By Max Blau
Over the next 10 days, more than a quarter-million of motivated artists and industry personnel will descend upon Austin. New York musicians will speed 26 hours and 1,500 miles to Texas’s capital, while Los Angeles filmmakers will make the three-hour flight into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Some start-ups will walk to the festival, while other musicians will travel halfway around the globe. They all come for one purpose: the 27th annual South By Southwest.
The 10-day festival, which includes music, film, and interactive segments, unites credential-wearing hordes in a party-hopping, buzz-building extravaganza. Some registrants will partake in panel discussions, screen films, and perform songs. Many others will shake hands, drink free Lone Star tallboys, and devour the Ice Cream Man’s frozen treats by the dozen.
They will also spend money — something that’s transformed SXSW into a mammoth cash cow for the city of Austin. In 2013, the festival’s economic impact will likely surpass the $200 million mark, an upward trending number that SXSW Executive Director Mike Shea has compared to a “mom pencil[ing] your height on the kitchen door.” He’s got a point. Last year, the behemoth conference spurred a $190 million boon for Austin. In 2010 and 2011, the festival made $113 million and $167 million, respectively.
Most cities have to invest public funds to win major events such as the Olympics or World Cup. Atlanta, for instance, has proposed spending $300 million to build a new Falcons stadium in hopes of wooing the Super Bowl back to the city. Austin doesn’t have to worry about that as they host one of the most important industry events worldwide on an annual basis.
It’s impossible to miss that impact every March. Promotional flyers and vouchers litter the city. Sponsors market headphones, clothing, drinks, and an abundance of free Doritos. A marketing agency converted homeless men and women into WiFi transmitters, while buskers flood every street corner. Establishments from The Parish to Pita Pit host live performances and reap the profits.
Corporations strive to make indelible impressions on consumers with larger-than-life marketing activations that include car showrooms, six-story vending machine replicas, and trademarked basketball courts. Brand emblems cover every stage. Under these iconic logos, talented acts play their best, newest songs in the short amount of time they have. Some money trickles down to those artists. Most won’t receive a dime.
Nevertheless, thousands of musicians will travel thousands of miles despite SXSW’s woeful financial prospects. Most assume that the conference has other ancillary benefits like exposure and networking. But as more bands flood an already overcrowded conference, artists have questioned whether their money would be better spent elsewhere.
In some cases, that’s led to musicians pulling out of SXSW when other opportunities arose. Last year, Robert Ellis and Hey Rosetta! had showcases confirmed. Both acts changed their plans after lining up respective tours with the Drive-By Truckers and Gomez. A couple of artists booked for Paste’s showcases bowed out of the festival altogether when their finances fell through at the last minute.
As each year passes, festivalgoers increasingly debate the festival’s merits. As someone who has booked SXSW events and covered a wide spectrum of bands in Austin, it’s not hard to see how the festival’s grueling pace wears on artists. Hell, I even ran the marathon in 2011 as I saw 100 bands for an assignment with Paste. Some acts can gracefully maneuver the festival without breaking a sweat, while others shatter equipment in the middle of 6th Street.
SXSW does present artists an opportunity amidst its organized chaos. Often, however, the gamble doesn’t make sense when their money can be invested into a dedicated tour, merchandise, or other expenses that come with having a music career.
To find out how much the conference matters to artists, I asked 40 SXSW-bound musicians to take my “SXSurvey” — a questionnaire that asks them about their expectations, goals, finances, and other related factors. I also spoke in-depth with other artists and industry figures to hear their take on the 10-day marathon.
Is SXSW worth it? That depends on whom you ask.
SXSW first formed in 1986 after Roland Swenson, who worked for The Austin Chronicle, co-organized a festival with fellow alt-weekly staffers Louis Black and Nick Barbaro. The three organizers initially expected 150 people to attend in 1987. Around 700 showed up.
By the time Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot first went to the Austin conference three years later, SXSW was still a fledgling convention, with all its panels held at the Hyatt. But the important industry figures had started to show up regularly.
“It was [the] who’s who of music people,” says Kot. “Every major publicist, record company executives, talent scouts, booking agents…It was kind of cool, it was kind of intimate. It was a lot of face-to-face time with people you wouldn’t otherwise run into in the course of day-to-day events.”
Panels mattered more in those early years. Kot witnessed engaging and controversial discussions that included everyone from Ice-T to Public Enemy publicist Bill Adler. Imagine if Frank Ocean debated the relationship about marketing and sexuality or Chief Keef mused about gun violence in hip-hop culture. That’s what Kot saw and embraced in SXSW’s early days.
“The panels were invariably very well-attended and extremely lively,” he says. “You felt like you were in the middle of a very passionate debate about music…Back then there was a sense of real import into some of these discussions that were going on. A lot of the key players at the industry were actually in the room debating some of these issues.”
Kot thinks the corporate shift started once the New Music Seminar, an annual New York-based music conference, ended in 1995. The convention, which began in 1980, dominated the industry landscape in SXSW’s earliest years. Once it fell by the wayside, major record labels shifted focus and began promoting new releases in Austin. Captive audiences once focused solely on discovering emerging artists turned their ears elsewhere. Opportunities for smaller musicians waned as they played to smaller rooms with less attentive audiences while established bands stole the spotlight.
“A lot of bands who came there with the idea that they were going to get a shot and that somebody would notice them, they probably didn’t get what they were coming for,” says Kot.
Despite the diminishing returns, more artists joined the fray, with some acts such as John Mayer, Polyphonic Spree, and Hanson (yes, Hanson) getting “discovered.” In order to make an impact, musicians required industry professionals to support their efforts. Occasional SXSW trips by label employees and booking agents soon became required annual events. “Fifteen years ago, agents weren’t involved in the booking at all,” says Tom Windish, founder and president of The Windish Agency. “Back then, I didn’t even go to SXSW.”
Over the past five years, the conference has swelled in size. Twitter and Foursquare launched their platforms in Austin. Increasing amounts of celebrities attended film premieres. The music portion has doubled in size and even spawned a series of offshoot festivals such as 35 Denton, Savannah Stopover, and Orange You Glad Fest. SXSW not only flourished within Austin, it sprawled to other states. More importantly, the conference had embedded itself into three different industries — which would only ensure its continued growth.
Of the thousands of musicians to venture to “The Live Music Capital of the World,” more than 80 acts work with The Windish Agency — including Mercury Prize winners Alt-J, Toro Y Moi, The Thermals, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Some artists, including 37 percent of the acts surveyed for this story, will get paid for select events. Most will play free shows, but Windish doesn’t see that as a bad thing. As tour revenue spiked over the past decade, he thinks that a week of free shows can lead to increased draws in the long run.
“The reality is that the revenue for shows and the importance of live appearances in a band’s career has increased so much,” says Windish. “I don’t mind booking shows for free, particularly if they help propel a band to another level of popularity.”
Among The Windish Agency’s breakout acts last year were Japandroids and Grimes, who each played between four and six shows — some for free. Both Canadian acts ended up having career-defining years, which gained substantial momentum in Austin. Heading into last year’s SXSW, Windish says both bands had between 250 and 400 fans attending their shows. One year later, their respective draws range from 750 to 1,000 people.
This year, he says Icona Pop, Hundred Waters, and Guards could make similar strides. Those three have promising shows that include coveted slots on major media outlet parties such as Pitchfork and Paste, but it’s still a crapshoot that hinges on each individual act. “Is SXSW valuable to a new artist, and how many shows do I decide they should play?” he asks. “That depends on the artist.”
SXSW can catapult careers when the stars align. It’s something that happens for a select few artists every year. Windish remembers José González having a breakout SXSW in 2006. More recently, Odd Future had their coming-out party in 2011. Last March, the Alabama Shakes and The Lumineers captivated audiences.
Onto Entertainment’s Christen Greene helped guide The Lumineers through Austin’s bustling thoroughfares in 2012. The Denver trio managed to turn heads weeks before their self-titled debut arrived in stores. One year later, the band earned two Grammy nominations and now plays in several-thousand-capacity venues. Last year, they played in dive bars.
“There are many approaches as to how to manage [SXSW],” says Greene. “The most important thing to do is just temper your expectations in so much as to what you’ll get out of it as a band.”
While not every act can garner that much attention, Greene thinks that there are two methods for Austin-bound artists: going for broke in order to “get noticed” or selectively targeting the right shows and press opportunities.
That all-in approach not only goes for the performances, but for other opportunities that aren’t as obvious. Last year, The Lumineers lent a keyboard to Idle Warship during Paste’s showcase after the band showed up with no equipment following a communication breakdown. They didn’t have to assist members of Talib Kweli’s side-project, but the trio helped the publication out at the last second.
Given the concentration of industry movers and shakers all in one city, Greene says most acts can benefit in some capacity from a SXSW trip.
“Close to 70 or 75 percent of the music industry is there in Austin working that week,” she says. “By sheer proximity, it’s worth it to be around those folks.”
Sometimes it pays off. For instance, Kot caught The Lumineers after getting a last-minute tip from his friend. He didn’t notice the trio making noise before SXSW, but then he saw them perform at St. David’s Church.
“They sort of waded into the crowd and did this thing where they turned this very safe and quiet setting into a sort of a hootenanny,” says Kot. “They played unamplified, on acoustic instruments, and transformed this room into a big party, and it was impressive. I thought, ‘Here’s a band that’s going to do something.’”
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.”
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