Conference Confab: Helen Britton
Six Shooter Records' co-owner Helen Britton promoted two of South By Southwest 2012's biggest buzz bands. She discusses her overall conference strategies and how she adjusts to position bands from different genres with different audiences.
England ex-pat Helen Britton moved to Toronto looking for a job … any job. What she got was a kickass career plucking bands from musical obscurity, strategically placing them in front of industry bigwigs and riding the press wave across continents.
Helen Britton lives to find the musical diamonds in the rough. As co-owner of the Toronto-based label, Six Shooter Records, Britton is a tactical wizard when it comes to strategizing how to take bands from their mom’s basements to the top venues in the world. Moving up from a receptionist at Zomba Records—a label now housed under the Sony Music Entertainment umbrella—Britton joined the then-newborn Six Shooter label in 2003 with hopes of catapulting fledgling artists into the international spotlight. Today, Six Shooter divides its time between label and band management duties and maintains a roster of more than 15 artists, including the folksy duo Whitehorse and the JUNO Award-nominated electronic group, Shout Out Out Out Out.
Both bands and Britton had to gear up for South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, one of the largest music industry, film and interactive conferences in the country, where they hoped to connect with those who can take each band to the next level. It wouldn’t be easy. With more than 2,000 musical acts hailing from 55 countries playing the festival, standing out and capturing the attention of the powerhouses who can make deals happen can be damn near impossible. Britton says that thriving in a cut-throat environment like South By boils down to having a clear strategy for each group and using every possible avenue to get in front of the right people. Here’s how she does it.
Get In Media: For a project like SXSW, how far in advance do you start planning?
Helen Britton: The application to be considered for South By probably went in last summer. [The bands] were accepted in October. Hotels were booked in October, and then pretty soon after that, you start soliciting people for parties. That’s mostly people that you know who, in the past, have done parties. Maybe I know that they’re a fan of the band already, or I know that they do parties, and [I’m] trying to get in before everybody else gets in. It starts as soon as you get accepted, but then it really kind of ramps up in February up until [March] when really it’s all about SXSW promotion all the time.
GIM: With a festival like SXSW where you’re competing against other artists, as well as film and interactive events, how do you ensure that your band is getting substantial exposure?
HB: It’s about knowing who has the parties that were successful last year, figuring out who those contacts are, getting to them early because there are going to be certain parties that are always going to be popular, that will always be successful. There’s also trying to make sure you do your work on social media ahead of time and e-mailing. I find that the most important thing is to target: what do we want to achieve at SXSW? Are we doing it to get any booking agents? To meet some Australians or British people or a new label? …Who do we want to meet? Who do we want to invite? And individually, personally inviting all these people to all of their shows far enough ahead that they’re not too overwhelmed to read the e-mails, making sure that they have the tools they need to make the decisions about whether they want to come to the show, whether that be a link to a SoundCloud or some other kind of online [electronic press kit] or a bio or a little bit of a history or something like that. It requires a lot of upfront work, for sure. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the value.
GIM: You’ve managed multiple bands that have gone to SXSW. Do you have to figure out a different process for each band?
HB: It’s the same kind of process, but for each band, it needs to be tailored. For example, Shout Out Out Out Out, they’re an electronic band, so there are certain showcases that are more appropriate for them or afternoon parties where that’s the kind of music that’s played or late night after hours parties, things like that … Someone like Whitehorse, they’re more on the Americana side, so the important contacts to bring out to their show might be entirely different people. It just requires doing as much research but in a different genre, and then there’s crossover too. There might be blogs that might be interested in both of them … .
GIM: Other than extending targeted invites and ensuring that your band has a decent place to play, what goes into the promotional aspects before one of your bands plays a major festival?
HB: It’s definitely all the social media stuff, and most of the parties and showcases will have some kind of e-vite artwork, like a jpeg that can be shared on social media. They all have Facebook groups and all that kind of stuff … There are also posters that can be distributed, and there are street teams, and things like that that you can hire down there. [There’s also] carrying around flyers and making sure you give them to people you meet, that kind of thing.
GIM: Once the festival is going, what is your role as a manager?
HB: Definitely making sure everything runs smoothly, making sure everyone has what they need, that there’s no crisis and that everyone is in the right place at the right time, and everyone knows when their sound check is and all that kind of stuff. Being at the shows to see who’s there and to host people that you may have invited. At the end of the show, when someone has excitedly gone up to the band saying, “Oh my god, we love you, and I have a record label in the U.K. I want to talk to you,” being that person that the band can point to and say, “There’s my manager. Go and talk to them.” Then, you can kind of do the business for them as they load off the stage and that kind of thing, having CDs on you and business cards and then the follow up afterwards.
GIM: Looking at the number of bands that played SXSW 2012, obviously not everyone can break out. Can you predict ahead of time whether your band will be one of the few who does?
HB: It is very hard to know ahead of time if your band is going to be that one band that everyone picks up on during that festival … It certainly happened for Shout Out Out Out Out. I think it was the first CMJ [music festival in New York] they played, they were voted by some blog as the buzziest band of the festival. We couldn’t have predicted that going into it. We had no idea that was going to happen, and then there was one time at SXSW [in 2010 when the group won a spot on Magazine Q’s list of the 10 Best New Bands On Earth] … We didn’t do anything to make that happen … As much as you can try and work hard to want to be that band, it’s impossible to know if it’s going to happen, and if it does happen, is it because of something you’ve done or is it just random? … I’d like to think that the great performances and repeated performances and word of mouth is probably what makes that kind of thing happen. With so many bands like there are at SXSW, it is really hard to separate out and be that band … .
GIM: With it being so unpredictable, is it difficult to measure how well you’re doing as a manager?
HB: It can be, but if you’ve got a good product, and you’re doing all the work, and you’ve made contacts, and maybe it’s contacts you’ve had for years because you’ve been going back time and time again. You get to know those contacts well enough, and you might actually get them to agree to come to the show, and if the show is good, there’s a good chance something could happen, especially if you’re targeting the right kind of people … There was one year at South By when I met with five record labels that were interested in signing Shout Out Out Out Out, all at one SXSW. I had worked on those relationships, not all of them ahead of time. Some of them just came up there, but some of them I’d been corresponding with for a couple of months, and we were finally in the same place at the same time … I think if you do the work, there’s a good chance that something can come out of it, even if it’s a new contact that you still have to keep working on for a few more months … Some of the deals [may not] come to fruition necessarily, but at least you start the dialogue, you make the contact, maybe it turns out that it’s not actually the route you want to go or they want to go, but there’s a lot of business that can be done for sure.
GIM: After doing all of that work, where is the payoff and where are the challenges?
HB: The highlight for me is always the live show, in particular a successful live show. A full room, everyone enjoying it, and then just feeling at the end of that, that OK, this is going upwards. People are discovering the band and enjoying it and want to work with them. That’s definitely a high point, seeing it all come to fruition after all the work. Challenges? There are lots of challenging parts. There’s lots of administration involved in being a manager, which can be challenging, and certainly trying to get things going early on can be hard work. Sometimes, you have to knock on a lot of doors before someone opens one.
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