Post SxSW 2013 Addendum

After posting my entry on SxSW 2013 last week, I got a ton of responses on the street from people during the conference.  Surprisingly most were supportive.  However, I wanted to add something I edited out the final draft of this post because I hadn’t formulated it well enough to include:

Finding the value of SxSW is highly individual.  What one person calls an opportunity another might call a waste of time.  I wish I shared the attitude of many of my friends and musicians that simply performing anywhere, anytime is the valuable opportunity created by SxSW.

I wish I could just accept that – but I can’t.  After pondering on my SxSW post, I think the reason is because I’m a band leader – not a band member.  Many of the people who criticize my blog or think I’m ridiculous or an over-thinker aren’t band leaders.  They just wanna rock and things like networking that aren’t fun (I actually do like it!) seem too much like their day jobs.  I understand that mindset – but I’m not of that mindset and I’m not writing from that point of view.

My brain can’t help but think about the weeks following SxSW – when the dust settles and we’re as far from the next SxSW as we can possibly be.   Austin will go back to normal.  All the spaces that rented PAs and pretended to be music venues during SxSW will go back to having jukeboxes, DJs and satellite radio.  Hip local bands will go back to playing to each other in clubs and Justin Timberlake will only be back to change planes.

What will we have to show from SxSW 2013.  Cool memories of a city wide party? a few more notches in the belt?

I wish that was enough for me.  I wish I felt like that alone was valuable.  I just don’t.  I feel like Austin itself is a year-round party with an abundance of opportunities to perform – paid or unpaid.  SxSW is the time when the rest of the world is invited.  I can’t help but feel like there’s more to be found, done, learned and earned during SxSW than the rest of the year. With the whole music industry at our city’s biggest music weekend, why not make some connections for mutual benefit?

There’s the value for me —- and my experience has taught me that playing as many shows as my schedule can (or can’t) handle is NOT the best way to do that.  Maybe others’ experience is different.  That’s fine.  For me, setting up my gear and hoping anyone new hears my voice within the cacophony of SxSW seems like (has been) a neutral exercise.  Doesn’t hurt, doesn’t help.  Not a waste of time – just not the best use of it.

SXSW – Make It About Them, Not You

This would be more effective than playing with your band at SxSW.

SxSW is awesome and fun.  However,  I don’t feel the need to run around town playing a bunch of half-assed* shows for passers-by to ignore all while dead tired and hungry for no real benefit other than bragging rights.  There’s greater value to be had than is on the surface of SxSW.

SxSW is kind of like Christmas.  The utter overload.  The drinking.  The surprises.  The humgbugs and hard feelings of those who feel excluded.  The humbugs have had me thinking hard this week:

SXSW reminds me, like no other time of year, how terribly miniscule and unimportant my contribution to the world of music really is.  Yesterday, while practicing my instrument (a time when my brain usually stops thinking verbally), I thought, “What I’m doing is a waste of time.  I’m not a gifted musician.  There are 500 people younger and better than me gathered in Austin this weekend.  Why am I bothering?”

Bleugh!   It’s easy to feel that way and for years, I’ve heard the humbugs complain about traffic, not getting paid for showcases and the too-much-is-not-enough attitude of fickle partiers that come to town and throw garbage all over 6th Street.   At this, my 13th SxSW, I feel like I’m beginning to understand their complaints!

I’m unable to attend the conference and I feel less compelled to attend day shows or showcases.   I can see the local acts whenever.  Many national acts will be back in April or May.  Many showcases happen in places that aren’t suited to live music (I’ve seen Secret Chiefs 3 play only 20 minutes and The Asylum Street Spankers play only half a song because of sound system issues.)  I also just moved… that’s been hectic.

These thoughts make me think – egad, I’ve gotten old and bitter!  I’m a humbug!

In fact, this year, when asked about my SxSW schedule, my answers have probably sounded curmudgeon-y.  “I’m not playing this year because the application process is a pain in the ass and Sonic Bids sucks.”  “The Czars aren’t playing because we’ve never seen any real benefit to doing so and hauling our gear out to play for indifferent passers-by isn’t worth it in light of the fact that we just earned $X last week doing a silent movie.”  Blah blah blah.  Those things are true but…

The full truth is that I had most of that figured out by my 2nd or 3rd year in Austin.  In fact, SxSW 2003 came and went and I hardly noticed because I hadn’t figured out how to gain any value from the event and there were no bands I wanted to see.

Here’s what I didn’t have figured out:

The conference portion of SxSW is the real value of the overall event.  When I’m unable to attend that, the rest just seems miss-able unless I feel like partying.    I mean, EVERY WEEKEND is a party in Austin.  SxSW is just the biggest one.   See my entry on Austin’s overflowing event calendar.

And so, yes, for the first time ever, The Invincible Czars aren’t performing officially or unofficially – but not because I’m old or embittered.  Here’s the real deal and the point of this blog:

While SxSW is about partying for listeners and young bands looking for a good time (last year, I hosted a band at my house that had NO IDEA that the conference portion of SxSW existes), the real value to musicians is in networking, which may or may not involve performing.  It’s very hard to get any music business people to actually show up to your official showcase or unofficial performance unless you’re buzzing.

(Of course, many at SxSW would argue that if you’re not buzzing, you don’t matter.   But if that’s true, there’d only be, like, 5 bands at SxSW.  Believe it or not, the people who work for SxSW there love all kinds of music – buzzworthy or not.  They also really care about Austin bands.  Look how many Austin bands get official showcases.  More than any other city!)

SxSW is an industry conference with night time showcases – not a music festival.  Officially showcasing acts can choose to paid a very small sum ($250ish for the whole band) or receive wristbands to the conference/music fest (by far the better value).  The daytime stuff that has developed around the event is just icing – more networking opportunities.  They also rarely, if ever, pay anything more than beer and food.  The point – if networking is the key and I’m not being paid to perform… why perform when I could be networking?

For most local and smalltime acts, performing at SxSW is like screaming at a moving train – a barely audible run through the motions with little reward.

The good news about this is that you don’t need to perform to network.

It took me a while to understand this but if you’re not buzzing, you’re better off making friends as an individual than you are performing in your band.   When you’re on stage at SxSW, you’re just one of a thousand other bands saying, “Please look at me!  Please love me!”  Hoping to connect.   However, if you can do something that directly helps someone else (instead of looking for help from them), you’ll make a personal connection that could help you later.

I have booked good gigs based solely on the fact that someone connected with me – sometimes I don’t even think those someones even listened to or cared about my band.  They just knew from dealing with me that everything would be fine – or they simply didn’t question whether to do it or not because they were returning a favor.

(IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Some bands and industry folks don’t return favors.  Don’t let that stop you from following through with any offer you may make – or from contacting them.  Remaining friendly and positive in the face of jerks is simply your opportunity to prove your integrity.   It’s also important to know when you’re helping someone who really can’t help you back.  Like a band from Norway or China.)

I have booked no gigs and made no lasting connections from any official SxSW showcase.  That makes me think I’m doing something wrong but – I don’t think I’m alone.  Most bands I’ve talked to agree that their official showcases have simply been a way to earn free wristbands.  Part of the reason – it’s hard to network when you’re performing – especially when you’re your own roadie.

When I look at more pro bands that I’ve mentioned in the past like Brave Combo and Reverend Horton Heat, SxSW is NOT a priority for them.  Their representatives might attend, but most bands don’t feel compelled to perform for free just to participate in SxSW.  They’re doing other things in March – playing paying gigs, not setting up on the side of the road with a generator and hoping that someone of note notices.  For them, that someone already has.

So my strategy at SxSW is this – find the people I want to meet and bring something to the table for them that’s NOT MY MUSIC OR A FLYER FOR MY SHOW.   I’ve made more connections by hosting bands, finding shows for bands and asking questions than performing.

Make SxSW about them, not you and I think you’ll be surprised what happens.

How do you do that?  Ask questions about what they do without interjecting what you do.  Offer to help them – after all, we’re at ground zero.  This sometimes takes more advance planning.  They may represent a band that’s looking for a day show or be happy to answer some questions about their realm of the industry for a ‘zine or blog entry.  Maybe they’re in need of lodging, directions or info about getting around the city.   Get them talking about what they know.  There’s stuff to be learned when they do.

The best thing I’ve done for my own SxSW experience is organize/co-organize my own unofficial day shows.  The next best thing I did was stop booking my own band to play those day shows because it gave me the opportunity to help more people and make more connections.  I also really should just start paying the price for the badge each year.  Why haven’t I?   I guess I’d rather spend $600 on gas for a tour!

Here’s the day show I co-organized. None of my own bands are performing this year.  Ora is actually from Vancouver, BC.

Merry SxSW.



*in a way, the melee of SxSW is Austin’s opportunity display our ridiculous Juggling Act lifestyle to the whole music industry.