Got a hot gig in the middle of March? Hoping to spot some A&R men down the front, pondering on whether to give you that all-important record or publishing deal?
Well, you’re out of luck. Between the 13th and the 18th of March, the entire music industry ups sticks to Austin, Texas for the biggest music conference of the year. SXSW (or to give its full name, the South By South West Music and Media Conference & Festival) sees a small college town in the middle of America become the epicentre of the world. The promise is that careers are made, people are ‘reached out to’ and good things happen, but seemingly more apparent is that a lot of booze is imbibed and an equally impressive amount of BBQ is digested.
So is SXSW really the career-making event it’s painted out to be? Does business really get done there? Or is it merely a massive, backslapping piss up?
SXSW celebrates its 20th year in 2007. Beginning as a means to highlight the thriving artistic scene in Austin that was isolated in the middle of Texas, SXSW was set up to bring the world to Austin to check out its wares. Soon after, international bands started pitching up, alongside a good number of A&R men from all walks of the music (and indeed, film) industry. Somewhere along the way – roughly thought to be around five years ago – it became one of the ‘must do’ events on the global music calendar.
It hasn’t looked back since then. In 2006, there were 1,493 officially showcasing artists playing across 64 venues. Hundreds more bands also played. In fact, last year there were 12,000 or so members of the press and industry assembled in Austin. A fair growth from the 700 people who initially registered 20 years ago.
So, if you can’t move for standing on a fellow A&R man’s foot, what’s the point of it all? How do you manage to get the drop on everyone else to find one of those half a dozen ‘hot’ bands who send the music industry into a buzzing buffalo stampede?
Steve Proud, a well-regarded A&R man at Atlantic Records, concedes that it is a tough one: “You could argue that the bigger SXSW has become, the more diluted it has become for finding ‘new’ acts. Labels have been using it more as a US showcase platform, but on the other hand the bigger it becomes, the more decent unsigned acts are attracted to play it.”
The onus these days, it seems, is on networking with others and checking in on your international counterparts from other parts of the world. An inter-division conference on the hoof, if you will.
Flash Taylor, A&R for Sony Publishing, concurs: “For me one of the positives for SXSW is to catch up with my US contacts and also our international affiliates. We always have a number of acts playing from across the globe so I can check out first hand what my counterparts have signed, and gauge how I can be of use for these acts in this territory.”
This does appear to be the general viewpoint, with not one of the ten or so people DiS interviewed suggesting that anyone really has the drop on anybody else these days. Indeed, as Edwin, another publishing A&R manager points out: “SXSW was the new music shop window of the world, but now sites like MySpace and last.fm have become that shop window. People now go over to SXSW with a much firmer view of what they want to see out there.”
Mark Ngui of Primary Talent – a massive booking agency that features Panic! At The Disco and Fall Out Boy on their roster – suggests that the nature of SXSW has changed, with the number of signed bands now eclipsing all else: “I do think that there's always going to be an element of breaking artists,” he says, “but with so many bands it’s harder to get noticed and discovered. It definitely wasn't as trendy when I first went five years ago.”
Having said that, Ngui admits that the first band he saw at his first SXSW was Fall Out Boy. So there probably is some hope for those aspiring to fill stadiums.
There is now a huge amount of SXSW coverage in Britain. From MTV2 to NME to Radios 1 through 6(Music): all want a piece of the excitement. However, such coverage might lead you to think that the only bands playing in Austin were British. Last year, the biggest coverage went to the likes of Dirty Pretty Things and Hard-Fi, with the Kaisers, Bloc Party and The Futureheads receiving massive exposure the year previous.
Does this not pose a problem for the industry? How many bands can be discovered when the industry is seemingly using the event to ramp up interest in their UK protégés? And does the US care about them?
Flash Taylor believes that nationality is irrelevant: “SXSW is welcoming of all music, all styles, and all genres. Whether they are English does not come into it.” Steve Proud, however, notes that the UK media coverage rebalances the view on UK bands – from this island at least:
“Obviously with the media coverage that it’s increasingly getting year on year, it's impossible to ignore the power that it can have for exposing UK talent in the US both domestically and internationally. I'm not always convinced, though, that it can be an accurate barometer as to how a band will do in the States as the sound and stages can be incredibly dodgy sometimes, and poorly represent a band's ability. There's also a tendency sometimes to ram in as many gigs as you can whilst you're over there which, although understandable, can also have a detrimental effect.”
Edwin the publisher thinks that the US is welcoming of UK talent on the whole, but adds: “As a rule I find the States judges things on home success, rather than coolness or vibe.”
Mark Bowen, co-founder of the successful UK independent label Wichita, is markedly more cynical: “As the trend has become for bands to play multiple shows and parties, then more and more time these days is spent with your own bands at the expense of seeing other stuff. SXSW tells you pretty much nothing about what the American public will make of a British act, and little more of what the industry there will make of them.”
Indeed, in the decade-plus that he’s been going to SXSW (“Umm, 13 times in total”, he confides), Bowen agrees “without doubt” that the usefulness of the event has diminished since it’s become so ubiquitous.
The man behind The Cribs and Bloc Party, in addition to a vast number of bands during his tenure at Creation Records, Mark admits that ‘discovering’ a band at SXSW is hard to do. He did, however, see Grandaddy back in 1996: “They decided to sign elsewhere, but seeing them for the first time in ‘96 was one of those once in a lifetime gigs.”
Of course, things do get done, and good things can happen at the conference. Whiskas of ¡Forward, Russia!, who is also co-founder of the Dance To The Radio label, found last year’s event very helpful: “SXSW… helped a lot, we basically licensed the ¡Forward, Russia! record worldwide as a result of various meetings and boozy dos – as well as set up Dance To The Radio with many different things. We also found that when we went back to America in November, promoters were booking us ‘cos they'd seen us at SXSW, which was very cool.”
All well and good if you’re already established potting the great unsigned band during a five-day period in Austin is an inevitably hard thing to do, as Flash Taylor agrees. “I've discovered many great bands but haven't signed anything on the back of SXSW,” he confides, whilst Edwin accedes that “I've watched one or two [acts] I've really liked who I hadn't heard of before but nothing truly 'great'.”
So, where does that leave SXSW? Clearly the initial point of the event has been superseded completely. While a number of Austin-based bands have been given exposure that they may not have received previously, the music industry has taken the event into its own hands. Austin could be pretty much anywhere in the world for the purposes of the event in 2007 – the laidback, colourful and vibrant city merely adds spice and flavour for the week’s proceedings.
Mark Ngui believes that the nature of the event will change further: “I think in the coming years it will become more music festival – with better-known names – and less of a business event.” Steve Proud is of a similar opinion: “I think that from looking at the line up this year it has pretty much got to its absolute upper limit and capacity for the number of acts that can play there. It felt last year that it was at bursting point, with delegates too, and I think that might reflect why there doesn't seem to be so many industry people from over here going this year.”
The last word goes to Mark Bowen. Where’s SXSW going, then? “Hawaii, hopefully.”
Stay tuned to DrownedinSound.com this week for our pick of the new bands playing this year’s South By Southwest.