Eager musicians are always looking for an audience in Austin, Texas, no matter what time of year it is. However, during the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference -- which runs Wednesday through Sunday (March 14-18) -- relatively unknown artists have traveled from literally the other side of the world for a chance to be recognized in the U.S.
As Australian and New Zealand's representative for SXSW, Phil Tripp is shepherding approximately 450 people to the conference. More than 250 of those are delegates directly involved in the music business. The rest are members and crews of 40 bands.
"Because we're such consummate performers -- born and blooded from the vital pub scene in Australia and used to performing in front of unrelenting audiences in beer barns behind the crash barriers -- our bands are at a showcase advantage over their somewhat performance-deprived overseas counterparts," he says. "Also it's a great place to do business since our music is primarily rock, contemporary with a bit of alt-country and folky genres thrown in."
Tripp cites distance and expense as the biggest challenges faced by Australian musicians trying to break into the U.S. market. "Why sign an Aussie country band, which has to travel 10,000 miles and operate under strict visa conditions, when there are 500 equally talented country bands just over the border in Canada, chomping at the bit to get in?" he asks. "And we have to be willing to part with families while constantly touring to make an impact, not being able to count on audiences, airplay and contacts that we had developed back home."
At SXSW, hundreds of bands are offered 45-minutes slots in dozens of nightclubs, mostly centered around Sixth Street. Usually, five or six bands are lined up at each bar's nightly showcase, with live music until 2 a.m. This goes on for four consecutive nights. (With so much bar-crawling, SXSW has earned its reputation as a spring break for the music industry.) Needless to say, the competition to be heard is fierce, no matter where you're from. The industry players who could change the course of your career may be standing to the side of the stage (clutching a business card) or a few doors down (listening to another band).
George Byrne is a young singer-songwriter from Australia who was officially accepted for a SXSW showcase spot. He's also playing a lunchtime show at a Whole Foods grocery store during the convention and taking as many meetings he can muster. His music isn't straight-up country, but his album, Foreign Water, has the smart lyrics and rootsy arrangements that mark the most notable Americana albums, although he points out an element of Pink Floyd, too.
Asked why he applied for SXSW, he replies, "Basically because I had heard and read from numerous sources that it was a great festival to play. It was of particular interest to me because I'm looking to push my music overseas, and there's probably no festival in the world that gives you a better opportunity to do just that."
And what are the challenges to do that? "Umm, where do I start? Financing trips into the U.S., getting a work visa, attracting interest from labels and booking agents, finding good management and once you have achieved that ... selling records. Easy!"
Already, Foreign Water has attracted the attention of Mojo, a U.K. magazine which placed it at the top of its Mojo Playlist column in October 2006. He's currently working on a follow-up that he expects to release later this year.
"Good press is always a bonus, in that it gets a buzz going," Byrne says, "but the most important thing by far is people connecting, talking about and hopefully buying your music. You can build a reputation with a bunch of good press, but not a career."
Michael Flanders, an Australian music producer who has recently relocated to Nashville, credits SXSW for helping him find reliable work in the U.S. During his first conference, he met Nashville music publisher Frank Liddell, who hired him to produce his sister's album. Now, in addition to his producing career, Flanders has branched into music publishing himself, and he says he's always on the lookout for a great artist to record.
This is his fifth SXSW. "For me, it's always important on a networking basis," he says. "You can't buy those relationships and the people you meet here. Also, the frame of mind that people are in here is a lot more relaxed when they're in the workplace."
In addition to the music festival and a very popular film festival, SXSW also hosts an interactive conference that Flanders arrived early to attend.
"I've never attended that session before and it's just mind-blowing, to see where music's going -- the digital downloading side of things and the different mediums of how we're going to tie in and listen," he says. "I think if anyone wants to be in the game, seriously, they have to be ahead of the game. It's just incredible where things are heading."
Of course, that's always been one of the true calling cards of SXSW. Whether you're an artist, a producer or otherwise involved in the biz, if you pay attention, you can hear the buzz before the rest of the world.
"It's a great wealth of information, as long as you don't get caught in those ego fights," Flanders says. "Beyond that, it's fantastic."