In early March, McDonald’s, a major sponsor of the Austin music festival South by Southwest, raised eyebrows when it was revealed the corporate giant wouldn’t be paying any of the artists who performed at their festival showcases. Instead, McDonald's offered the possibility of social media exposure via its extensively connected outlets (a Twitter account with 2.78 million followers; a Facebook page with over 55 million likes).
As one can imagine, that decision didn’t go over well with online critics, and McDonald’s eventually changed its policy after coming under scrutiny, stating, “all bands performing at our showcase will be compensated.” (An exact figure was never stated.)
But the episode underscores a question increasingly asked in recent years, as South by Southwest takes on billion-dollar corporate sponsors, brings in approximately 28,000 paid attendees and roughly $300 million in revenue for the city of Austin: with so little of that money trickling down to artists, is performing at SXSW even worth it?
Despite the immense growth of the festival over its 28 years of existence, readers may be surprised to learn the two payment options offered to official SXSW showcase talent: either a $250 cash payment (the number shrinks to $100 for solo acts or duos), or SXSW Music passes granting access to all official showcases. (This is only the figure for official SXSW artists; there are scores of unofficial showcases that pop up, from bars on Sixth Street to vacant parking lots.) Artists are expected to cover all travel and lodging costs.
Just as with the McDonald's offer, the festival organizers' selling point for bands are the thousands of industry insiders, journalists and fans who arrive in Austin specifically for the fest. In other words, potential exposure.
"Exposure" is a carrot dangled all too often to musicians, but according to SXSW, that's enough to attract approximately 2,200 musicians to perform at the annual festival, descending upon the town to hopefully gain someone’s -- anyone's -- attention.
Corporations and Hierarchy
Take a walk down Sixth Street, the hub of South by Southwest music activity, and there’s no denying how active this place becomes. Music of all types escapes from the doors and open windows of the dozens of bars and restaurants that line Sixth. Entrepreneurial musicians unable to secure a showcase slot set up shop on the street, looking to attract passers-by.
Oakland R&B vocalist Bobby Brackins, attending his third SXSW in four years, experienced one of these stumble-upon moments his first evening in Austin.
“We were at my hotel bar last night, and there was this super dope girl singing in the hotel lobby,” he recalls. “There was only like 10 people in there. You never know when you’re gonna hear some good music or just stumble upon something that you may really end up enjoying.”
You also never know when you're going to stumble into a company's marketing plan. The afternoon I arrived, I encountered a long line to order from a food truck located at the corner of Fifth and Red River, right in front of the Austin Convention Center, the site of SXSW’s panels and exhibitions. The food was free. All the sponsored company asked in return was for patrons to tweet about them.
Twenty steps later, I found a couple of twenty-something reps from McDonald’s giving out free food to young people in exchange for a photo, likely to be used as marketing collateral.
It shows how the festival that once billed itself as the hub for discovering the next best thing in music has opened itself up more and more to corporate sponsorship. In addition to McDonald's, this year’s main sponsors included Miller Lite, Esurance, AT&T, Monster Energy and Capital One.
Major-label artists have invaded the festival as well, often in conjunction with major sponsor showcases, with some sponsors even adding an additional level of incentivized priority access. In 2012, when Nike used their showcases to unveil their activity-tracking FuelBand, those who purchased the $150 wristband were given priority over regular SXSW badgeholders to attend co-branded Nike / Vevo shows, which included performances by Nas, Major Lazer, Girl Talk, the Shins, and Neon Trees. That same year, Jay-Z appeared in a special performance made available only to American Express cardholders who also had SXSW badges.
While these corporate examples show how some sponsors are adding new barriers to entry, official SXSW showcases follow a three-tiered hierarchy. At the top are badge holders -- fest attendees who shelled out anywhere from $650 (music badge) to $1750 (platinum SXSW badge) to attend both the fest’s panels and showcases. Underneath them are wristband holders, who pay $170-$190 for access to all official showcases. This option is limited to Austin residents. Lastly, there’s general admission attendees.
The good thing about SXSW is that, most often, there’s the possibility to get in anywhere. However, one encounters the significant downside when choosing one of the evening’s more popular bills. That’s when the politics of the hierarchy come into play -- showcases honor badges before wristbands, and wristbands before general admission, regardless of how long someone has been waiting in line. When a venue hits capacity, all bets are off.
"Ruining the Culture"
While it's a necessary evil, Richmond rapper IamSu! is outspoken in his opposition to the priority hierarchy.
“I think it’s damn near ruining the culture,” he says. “It’s devaluing being a fan. That’s so lame, because I love to fan out.”
Su’s SXSW experience has changed drastically since he first attended in 2012. In the years since, he’s risen to become a major force in the Bay Area hip-hop scene, and as a result, access isn’t necessarily an issue anymore. But four years ago, calling the trip a struggle would be an understatement.
“Me and all my friends, we didn’t have a hotel to stay at the first time. We slept in our car the first night,” he recalls. “I had like maybe $800 to my name between the three of us. I was the only one that had some money to spend, so I got the room.”
Su's friends had flown out to see him perform one song at one showcase, but thanks to the connections he made once he arrived, he was able to hop on stage as a special guest at four other performances. Last year, he lost his voice doing nine shows in three days.
This year, IamSu! had a supporting slot inside ACL’s 2,750-capacity Moody Theater at a show headlined by J. Cole and featuring support from Redman, Joey Bada$$ and G-Eazy. This time out, he was the one able to bring out guests. Ensuring the Bay was in the building, he welcomed Too $hort to the stage to perform his hit “Blow the Whistle.”
“I did a lot of corporate shit this year," Su admits, "but being able to walk around and just see fans, and for them to respond or respect us, that means everything,” he says.
"Spontaneity at its Finest"
I encountered that pervasive feeling of respect my second night in Austin, when Los Angeles electronic producer Daedelus performed at Empire Control Room. In his red velvet suit jacket, he looked like a musical mad scientist, while triggering sounds from his MIDI with a notable ferocity. In the middle of his set, technical issues abruptly silenced his mixes on three separate occasions. Despite the setbacks, his audience remained encouraging with every stoppage, yelling out that they had no problem waiting to continue watching his set; he genuinely seemed to appreciate every call of support.
“Just because the corporate system is getting involved isn’t necessarily a bad thing," insists Bobby Brackins. "That just means there’s more outlets for artists to be heard.” While some fans may be shut out of showcases, Brackins points out that such cases represent only one show in an artist's performance schedule -- and if fans miss someone, they should be able to see them when they tour their hometown.
Asked why he still chooses to return, Brackins cites an undeniable festival spirit.
“I just think it’s real,” he says. “It’s getting more corporate and mainstream, but a lot of aspects about it are still real and organic... Yeah, there’s huge artists out here, but people just want to hear good music, so even if you aren’t the biggest artist in the world, you can make new fans.”
Brackins mentions how special it is to see artists walking crowded Sixth Street after dark, casually rubbing shoulders with fans. That's something Ziek McCarter, vocalist for the fast-rising San Francisco funk / soul outfit Con Brio, experienced first hand -- a Houston native, he passed H-Town rapper Trae tha Truth and had to take a second look.
Of the artists I had a chance to speak with, McCarter was the only SXSW rookie. He and his band arrived in Austin with plenty of buzz; Con Brio had sold out their past two headlining shows in San Francisco at both the Independent and Rickshaw Stop.
In Austin, the group had a chance to sit in with Austin artist David Garza in front of a crowd McCarter estimates as “almost a thousand” in the parking lot of the Hotel San Jose on South Congress. In typical SXSW fashion, Con Brio’s appearance was organized the day before; Garza’s horn players wrote up charts for Con Brio that day.
“Spontaneity at its finest, and I love that,” McCarter says. “I love that just at the drop of a dime, you’ve got to deliver what you love.”
McCarter’s SXSW trip actually represented his musical story coming full circle: he graduated from high school in Cedar Park, near Austin, dreaming of being a performer, and "my dad used to go to Sixth Street all the time and play the blues," he says. "I always wanted to go with him.”
He may not have been sitting in with his father, but McCarter performed like a man on a mission, throwing his body around the stage, doing the splits and holding rapt an audience that included past family and friends from his Texas upbringing.
McCarter says the unanimous praise for his band at SXSW helped reinforce the value of patience as an artist.
“That’s one of the beauties of life that keeps you believing and having faith in what you do, knowing that it may not be my time right now, but eventually, everything spins around and comes back around full circle," he says. "It really enriches my faith a whole lot."
The Exhaustion of it All
Just as McCarter had to do a double-take running into his Houston hero, I took a second look myself on Friday night when I made my way downstairs to Barcelona, a dark, dingy basement club with low ceilings and lots of bass. I'd lined up to catch DJ Sliink, one of the foremost ambassadors of a high-energy, high tempo variant of electronic music known at Jersey club.
But once I got a clear view of the DJ booth, I discovered legendary hip-hop producer Just Blaze on the decks. While he was able to sprinkle in some of his well-known hits -- "Public Service Announcement" by Jay-Z and "I Really Mean It" by Dipset both get spins -- the sonic menu called for mostly Jersey club and trap, anything that made liberal use of the gigantic subwoofers hiding in the space’s dark corners.
His appearance was an example of the special surprises often at play at SXSW. With so much talent congregating on the city, special guests tend to pop up frequently.
Of course, if you're a guest who's not special enough, SXSW can be more trouble than it's worth.
While San Francisco punk band Creative Adult played SXSW in 2013 and 2014, they opted not to return this year. As for why they chose to make the trek in the first place, guitarist Michael Fenton says that “we just knew it was something we were interested in conquering as a band."
Creative Adult's experience was better the second year because they had more buzz, Fenton says, and though they loved the connections that they made -- they met people from their label, old friends, their booking agent -- what damaged the experience was the exhaustion of it all.
“I’m a creature of comfort," Fenton says, "and SXSW is the opposite of that."
Fenton has a biting take on SXSW from an artist's perspective. “They don't pay artists enough (if they're lucky enough to get an official showcase),” he says. “It's a waste of money. You're not going to get recognized or play good shows if you're not established. It just looks good on paper."
However, he does note the value the experience provided him as a fan. In that respect, he says, “I think it's great. I got to see tons of my favorite bands in intimate environments, for free usually.”
Five and a half hours after Con Brio's closing set, I stood in the TSA line at Austin Airport, slowly shuffling through a crowd of tired faces, most of whom looked like artists. As WXAN reported, I was simply one of 20,000 expected to leave by Monday evening.
Despite the denouement at hand, there’s a beauty in this scene. Practically all of these people came to Austin intent on furthering a dream, I thought to myself -- one that requires significant financial risk in hopes of connecting with new believers. The sheer numbers speak to the power SXSW still holds among artists and fans alike.
As for whether he feels that power is worth it for up-and-coming acts, IamSu! provides an optimistic response, with some forewarning. “I think it’s cool if you come out here with a devised plan," he says. "If you’re able to get on showcases, yeah. I don’t think you should waste your money if you’re not on any showcases -- unless you’re just going to go watch shows and be a fan.”
Those thoughts are echoed by Fenton from Creative Adult, who cautions new bands that might be too overeager to play SXSW. “I'd tell them to wait until they were an established band before heading out," Fenton advises, "unless they're into debauchery for the hell of it.”
And even established acts can face the unpredictable ebb and flow of SXSW crowds. “It’s humbling out here, because you might do a show and it might be 50 people, then you might go do a show and have 700 people there," shares Brackins. "You gotta humble yourself and be ready to go with whatever.”
"Going with whatever" can mean dealing with badge politics, corporate intrusion, traffic jams, low pay, no available hotel rooms and numerous other obstacles at SXSW. But cut through all of that, says McCarter, and it's truly all about the music.
Catching him in the afterglow of another celebrated Con Brio performance, I ask whether the group would consider returning next year.
“If we’re available and the temperature is just right, we’d love to come back and do it again,” McCarter says. “There’s a lot of static, but at the end of the day, for us, this is just another stage, another opportunity to do what we love.”