By Jeffrey V. Smith
Any music fan that looks past what big record companies and mainstream media are spoon feeding the masses, likely knows about the music industry’s annual spring trek to Austin, TX known as South by Southwest (SXSW). But, to any musician, record label, publicist, talent buyer or business owner who has participated in the event, it’s much more than what you read in the previews and reviews.
Music blogs and websites endlessly rant and rave about the event while making myriad predictions, must-see lists and trumpeting newly discovered buzz-bands. Music rags of all types and sizes, and even non-music publications like People, US and Time, showcase the event and relay to the rest of the world what transpired. Major entertainment television shows, such as the Tonight Show, and cable programming created to exclusively deliver content about SXSW also add to the abundance of coverage. Even the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News devote a large amount of ink to the event. Everyone, it seems, wants to get in on the action and the number of media outlets in attendance grows annually.
The media attention, and the fact most anyone involved in the music industry is in attendance, helps turn what happens at SXSW into a map of the American music landscape for the remainder of the year. By now you’ve likely heard buzz about bands from this year’s event such as The Fratellis, Amy Winehouse, Bloc Party, The Good, the Bad and the Queen and Peter, Bjorn and John. Perhaps you’ve heard that Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello hosted a solo set that ultimately included Les Claypool, Slash, Perry Farrell and others or that Pete Townshend was a surprise guest during a showcase of up-and-coming fellow British musician Mika. If not, then you’re not paying attention.
It’s easy to understand how the 2007 festival that officially included over 1,400 emerging and world-renown acts in more than 70 venues along with a conference with speakers such as David Byrne, Pete Townshend and Iggy Pop attracts so much attention and a large number of attendees. Ultimately, however, SXSW is more than just experiencing future stars or legendary acts in a small, sweaty bar. To the bands and entrepreneurs who service the industry, writers and reporters who cover it and the venue owners who hope to book the next big thing, the event can help make or break a career.
This year, a handful of Colorado-based bands made the trip in hopes of being discovered, or at least having a good time amidst the musical chaos. The Photo Atlas, Hot IQs, Signal to Noise and Uncle Earl were all officially invited to participate in SXSW showcases this year as was former Denver-based act Apples in Stereo. Many more locals including 29th St. Disciples, Abinitio, Avision Red, Black Lamb, Cherry Bomb Suicide, Comstock Lie, DDC, Drag the River, Front Side Five, Gregory Alan Isakov & the Freight, Hemi Cuda, Hoss, Laylights, Lyin’ Bitch & the Restraining Orders, Machine Gun Blues, Moore, Angie Stevens, Tard, the Trampolines, Under the Drone, Valiomierda, Weather the Storm and Coles Whalen, made the trip to play unofficial sets at industry parties and other random settings during the event.
From the band’s perspective, doing SXSW is an ordeal. Austin’s infamous, bar-lined Sixth Street is closed to traffic for four days which makes finding parking and equipment load-in difficult at best. Official bands are paid very little while unofficial bands would be lucky to get a meal out of the gig. According to many acts, one of the worst things about playing the festival is doing just that. All but the biggest names, and sometimes even them, have sets in venues that are filled beyond capacity with an impossible number of acts to fill the available time. Bands are hustled on and off a stage barely large enough for a solo act as quickly as possible despite equipment being stacked in a corner with six other band’s gear and bouncer who cards you every time you pass by. It’s an ordeal to say the least. So, why do they do it and in increasingly larger numbers ever year?
According to Lyons-based musician KC Groves, who attended this year’s festival for the second time with her band Uncle Earl, “SXSW is the quintessential see and be seen scene.” She explained that for the band it is all about exposure no matter the conditions. “I know for us in particular, the purpose is to play in front of a different audience and hopefully in front of some industry folks,” Groves said. Other acts, such as Fort Collins’ Drag the River are more into having an “excuse to party down and see a lot of bands and miss more,” according to guitarist Jon Snodgrass.
Ultimately, bands hope to get something in return for their efforts such as getting the attention of a record company, radio station or journalist. Those results, however, may not be seen right away and bands have to live on the hope that they made an impression. It’s a gamble, but one that could really pay off in the long run. “I think with any showcase, the results are indirect and not immediate,” Groves said. “Many times, someone will see a showcase and years later, after keeping their eye on a band, either sign them or invite them to play a big festival or something like that. The music business requires so much tenacity, patience, and faith,” she added.
Things are a bit different for SXSW participants like Matt Fecher, an independent music promoter who debuts his Monolith festival at Red Rocks in September. To him, SXSW means “non-stop music, BBQ, friends and beer. It’s like Christmas for music people.” He helped organize an unofficial day party to help promote his new Colorado festival and boost the Denver music scene by showcasing a handful of local bands. “Our party started out as a way to give some Colorado bands an extra push,” Fecher said. “Then it turned into an all-day blowout with some of our favorite indie bands. There’s always a lot going on at SXSW, so anything you can do to make a show stand out helps.”
Having an event at SXSW, even if the scene is over-saturated with parties and showcases and an amazing number of musicians can really raise a band’s or region’s profile. Colorado’s indie scene has been well represented at the event in recent years thanks to local acts being invited or participating on their own and day parties thrown by Fecher and the Larimer Lounge among others. “Good things are already happening from SXSW this year,” Fecher explained. According to the promoter, Machine Gun Blues was invited to play an ASCAP/Sire Records showcase in Chicago directly due to their performance at his event. “Anytime you have every person from the music industry in one place, it’s always a benefit to Colorado to have a presence there. You’ll hear a lot now that Denver has a lot going on when you talk to people outside of Colorado. Every little bit helps,” he said. It also helps that local Colorado labels like Hometapes and Morning After Records are represented and send their acts to SXSW for exposure and to give props to the local music industry.
Beyond the music, “the main benefit of attending SXSW is maintaining and growing your relationships with other music folks,” Fecher explained. This is true for anyone involved in the music industry who attends the event. Mark Ross, founder and director of Rock the Earth, an environmental non-profit rooted in the music industry has found SXSW to be an “invaluable experience” for the past four years. “Not only does it give me an opportunity to check out the newest bands that might make for potential partners with our organization, but it also allows me to meet managers, publicists, media and other businesses connected to the industry who also might partner with Rock the Earth.” According to Ross, who calls the event a “music Mecca,” he gains at least one positive, beneficial relationship with each visit. “I’m optimistic that many good connections were made and relationships started at SXSW 2007,” he said. To the many people who attend, just one connection could become invaluable and makes the visit well worth any hassle or expense.
While SXSW continues to do its job of annually showcasing the best musicians from around the country and around the globe to American music fans and industry insiders, it’s also much more. It’s the best way to network and reach out to as many people as possible to help a career or business reach the next level. Simply put, for many it’s the most important thing they can do. For the rest, its simply the best music festival in the country.