past 9 years. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Melanie Rodriguez, who also works at MPress, and serves as a board member for Women in Music, says, “The financial cost to bands to come here is an issue.  Most showcases don’t pay the bands, and we even had some of the bands cancel because of financial strain. ”

Still, there are ways artists can wind up among the lucky few who don’t have to max out their credit cards to afford the trip. For instance, the Atlanta-based band Baby Baby won a competition put on by Mellow Mushroom Pizza. Baby Baby got a van, fuel and all their expenses paid. Promotional arrangements like these are not uncommon at South By.

Baby Baby perform at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Baby Baby perform at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Some indie acts, like Hollis Brown from Queens, NY helped offset the cost of bringing the whole band down to Texas by booking their own gigs in New Orleans and Houston on the way to Austin. They say the trip definitely paid off through an opportunity to play GQ‘s Jam in the Van, Rachel Ray’s Feedback House as well as an official showcase. Cindy Da Silva of TCI Artist Management was able to get one of them heard by a European record label, leading to the band’s signing, and an upcoming European tour.

Queens-based rock outfit Hollis Brown at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Queens-based rock outfit Hollis Brown perform at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Other bands, including England’s Et Tu Bruce, self-financed their trip. Travel alone cost them roughly 6,000 British pounds, or almost $9,000. Their drummer, Craig Bruce, said, “It is totally worth coming to SXSW. The last time we were here, in 2012, we booked 2 US tours.  My recommendation for bands that want to come here is to have a good manager and publicists.  This way you can get into all the right showcases and have the right people there, and an opportunity to meet the people you want to meet.”

Et Tu Bruce’s publicist, Fiona Bloom of The Bloom Effect, is a 22-year veteran of “South By”.  Her company charges bands $3000 for coverage at the event. She usually starts with a 2-month lead time to prepare for SXSW, although she has worked with Et Tu Bruce with just 3 weeks to plan. For that price tag, The Bloom Effect  books shows, gets the bands invited to parties, does introductions, promotions, press and visibility during SXSW, and follow ups afterward.

Et Tu Bruce perform at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

Et Tu Bruce perform at SXSW. Photos and story by Becky Yee.

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