Showcase Showdown: The Evolution of SXSW
The scale of South By Southwest has swelled dramatically over the years. And after 26 years, the conference that launches music careers necessitates a whole new strategy for breakout artists, Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW documentarian Alan Berg says
It’s a good day to be a rock star in Texas. Starting today, thousands of artists, hailing from more than 50 countries worldwide, descend on Austin for the South By Southwest music festival. The largest music industry conference in the U.S., the fest has evolved from a smalltime local showcase to an industry behemoth that draws nearly 2,100 musical acts and record execs from every major label and has served as an invaluable career launch pad for artists ranging from Billy Ray Cyrus to LCD Soundsystem.
“[SXSW] started here because everybody at the University of Texas left during spring break, so there wasn’t anybody to go to the bars,” explains Alan Berg, director of the 2011 documentary film, Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW. “… The big difference between now and the early years is just the scale of the thing.”
Now in its 26th year, SXSW currently draws approximately 50,000 people to Austin over 10 days, injects more than $167 million annually into the local economy, and splits its energies between music, film, and interactive technology activities. While musical acts have the chance to play during their festival showcases, Berg says that the real exposure oftentimes comes with gigs at the festival’s unofficial showcases, after-parties, and day events. There are nearly the same, if not more, unofficial South By events than there are official ones.
“[When SXSW started], it was pre-Internet days, pre-cell phone days, and so a band would come to town and they would have rehearsed for a whole bunch because they knew that they had that one 40-minute set on that one day to make an impression … that was their shot,” he says. “… [Now], part of the strategy is just the saturation strategy. Can you show up on 15 blogs and can you play at 10 different parties and somehow get enough momentum to where people say you’re the buzz band of the festival?… It’s not just a 40-minute showcase anymore; they’ve got to work like hell for four or five days to try and make an impression.”
For those who do leave an impression with the right deal-making people, the exposure can be life changing. Artists including Skrillex, The White Stripes, Katy Perry, Hanson, N.E.R.D., Beck, Feist, Bon Iver, Amy Winehouse, M.I.A., and Janelle Monáe all jumped from musical obscurity to the national spotlight as a result of the buzz around their South By performances. In 2010, a little-known unsigned L.A. band called Foster The People performed a few key gigs at SXSW more than a year before the release of their debut album, Torches. Two years later, they were nominated for two Grammys and played at the awards show with The Beach Boys and Maroon 5.
Berg adds that along with the sharp increase in artists—the first South By in 1987 only featured 172 bands, all of whom could be seen with the purchase of a $10 badge—opportunities to break out have grown and changed in response to both increased popularity of the festival and the addition of interactive and film branches.
“When it started, you had people that came to watch the bands, you had the club bookers, the record executives, and then you had the bands themselves. Well now if you’re in a band, you may be hoping that somebody interactive, from a gaming company, will come and listen to you because maybe they’ll hire you to help score their new game,” Berg says. “… A band may come here and play, but then they’re running down to try and catch the interactive people and get sponsors [for] whatever they’re trying to do or to show up on a soundtrack of whatever, and that’s different than it was when [the festival] first started.”
And it makes sense. In the digital media era where artists are pushed to not only produce music but also develop multimedia platforms, corralling music, game, film, tech and live event industry leaders to the same place makes fertile ground for artistic cross-pollination. It also means bands have more connections to make and must fight for the attention of those beyond their specific industry.
“I find that the most important thing is to target: what do we want to achieve at SXSW?” says Helen Britton, co-owner of the Toronto-based label, Six Shooter Records, which currently represents more than 15 artists including SXSW 2012 performers Shout Out Out Out Out and Whitehorse. “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? … [Making those connections] requires a lot of up-front work, for sure. Otherwise, you’re not going to get the value.”
For those who do slingshot from South By to the big time, the extra behind the scenes work pays off. In an interview featured in Outside Industry, writer and Texas historian Joe Nick Patoski reflects on the fledgling years of the fest, stating, “The only thing that South By Southwest really sold was hope.” Berg adds that hope is still what keeps the showcase going strong.
“Everyone coming here is still hoping to do something,” he says.
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