Highasakite will travel more than 5,000 miles from Norway — nearly one-quarter of the way around the world — to perform three shows in Austin.
The Oslo-based indie-rock quintet makes music that resembles both Givers’ youthful exuberance and Of Monsters and Men’s dynamic swells. This year, SXSW tapped the group as an official act. Multi-instrumentalist Kristoffer Lo feels like it could be their time.
Lo and his bandmates have a shot at garnering some attention during their SXSW debut. They’ve watched other Scandinavian bands, including Of Monsters and Men, break out over the years in Austin. In order for them to do so, they have to spend thousands on their first ever trip to the United States.
“It’s pretty expensive to go over there with five in the band, one sound engineer, and the manager,” says Lo. “So what we do is we apply for funds everywhere we can. We try to get as much money as we can — otherwise it’s going to be really crashing our budget.”
Highasakite are among the 27 percent of artists surveyed that are traveling from outside the United States. Of those acts, 42 percent cited government grants as funding source. They hope that the Norwegian government will offset travel costs as a way to promote the country’s music. But they have to front their expenses first and will find out at a later date whether they will get reimbursed. Either way, the band thinks that the investment of their time, money, and energy will benefit their career.
“We really just want to show our music to as many people as possible, and the U.S. is a big nation,” says Lo. “Some new fans and good press coverage wouldn’t hurt either.”
The group has bookended their SXSW appearance with a pair of New York and Los Angeles gigs. Erik Selz, Highasakite’s booking agent, says that both SXSW and these dates will serve as a “first taste” that could lead to a full United States tour later this year. Although there are few guarantees for success, Lo says there was no debate when it came to Austin.
“There’s never been discussion of going or not,” Lo adds. “We just said yes and started booking the flights and then [plan to figure out the] economics later. We definitely want to do this and need to do this.”
Beyond their main goal of increased exposure, Highasakite hopes to potentially land festival gigs, gain radio exposure, and work with sponsors.
They’re not alone regarding sponsorships — 92 percent of artists surveyed were open to working with brands in some capacity. Nearly one-quarter indicated that it depended on the right brands. Certain artists wanted to work with socially conscious companies, while others didn’t want to collaborate with major corporations that clashed with their image. “We’re pretty open to anything that can help us reach more people without completely selling our souls,” says Nick Dooley, drummer for New York-based rock trio Flagland. “[For] the amount of money we’ve invested in our own music, three records completely self-funded, most money is welcome money.” Another band who asked to remain anonymous simply stated: “The less evil the better.”
Newport Folk Festival producer Jay Sweet understands the intersection more than most people in the music industry. When he’s not booking and running the historic Rhode Island festival, he brings together corporate and musical entities through music supervision, booking events, and countless other roles. For those willing, he thinks it’s a great environment for both sides to get acquainted.
“A lot of bands realize it’s not bad to have some kind of brand patronage, but it’s all about the right one,” says Sweet. “If you’re a band and you find a really great moonshine company or an up-and-coming vodka company or sunglass company…[that can become like] Pharrell Williams…with Lacoste.”
Partnerships between both can undoubtedly arise out of conversations during the festival. The good relationships often show up in licensing agreements, commercial syncs, or other advertisements following the conference. Santigold, Zola Jesus, and Kendrick Lamar (with Black Hippy) all played the Fader Fort last year. Months later, the three artists partook in their own Vitamin Water’s UNCAPPED shows with Fader. Passion Pit and Wildcat! Wildcat! are partnering with Taco Bell to create a “rockumentary” along with acclaimed filmmaker Sam Jones at SXSW in 2013.
But every year, egregious conflicts between brands and musicians happen. Those tend to, more often than not, become topics of conversation during SXSW. Last March, Josh Tillman debuted Father John Misty in Austin, playing several shows for media outlets such as Brooklyn Vegan and Aquarium Drunkard. But the performance that stood out the most took place inside PepsiCo’s gargantuan 56-foot Doritos “Jacked” vending machine on the corner of Red River and 5th Streets.
In between songs, Tillman berated the corporate sponsor for constructing a “golden calf” in downtown Austin. That followed his glib fake advertisement of a “Nautical Integration of Digital Deep Sea Marketing” panel on Twitter, calling out a blatant eyesore that drew its fair share of criticism.
He was far from the only artist that jabbed at overzealous corporate sponsors. The War on Drugs had a standout tweet during last year’s SXSW, writing: “Can’t wait to rock the shit out of the Tampax/Nyquil ‘Plug Into South By’ Showcase Slam Jam tonight at 4:39 am at Austin’s premiere Kinko’s!”
The absurd commercialization has reared its ugly head all throughout Austin. Homeless men and women were branded as WiFi hotspots. Nike installed basketball courts and skate parks for the festival to promote its brand. Two years ago, Fiat transformed the Fader Fort into a giant pop-up showroom while Odd Future, Matt & Kim, and other musicians served as temporary car salespeople. Nearly every company blankets artists with free merchandise in hopes that they’ll become walking billboards for their brands.
“We got the standard swag packages from different people,” says Van Buskirk. “I think one year we got Ray Bans and one year we got Converse. But no lasting relationships [came] that way.”
As more money flows into SXSW, it’s not always clear who benefits. Artists are paid more than in the past, but it’s a relatively miniscule amount. Media outlets and other companies can generate five to six figures in revenue. With each passing year, local hotels, venues, and restaurants all raise prices to get their piece of the pie.
“[It’s this] tinderbox waiting to explode,” says Van Buskirk. “I’ve talked to people about how the festival’s changed and whether it’s worth it for any number of parties. People who have done successful events in the past are realizing now that it costs more than it used to because it’s sort of proven to be a thing.”
Sweet, who will host an official showcase next week featuring Jason Isbell, The Lone Bellow, and other acts playing at Newport this summer, uses the Austin festival to validate his lineup and scout acts for future years. Last year’s festival, for instance, led to him booking Father John Misty and Shovels and Rope this year. “It’s not like I went down there to discover Of Monsters and Men [in 2012],” says Sweet, who booked the Icelandic folk outfit for last year’s Newport Folk Festival. “I went down there to see if what I’ve already heard is in actuality true.”
He thinks that an artist’s incidental breakout is similar to winning the lottery or getting discovered modeling on the streets of New York. In fact, he has only booked one band — River City Extension in 2011 — on the spot without any prior knowledge. “Anything can happen,” he says. “But that was once out of 10 years.”
As a result, he cautions against that approach: “I just don’t know how much magic comes out of just going down there and no one knowing you [when] you’re playing some thing on some corner. If you’re on your own and you haven’t earned your audience to be there, going down there makes no sense to me.”
Likewise, Kot thinks that artists should go when they’re ready. Beyond that, however, he’s not one for fairy tales. “The whole ‘needle in the haystack’ thing where bands come out of nowhere, it’s kind of a nice romantic story,” says Kot. “I don’t even think that was viable back in the early days. You still needed to develop a support network, and I think that’s a function of patience.”
There’s a fine line, however, between a romantic and optimistic outlook. Even with some support, most artists travel to SXSW without knowing whether a trip to Texas makes sense. If a band heads to Austin too early, they won’t make an impact. If a band goes too late, then a trip can be pointless. Van Buskirk says it’s all about the sweet spot.
“I’ve always thought that in recent years it’s been worth it for bands who are kind of on the cusp of getting big in the indie world, at least,” says Van Buskirk. “If you’re in that situation, then SXSW kind of still works.”
Zorch was the 100th band I watched at SXSW in 2011. It was the festival’s final Saturday when I stumbled across their set, minutes after witnessing Wanda Jackson’s Stubb’s performance.
The duo didn’t perform in Club DeVille. They played just outside the tiny venue. Alongside a row of Porta Potties in the parking lot, the duo thrashed through their gig in the sweltering Texas heat. During the set, they mentioned it was their 17th show in seven days. I was running on fumes, but they looked even more delirious.
Two years later, Traeger tells me that the duo ended up playing 20 total shows that year. “There is only so long in your life that you can just go for it like that, [but] Sam and I are definitely willing to just push it,” he says.
In 2013, Zorch will play at least a dozen shows. And the more I hear Traeger describe his SXSW plans, the more I’m convinced that I’m asking the wrong question about the festival’s merits.
While SXSW matters to many in the industry, its breakneck pace results in pennies on the dollar for artists that attend. The rewards rarely outweigh the time, money, and energy invested into the festival. But then again, that goes for most all musical efforts.
So is being a professional musician worth it? Now that depends on whom you ask.
Feature artwork by Steven Fiche.
Forty artists were surveyed for this story. Ten asked to remain anonymous, but here’s a list of the other 30 musicians: Battleme, Baywood, The Blank Tapes, Cheyenne Marie Mize, The Deer Tracks, Diarrhea Planet, Elephant Stone, Flagland, Futurebirds, Guardian Alien, Hannah Georgas, Hey Marseilles, The Hood Internet, Idiot Glee, Ivan & Alyosha, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, Jonny Fritz, Leogun, Little Tybee, Lovelife, Luella & The Sun, Poor Young Things, Reptile Youth, SHARK?, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Stone Foxes, Turbo Fruits, Whitehorse, Yellow Red Sparks, Zorch