Opportunity and financial backing rarely go hand in hand. For many artists, SXSW requires out-of-pocket expenses. Seventy-nine percent of the artists that were surveyed said they were self-funding their trip. Only 28 percent noted that they would receive financial support from a label, agency, or another source.
Every year, the festival lures doe-eyed rookies despite the slim odds of being discovered. As a result, some acts won’t entertain a SXSW appearance until it makes sense. Chicago soul outfit JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound waited five years before making their SXSW debut. Bassist Ben Taylor thinks that choice paid off.
“When we finally went in 2012, the timing was right,” Taylor says. “We had a good amount of buzz and got some good day party spots — always played to a crowd. We picked up some paying gigs and [were] in the right place at the right time when YouTube needed a band to fill in at one of their big webcast showcases.”
Roll Call Records founder Rob Abelow agrees that timing is everything. Without a clear-cut plan, he says that an artist could not only endure a “soul-taxing” experience playing to empty rooms, but they may also kill momentum in subsequent years. After watching past artists make mistakes, he says that his label, whose roster includes Army Navy, On an On, and Rubblebucket, will only fund bands that have a defined game plan.
“If it’s the right timing for a band, we really want them down there,” says Abelow. “[If] it’s something we’re telling them they need to do, then it’s an investment that we need to make happen. If there’s a band and I didn’t really think it made sense for them to be there and they want to go, then they’re kind of on their own.”
Abelow believes SXSW is ripe with opportunity. But for small independent labels with finite resources, it only makes sense to support artists when the benefits clearly outweigh the financial risks. The same goes for artists footing their own bill for food, travel, lodging, and equipment expenses.
“It’s not that the impact is completely empty; it’s better than nothing,” says Windish. “It’s just really a significant cost, [and] labels are putting up less money to support bands’ costs than ever before.”
Not every band goes to SXSW with discovery on their mind. For many artists, Austin isn’t even about career advancement. “It’s very simple,” music industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz says. “SXSW is not about music; it’s about the hang (and listening to music at the hang).”
Artists surveyed for this story said that “the hang,” which included seeing friends and discovering new music, was their second-highest priority for their trip to Austin. To put that into perspective, musicians said that scarfing tacos ranked above interviews, recording sessions, or participating in photo shoots.
For others, it’s simply a fun exercise. “I’d guess that a trip to the South in the middle of winter probably keeps most bands from killing each other,” says Kevin Diamond, a member of Brooklyn garage rockers Shark?. “Will we ‘make it big’ after SXSW this year? Nah. But we’re [going to] have fun anyway.”
Moreover, Diamond thinks that SXSW perpetuates a myth that the music industry is a “level playing field” where bands have a shot a getting discovered. He’s not entirely sold, but still thinks it’s worthwhile because it presents an opportunity for both a tour and a road trip to an enjoyable city.
“We all know that SXSW is kind of dumb; most bands that ‘break out’ at SXSW or CMJ or whatever are pretty much already “breaking out” before the festival,” says Diamond.
There’s some truth in what Diamond says, but many artists will never understand that. Abelow sees young artists head down to Austin every year awaiting their impending discovery. “I think there’s tons of bands, maybe more so now than ever, that go down there with no team and high hopes, thinking that this is the thing that’s going to change everything,” he says.
To offset SXSW costs, many bands, including 64 percent of those surveyed for this story, tour in and out of SXSW. With thousands vying for shows along major touring routes to and from Austin, Abelow says that such tours are becoming less valuable for musicians looking to fund their trips. That includes Brooklyn-based octet Rubblebucket, which needed to book a tour to support playing “unpaid gigs for a week” in Austin last year.
“[Rubblebucket had] to tour in and out to have it make any sense, but it’s difficult because there’s a lot of competition,” says Abelow. “Those shows tend to not do as well. But if you can get small, paid shows, [they] go a long way in making it possible.”
St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a Birmingham sextet that formed last year, are making their SXSW debut next week. Paul Janeway, the band’s bow-tied, blue-eyed soul man, and his band will play three shows on the way to Austin. Though they weren’t selected as an official act, he hopes they can make some noise by playing “as many shows as humanly possible” — be it onstage or on sidewalks.
“Probably part of my last paycheck from my job [will go] to SXSW,” says Janeway, who plans on quitting his bank teller job. “I couldn’t get the days off for SXSW, so I will be unemployed as of March 11th.”
The artists surveyed for this story will play an average of 11 tour dates heading in and out of SXSW. Once they arrive in Austin, musicians will perform an average of five to six shows, most of which are unpaid, short sets with hasty soundchecks and comically small load-in windows. At times, it can be an exhausting mess. “It’s become a fun game amongst fellow band losers where we brag about how many shows we manage to slave ourselves out to,” Jonny Fritz, a three-year SXSW veteran, quips.
But that title likely belongs to Zorch, an Austin-based electronic duo that has played 35 combined shows at SXSW between 2011 and 2012. With a dozen shows confirmed for this year’s festival, keyboardist and vocalist Zac Traeger says those have included everything from official SXSW showcases to an impromptu set in a “super grimy and huge” kitchen. He says, “Playing two shows in a day isn’t that terrible, until the seventh day.”
Zorch hasn’t received compensation outside their official showcase either year. Moreover, the festival takes away paid gigs from local bands throughout March. The duo, which normally gets paid for local performances, loses that opportunity for nearly 30 days. But minimal expenses and potential new audiences make it a low-risk affair for local bands. It’s an easy decision for Traeger, who understands the risks other artists often take.
“If you’re a touring band and your only show is a SXSW showcase that you have no idea where or when it’ll be at — and you have no label, agent representation, or a decent size blog or company hasn’t asked you to play their event — then SXSW is not worth coming to,” he says.
Despite the warnings, plenty of bands still pursue fleeting moments of discovery. As one musician who asked to remain anonymous said: “We are braving this maelstrom in order to realize our most precious creative dreams.”
“It is a long shot,” Kot adds. “You’re up against 2,000 bands.”
“The place kind of feels like the Internet.”
Tom Van Buskirk, one half of the synth-laden electronic duo Javelin, has mixed feelings about SXSW after playing the festival in 2010 and 2012.
“There are all these events everywhere and everybody’s talking about them and connecting them,” says Van Buskirk. “All this information just getting passed around and a lot of it is noise. Some of it jumps through as a clear signal and enough people pick up on it. But usually that stuff already has some traction or already is a band on people’s radar.”
In 2010, Van Buskirk and his collaborator George Langford attended their first SXSW and played a dozen shows. They had heard plenty about the festival, but didn’t really know what to expect. Van Buskirk says that the duo made an impression with some great shows, including sets at Stereogum and MOG’s parties, but others didn’t go well.
“It’s hard to play 12 great shows in four days,” says Van Buskirk. “It was a little bit overboard. I don’t know whether the benefits outweighed the cost on that one. It might have been the wrong approach.”
The duo played a much more manageable schedule at last year’s SXSW. While some positive things emerged from being in Austin, including introductions to fellow artists that eventually led to tours with Sleigh Bells and Warpaint, Van Buskirk doesn’t think they made a “huge dent” during either year.
Javelin’s new album, Hi Beams, arrived in stores earlier this month. The duo briefly considered a promotional blitzkrieg in Austin this year, but the paid gigs they hoped for didn’t pan out. They passed on the Austin chaos.
“We thought that this year our money would be better spent elsewhere,” says Van Buskirk. “You could trade the money you would spend going to South-by for a music video or three round-trip plane tickets in the future somewhere else.”
Javelin will devote their resources towards a release party, North American tour, merchandise, and a video. Windish, who used to book the duo, says this approach has become increasingly common. Many artists still want to venture to SXSW, but more and more are considering alternative plans.
“A lot of bands, and people that work with bands, are kind of reevaluating that now, and as time goes on they question the value of [SXSW] more and more,” says Windish. “It’s harder than ever to rise from the pack, and next year it will be harder than it is this coming year.”
It’s a valid argument considering the other bands that will be there. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who have previously headlined Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, will perform at select SXSW showcases. Established acts such as Vampire Weekend and the Flaming Lips will use the week to promote upcoming releases. The Zombies and Eric Burdon will shake off the dust that’s long settled over their careers.
“[SXSW has] become the repository of mainstream hype and the re-launch of old careers,” says Lefsetz. “They prey on wannabes who will get nothing in return for their trip.”
As more mainstream shows take place, it makes it harder for the majority of emerging acts to get noticed. In many cases, it makes sense for artists to tour elsewhere and play in front of a devoted audience rather than be Bruce Springsteen or Jay-Z’s afterthought. Van Buskirk says that one of Javelin’s 12 shows went head-to-head against the artist now known as Snoop Lion . That’s a battle the duo simply can’t win.
“Jay-Z appearing there means something; I just don’t think it’s good for a band that not many people have heard of and has two songs out that are getting attention from blogs,” says Windish.
As established artists inundate Austin, they inevitably detract from the potential impact of smaller acts. Last year, Jack White’s Third Man Records showcase at the Stages on Sixth was an absolute frenzy. Bill Murray, John C. Reilly, Norah Jones, James Mercer, Olivia Wilde, and Jason Sudeikis were all in attendance. Halfway across Austin, I watched Cymbals Eat Guitars, one of my favorite rock bands in recent years. Eight people were in the crowd.
But that doesn’t mean smaller bands can’t make noise — it’s just harder. “If you stick around 6th Street, it’s [corporate],” says Kot. “It’s nauseating. But there are still plenty of bands there that haven’t got any kind of big backing, that are doing interesting things. They’re playing at every hour.”
For the musicians that manage to be heard, it makes their case even more noteworthy. Kot recalls when the Alabama Shakes staked their claim at NPR Music’s showcase at Stubb’s last year.
“It’s one thing to talk about a band; it’s another thing to stand up in front of 3,000 people for the first time and deliver a set that kind of suggests they really can do it,” says Kot. “[When bands] play these bigger kind of shows, there’s something about that as well. The Alabama Shakes delivered on that level.”