The annual five-day South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Tex. is a venue that many musicians dream of playing. For Communication sophomore Kelsey Wild, it was no different.
“I had wanted to play at SXSW for a long time,” she says. “I went to a music camp when I was 15, and one of the counselors said, ‘You should apply.’ It was always kind of a goal.”
SXSW’s emphasis on newer, undiscovered bands makes it a good starting point for developing artists to put their band on the map in hopes of one day joining the festival circuit. But for Wild and Bienen sophomore Gilman Lykken, it also made for an awesome way to spend part of spring break.
As with any festival, successfully signing to play at SXSW is easier said than done. Most bands who try to play there go through an application process. But unlike lengthy college or internship applications, applying to SXSW is fairly simple. This year, all interested showcase performers created an account through SonicBids to host their music and press materials online, paid a $30 to $40 fee and provided some basic artist logistics. After that, it was just a waiting game as conference organizers selected applicants and sent out notification e-mails in the following months.
For Lykken, going to SXSW was a completely different experience. For one thing, it was more of a homecoming than a road trip. While Wild made an 18-hour trek with her guitarist, a photographer friend and her mom, Lykken is from Austin. His band, Mother Falcon, actually plays throughout the year in the area while he’s at Northwestern. Instead of sending in an application, the band was asked to play the Austin Music Awards, an annual event that coincides with SXSW.
“We were opening up for the closer, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears,” he says. “It was an invitation, like, ‘Come accept your award and play a show.’”
As expected for an award show at a major festival, the crowd of about 1,500 people was one of the biggest the orchestral pop band had seen.
“Our sound guy [said], ‘Yeah the crowd’s kind of bored with all these acts, you guys should blow them away,’” says Lykken. “We got a standing ovation and it was fucking insane. Everybody was really blown away by our show.”
Although Wild and Lykken only played one official show each, it’s not uncommon to see bands play a series of shows throughout the week — some acts have been able rack up ten shows in four days.
“If a band is smart, they can look around and schedule other shows in the area,” Wild says.
There are rules of course, so as not to take away from the main event: bands can’t play during certain SXSW hours, charge admission or advertise the show publicly. But for bands looking in unconventional venues — Mother Falcon played in an art gallery as well as a bar — there are always places to perform.
More than just a music festival, SXSW is also known as an incredible networking opportunity for industry professionals and up-and-coming artists. In the aftermath of Mother Falcon’s show, the band sold over a hundred copies of its EP at its booth, was approached by several agents and was later e-mailed by C3, the concert production company behind Lollapalooza, about the possibility of playing at the Austin City Limits festival in September.
But when it comes to putting bands on the map, SXSW is rarely the end-all for exposure.
“It’s not once you play there, you suddenly made it,” says Wild. “You still have to keep working. A lot of bands play there many times, and it’s not until they’re on a label and established before SXSW can say, ‘We broke this band.’”
Taking advantage of opportunities is trickier for Wild. For one thing, there wasn’t a whole lot of time to explore the festival or attend its industry seminars between traveling and preparing for her shows. But being a full-time student can also get in the way of advancing music career.
“It’s really not fair to a management or a label to work on music part time or quarter time,” she says. “Even though it’s my main passion, it’s just a balancing act.”
But regardless of the outcome, according to Lykken, one of the most rewarding aspects of SXSW can just be audience validation.
“As Black Joe Lewis was finishing their set, I ran into one of the saxophonists, [and] they were like, ‘We really liked your stuff,’” he said. “One of the head sound producers was talking to one of the Talking Heads, and they liked our stuff. It was exciting to hear the buzz that was happening.”