Although it’s been called “spring break for the music industry,” the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) taking place this week in Austin, Texas, is also a prime opportunity to take care of business.
“Instead of an act needing to play multiple different places to be seen by media, booking agents, management, attorneys, business managers and on and on, they can be seen by a number of these people at one time,” says Brent Grulke, SXSW’s creative director for the music festival. (SXSW also features an interactive festival and film festival.)
Grulke leads the charge of booking 1200 bands — from folk to punk and everything in between — then matching them with an appropriate venue. Starting Wednesday night (March 16) at 59 stages across town (but mostly downtown), a band will showcase for about an hour. Then the next band will come up. And then another and another — and sometimes another and yet another — until the club shuts down at 2 a.m.
This routine repeats each night through Saturday (March 19). During the day, SXSW registrants may participate in some of the 60 business-related panel discussions, check out brief performances at nearby record stores, browse through original rock posters from music-friendly printmakers or seek out cheap Mexican breakfasts and strong coffee. Come Sunday afternoon, these bleary-eyed people will drag themselves back home to Nashville, L.A. or New York City or maybe Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Italy, France, Finland, Scotland, Nigeria or even Iran. Grulke says more than 300 of the showcasing acts this year are from outside the U.S., as well as roughly one in five registrants.
“Not only does that mean that Americans will be exposed to a lot of international talent, but this also creates opportunities for American talent and American business people to interact with people from abroad and potentially establish career footholds and gigs outside the U.S.,” he says.
Thomas Denver Jonnson, a 25-year-old from the factory town of Grums, Sweden, will be making his first trip to the U.S. to showcase at SXSW after a Canadian fan tipped him off about the event. He’ll be traveling with a backing musician, his studio arranger and the guy who runs his record label — all of whom just happens to be the same person.
“I wanted to make myself initially heard in the U.S., and I also wanted to make my music heard by people that are really interested in music,” he says. “I know it’s a hard competition, but I feel comfortable. I know people can dislike what I’m doing, and I have some people who really hate my music. But I also get e-mails every day from people saying they love what I’m doing. This guy from the woods maybe has a long way to go, but I’m getting there.”
Inspired by American and Swedish folk music, Jonnson would like to find distribution here. “But frankly,” he says, “my biggest and only goal with the showcase is to deliver a great set of songs to the audience.”
Not every band is traveling so far. A tight roots-rock group with self-written music and a strong stage show, the Eli Young Band is based in Denton, Texas. After discovering them opening for Miranda Lambert, publisher-producer Frank Liddell signed them to Carnival Music’s imprint in 2004. Their album is scheduled for release April 5.
“Our touring schedule has mainly been in the South the last few years, and so this gives us the opportunity to be in front of some faces who wouldn’t usually see us,” Mike Eli says. “There are so many opportunities that could come out of this one show, anything from an international tour to having write-ups all over the U.S., instead of just down here.”
Eli and his bandmates — ages 23 and 25 — played between 110 to 140 dates last year, so they should be ready for the fast stage-swap between SXSW sets. (With the schedule strictly monitored by volunteers, showcases rarely run past their allotted times.)
“You kind of jump up on stage, put your instruments up there, do a quick line check and then play,” Eli says. “You never know sometimes what it’s going to sound like, especially when you’re the first band of three or four.”
While many of the bands are trying to create a buzz by playing SXSW, other bands already have it. Blue Merle, a Nashville-based ensemble that brings to mind Coldplay with acoustic instruments, released its first album in February on a major label, generating significant airplay on adult alternative radio and numerous press clippings.
“If you’re signed and things are going well, there’s always somebody you’re trying to reach out and touch, be it a promoter for another show or someone who’s going to be working with the band a year down the road,” says lead singer and songwriter Lucas Reynolds. “Even when things are going well, you’re going to have people there all the time.”
In addition to tours with Jem and Marc Broussard and gigs at Farm Aid and Bonnaroo, Blue Merle have played countless industry shows already. However, Reynolds believes the band still has to prove its worth every night.
“I think we have to fight just as hard,” he says. “That’s our mentality. To expand upon that, that’s also why a lot of young bands make a great first couple records, you know? They’re hungry for it. The bands we want to be associated with are the bands that fought for it hard the whole way through their career. That’s what we’re trying to go for. We play every show like we’re just coming out of the gate.”
Grulke doesn’t believe that being on a major label automatically gives a band a leg up. Indeed, not everybody comes looking for the next big thing or expecting a major label to care about what they do.
“For a lot of acts that play at SXSW, being on a major label isn’t a realistic option anyway,” he says. “[Those acts are] looking to develop their careers over time, and major labels may not factor into that at all. There are a great many people who work as independents or do things themselves, and they are certainly able to do business at SXSW also — as much business as people who might be affiliated with majors. It’s just different business.”