Tips for Playing SxSW?

6th Street in Austin

Q: I’m a UK artist playing at South By Southwest for the first time this year. Do you have any advice or tips on how to get noticed?

A: You’re already doing the right thing by starting to contact people from the UK media who might be going out there, such as myself. Alas the BBC only sent me out there for the first time myself last year so my advice is speculative at best. You might do better to get googling and seek first hand advice from fans & bands who actually live in the Austin area.

It makes sense to build up as many local friends and contacts as possible in advance of your visit to improve your chance of getting people along to your shows. Band or duo performances often have more impact than an acoustic solo show. If it isn’t financially practical to take musicians with you, it might be possible to locate and befriend some local players in Austin. If your songs are genuinely outstanding then musicians might well be willing help you out on the night as members of a pick-up band. You can always offer them help in return with UK contacts and connections. Intelligent use of Google is key to all this. You might find local musicians & bands via fanzines, local college radio, music shops, record stores, venue listings, local indie labels, Reverbnation, RCRDLBL and of course MySpace. Listen them before making contact – so as to pick ones who are on a similar wavelength to you.

Every artist, manager, publisher and record label at SxSW will be trying to give away their promo material and demo CDs. If delegates took home every disc they were given they’d end up with a serious excess baggage problem. My guess is that 90% of these CDs will never even get listened to. By all means take promo discs, but it’s important to think up alternative ways of getting people to hear your tunes as well.

You could investigate bulk-buying cheap 1GB USB drives branded with the band name, to give out with your music on them. People probably won’t throw those away – but they might well delete your music unheard and just keep the drive. So while it’s tempting to put your music on as full-quality WAV files, my advice would be to go for 320kps MP3’s instead. That way you leave at least 900MB of free space on the drive, which means your music has a better chance of staying undeleted – and possibly getting heard at a later date. It also makes your files easier to load onto the recipient’s iPod. The competition to get heard is so ferocious that even the smallest extra chance of getting heard is worth considering.

Actually all you really need to do is make people remember your name and get them interested enough to check you out online. Assuming your band’s called something distictive like Tiny Blue Rabbits, anyone will be able to find your music on MySpace in a matter of seconds. So you could buy a load of blue plastic rabbit-shaped keyrings to hand out – with a luggage label (bearing some short, funny and memorable blurb) attached to one foot?

Get a simple distinctive logo for the band. If you can’t afford a designer, offer a small cash prize to local art students for the best icon of a blue rabbit. A grotesque leering cartoon – or a cutsie longeared bobtail silhouette perhaps. Turn it into a small rubber stamp you can plaster all across the town – perhaps even on other bands’ posters. Make people wonder what that rabbit is that keeps appearing everywhere. Cook up some street busking stunts: wander down 6th Street at night in a blue rabbit costume playing virtuoso banjo – or banging an enormous drum.

Not everyone stays for the full festival, so do your best to play several shows during SXSW rather than just one. Delegates try to see as many acts as possible in the course of an evening, so venues further from the center of town will attract smaller audiences. But then you may stand a better chance of getting booked to play there. Showcase sets by unknown artists often draw very small crowds, yet at SxSW one of those 10 people in the audience could be that key contact who will drastically affect your future. So plan accordingly and devise a stage show that can still work brilliantly in a near empty room. Make the experience so memorable that everyone talks about Tiny Blue Rabbits for days afterwards. Like I say, the better connected you are with local musicians and fans, the better your chances of drawing a respectable crowd.

And here’s a thought – 80% of the industry visitors will be leaving town via the airport on the Sunday morning. Is there any way you can make an impact as they pass through, so that Tiny Blue Rabbits is the last name they take away with them? A full rabbit costume might get you arrested by security, but perhaps your team could all wear large fluorescent band T-shirts as you hand out USB sticks to the departing travellers.

Finally, arrange your own departure for the Monday so you can arrange one last (teatime?) show after most of the visitors have left town. There’ll still be more than enough people left to make an impression, and if local friends and supporters have been helping you out during the week, it’ll be a great way to thank them.

This is just a quick brainstorming of ideas off the top of my head – but they’re written on the basis of just one visit. The SxSW organisation itself provides a huge amount of suggestions for artists who’ve registered to play the festival. And a few minutes on Google will find you a wealth of informed advice from veteran journalists and musicians that offers a more accurate picture of how the whole thing works.

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More…

2 Comments

  1. Nick

    Hi Tom,

    I’ve worked with SXSW’s UK Department quite closely in the past few years, and they have a great guide for UK artists first visit to Austin – I have it in PDF form and would gladly send it along to yourself or the artist involved. Feel free to get in touch.

    Best wishes,

    Nick

  2. Tom

    Thanks for this Nick – The Guardian also offerrs a more general travel guide for UK visitors to SxSW.

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