Emily White: On #SXSW

This post is by Emily White of Whitesmith Entertainment.

Emily White

Today I will be departing for my 7th trip in eight years to the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. My first was in 2004 with The Dresden Dolls on their first “national tour” hitting BBQ’s and sports bars, but let’s be serious. The real focal point of the trip was getting to SXSW.

It’s interesting to me that whenever I mention this event to non-industry friends it’s almost always followed by “I’ve ALWAYS wanted to go to that.”

My response is generally, “Why?” To me, SXSW is the quintessential American gathering for the music industry to get together and showoff our artists to one another, drawing more international industry attention ever year. Why a fan would want to get caught up in the middle of that is beyond me, but then again, who am I to discourage fans from embarking on a weekend of chaos to hopefully get a peep at one of their favorite acts in a small club? I note that, as it’s hard enough for the industry folk to get in where they want with expensive badges. Regardless, I love that SXSW offers discounted wristbands to locals as, of course, we are nothing without the fans.

And maybe we need more fans at SXSW. Granted, I encourage my non-industry friends to head to Austin during the more consumer-friendly Austin City Limits. There, they can take in the city and not be trampled by industry folk scrambling to get in to see the next big thing.

Many industry folks I speak with often dread SXSW. On one hand, I do understand how one can get a much better gauge on an artist at The Mercury Lounge, Hotel Café, or Troubadour. It’s painful for the artists as well: one doesn’t generally get paid for various slots and soundchecks are generally unheard of, making it impossible for bands to hear themselves onstage for a generally pretty nerve-racking performance. But either way, we all continue to go to Austin.

Why? Well, there’s just nothing like watching a band THRIVE onstage despite no monitors, or seeing them score a new industry team member from a show they played on someone’s lawn. And how cool is it to see a band Tweet to their fans that they’ll be playing an impromptu show on 6th street, so the public can engage with the artist whether they have a pricey badge or not?

SXSW has become much more than a discovery zone for new talent. I mean, Duran Duran and The Strokes are playing this year — certainly not new acts by any definition of the term. But it has evolved into a massive breeding ground of tastemakers for the music industry, technology, musician and film communities.

So: is the expense worth it for industry folks old and new? Or for artists who are SXSW virgins up to the veterans? Hell yes.

I have yet to have a single show at SXSW — whether it is at 11 AM or 2 AM — not result in something positive. I had a show with about 10 people last year that resulted in the young artist gaining a new European booking agent, leading to an extremely successful tour just months later. So if you’re an artist, don’t stress that your show isn’t packed; you have no clue who those 5 or 15 people are. And if you’re playing an AM or early afternoon day party, it’s to your advantage! The industry folk and tastemakers who are checking you out are not only sober, they most likely sought out that show because they are too busy at night with shows they are required to be at. In addition, don’t forget to SELL MERCH!!

Even merchandisers I work with discourage selling at SX because it’s an industry conference. However, industry types are fans too and often very willing to buy a CD or shirt. I had a band walk with $1500 after one performance, partially due to the fact that no other bands on the bill were selling. And of course, don’t forget to put out and plug your email list. Grabbing blogger/tastemaker/fan emails is crucial in Austin. As usual, definitely hang out by the merch area and mingle around after your set, you never know who you’ll connect with at SXSW.

And for the industry folk? Yes, please do get down to Austin every year that you can. Your expense account may not be able to put you up at the Four Seasons like back in the day, but what’s better for inspiration as to why we all do this than getting into a secret Flaming Lips show like I had the privilege of experiencing a few years back? So sick! Also, show up a few days early if you can.

Come check out SXSW Interactive and all of the amazing start-ups that are changing the ways we think, create, distribute, and share music. So is it worth the expense if you’ve been laid off from your job and are launching a company, exactly the way I was with Keri Smith Esguia just two years ago? Absolutely.

SXSW is a chance for both the traditional and modern music industries to come together, share ideas, expose new as well as experienced artists with new projects, and make connections that can last a career. It’s always nice to put a face, voice, and smile behind an email address, as well.

I hope to see you in Austin this year as well as in years to come. I’ll be all over Family of the Year and GOLD MOTEL’s shows as well as cheering for Greta of GOLD MOTEL on her first ever panel. Feel free to stop by the panel I’m on as well with Bruce Houghton of this very site. Though maybe next year, we’ll see a few more female comedians at the festival ;).

Travel safe and see you this week!


Emily White
Co-Founder of Whitesmith Entertainment

Photo Credit: BriAnna Olson

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