Music Business

12 Tips Bands Applying to SXSW Should Know

If your band is hoping to showcase at South By Southwest 2016, the pressing business is to meet the application deadline of 11:59 p.m. Friday, October 23. If you haven't done so, then a) quickly read the rest of this informative article, and b) complete the application already, slacker. You can find it here.

If just applying seems daunting, it’s understandable. SXSW is the premier event of its kind. By applying, you’re vying to be among a handful of select acts performing for music-business insiders, media members and avid music fans from everywhere.
That’s why festival organizers recently teamed with a handful of Houston music professionals and SXSW veterans for a casual meet and greet. Warehouse Live hosted the event, which was meant to demystify the process for Houston hopefuls. Mark Austin, owner of The Convoy Group, led the forum, which included Marc Fort, representing the Texas Music Office; SXSW music programmer Stacey Wilhelm; Warehouse Live talent buyer and Houston Whatever Fest director Jason Price; The Tontons’ Asli Omar; and the Houston Press’s own Marco Torres.

Here are the best bits of advice they shared with an attentive and enthusiastic audience:

Successful applicants are going to have some key logistics in place, Wilhelm said. Your music should be streaming somewhere. Your catalog should be on iTunes or some other online music store. You should have a Web site, preferably not your personal Facebook page.

“At least have a band page,” Wilhelm said. “I don’t care that your mom and your grandma are your friends on Facebook. I want to see how many people have gone to your page and liked it. Having a Facebook (band page), having a Soundcloud, having a Bandcamp, something like that. That’s a good bare minimum.

“Videos are good barometers, too, because you can see how many people have watched,” she continued. “If you have good live video, that’s the best. I’m so happy when I see that because if I haven’t been actually able to see you in person, I can kind of get a glimpse of what your show actually looks like.”

“You might be fantastic, without a doubt, but you just don’t have anything to show for it. We get a lot of applicants, they’re really skilled, they’re talented in whichever ways you can be, but they’ve played like three shows,” Wilhelm shared. “That doesn’t mean we don’t think you’re talented, but this is a fucking rat race, man. You can’t be dropped in there – you’re gonna sink. And we’re not going to waste your time or anybody else’s time with that. It’s not a measure of how talented you are; it’s just not being ready.”

“What we’re looking for, beyond the fact that you’re talented, is that you’re proving that you’re taking this seriously and that you’ve made strides that can be calculated some way,” Wilhelm said. “We’re looking for career trajectory. If you’ve seen our lineup, you know that we have artists from every end of the spectrum performing. So, you might think it’s arbitrary or there’s no rhyme or reason, but as I said earlier, everybody’s next steps are different. SXSW is an opportunity for anybody to reach those next steps. That’s why we want people at every stage of their career.”

Festival programmers want to see that your performance history has moved from the neighborhood bar to tours outside the city.  Do you have press? Have you secured an agent?

“These are all markers of you building a career outside of your family, your homies, your scene. That’s what we’re really looking for,” she said.
Only 2,200 acts were official showcase acts from more than 8,000 entries last year. Acts are notified of their submission status in waves, and every submitting act will get a response by the end of January, Wilhelm said.

“Let’s be very honest – no matter how big or how well-known SXSW is, we’re not the end-all, be-all,” she added. “Everything is really subjective. If you believe in your craft and if other people believe in you, you can’t be broken by not getting into any event. That shouldn’t stop you and it shouldn’t stop your acceleration.”

“I think doing your homework can really go a long way," said Fort, the publications director and social media strategist for the TMO, the state-funded agency that promotes the Texas music industry. "You don’t want to blindly email anyone that doesn’t even cover your genre, but really do your homework and kinda focus on the music writers that cover bands that are really similar to what you do, and focus on the booking agents, not the ones that are booking something completely different, but the ones that are booking bands that are similar to your sound."

Jason Price said he loves music and sports, so he reminded the room, “You don’t go into a football game without a game plan.” Every time he’s gone to the festival, he said, he’s made a priority list that includes at least ten things to accomplish each day.

“Go into it with focused objectives that’ll do the best for your career, [and] check ’em off one by one. There’s thousands of bands and so much going on; if you don’t do that, you’re not gonna accomplish what you went there for.”
Last year, 62 different countries sent bands and industry professionals to SXSW. It’s important to consider the contact you can make with those visitors, Wilhelm said.

“Music is a global language and there’s opportunity all over the world, and SXSW is an international event; we’re not focused on any one region," she explained. "The same goes for bands and the business people that are coming from overseas. They’re not necessarily coming to Austin because they’re so interested in the Austin market; they’re coming because everybody’s coming. Austin is just the location. What’s happening is the global music industry is meeting together. That means your opportunities are limitless.”

“If you get a chance to go to SXSW, even if you’re not an official artist, just go, because it gives you the chance to meet people from all walks of life and you don’t know — that band that you sit next to at McDonald’s, you could wind up going on tour with them,” Asli Omar said. “There is a huge opportunity for us just two hours away, and just because you’re not an official artist doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take advantage of it.”

“Last year, there was this one hip-hop chola from Vietnam. I was like, ‘Yeah, I gotta go see that,’” Torres added. “One year, I randomly walked into a K-Pop showcase and it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Get out of your comfort zone. I’m a rap and hip-hop guy and a Latino music guy, but going to see things out of your comfort zone is always gonna be more rewarding than not.

“Music is awesome, but finding the people behind the music is always going to be so worth it," he added. "Go in with an open mind and heart and do something cool."

“I heard a story about a Houston band a couple of years ago that there was no one in the room, they showed up, it was some small showcase they got put on, it was their first year at South By, and they complained over the microphone to the sound guy about how crappy he was doing his job, how no one was there, yada yada,” said Austin. ”Come to find out, someone called me and said, ‘I sent an agent to go see that band; he was one of like six people in the room, and they were being turds about their performance and about the room and about the sound, and they should have just performed. That agent was interested and then he wasn’t.'”

“Don’t be an asshole. Do not be an asshole," Wilhelm emphasized. "If you don’t want the opportunity, don’t take it, because somebody else didn’t get that spot and you did. It may be a shitty place, it may be shitty sound, but you’re better than that, right? That’s why you’re there. You play through it, and it’ll show."
“If you’re in this room already, it means you have hustle,” Torres said. “You need hustle to be successful. It’s a very Houston thing. I’ve gotten to meet people with Billboard magazine, VICE, Rolling Stone. Anybody that you really want to know, and you can’t pay for that stuff, you just have to run into them or hang out with them, work alongside of them, rub elbows in the photo pit, go to a show with somebody, go eat some tacos with somebody and just do your thing. Whatever it takes to make some connections, you make it happen.”

Omar added, “You have to be aware of who you’re talking to, take everything seriously but still have the ability to sift through it all. Everyone’s there to hustle — you’re there to hustle, everyone else is there to hustle, too.”

“When you’re coming, you want to leave it all on the stage. That’s your No. 1 priority, those shows,” said Wilhelm. “There are going to be a lot of other distractions, things to do that week, people to meet, people to love, things to drink…don’t let it affect your show. That’s what you’re there for.”

Fort said the Texas Music Office keeps a list of the contacts from each year’s event and will share that info with you, Houston musicians: “It’s as simple as just saying, ‘Hey, can you send me the list of U.S. contacts or international contacts that are interested in Texas music,' and we’ll send it to you. That’s there for free, for you guys.”

“It doesn’t stop when SXSW stops,” Wilhelm said. “If you met people, you interacted with them, you got a business card, you gave a business card; if you saw somebody, follow up. Remind them that they saw you, because they saw a lot and chances are they’re going to go somewhere else and see some more. Don’t let them forget you – don’t be annoying – just say, ‘Hey, remember we met’ or ‘Hey, you saw my show.’ It goes a long way.”
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.