How does SXSW choose which bands will showcase in Austin?
The South by Southwest festival started as a pure music festival in 1987, added a film fest and a tech conference in ‘94, and has since become the biggest gatherings for hipsters, geeks and hipster/geeks in the world.
In recent years the music part of the festival, which traditionally starts after the tech part ends, has been overlapping the tech conference more and more. You can hear bands playing everywhere in Austin—in the bars, at parties and in the conference center—on almost all the days when tech nerds fill the streets in Austin.
Last week the festival began accepting submissions from bands who want to be invited to perform (for at the 2014 event next March. Has tech also influenced the way the organizers of SXSW choose which up-and-coming bands will be showcased next year? Have things like YouTube, Facebook and Soundcloud changed the selection process?
The person who knows best is SXSW Music general manager James Minor, who leads a staff of bookers who’ve become known for searching out artists who often end up breaking big after their appearance in Austin (see Nora Jones, The White Stripes and The Strokes).
TechHive: What types of things do you look at when deciding if you want to invite an artist or band to showcase at SXSW?
Minor: We have an online submission process through Sonicbids. Artists can use the platform to send us their EPK (electronic press kit). An EPK includes information like their touring history, bio, photo, examples of press coverage, social media and some links to samples of their music. Every submission gets listened to by at least two graders.
We don’t just choose the bands we think are good, we choose artists who we feel would benefit from being here. We understand that it takes a lot for an artist to be here. It takes a lot of time and money to be here and we try not to lose sight of that.
TechHive: At what stage in their development are bands ready to come to SXSW? Must they already have a manager or a record label or a booking agent?
Minor: We definitely don't require that an artist is working with a booking agent or manager. What we're really looking at, is where an artist is at in their career and whether SXSW could potentially act as a springboard and help them progress to the next level.
We look for things such as the amount of press an artist is receiving and how often an artist is performing outside of their hometown and region. We want to see artists who are working hard and in return, an audience paying attention.
We have the venues to consider as well. We want to invite artists who have enough interest around them that can fill up the (showcase) venues.
TechHive: Do you look at the number of Facebook likes a band has?
Minor: Facebook is one of the things we look at, but those numbers can be cheated and it’s pretty obvious to us when people try to do that.
TechHive: Obviously, these days, a band’s success depends, at least in part, on how they look. Do you look at the band’s YouTube videos when considering them for SXSW?
Minor: Definitely more than ever. How many times have you seen a video that makes you stick with a song for a little longer than you normally would have. It doesn't happen often, but I have found myself watching an interesting or well-made video, and as a result ended up giving the song a little more of a chance. But it can work the other way too. It’s a double edged sword. I’ve seen videos that were so bad that I probably stopped listening to the song sooner that I normally would have.
And video is so easy to do now. Everyone has a camera on their phone. And everyone has easy access to video editing software now, I mean it comes with every Mac. Even if you don’t know it you probably have those tools already.
TechHive: Do you look at the quality of a band’s web presence as an indicator? Are there certain things you look for in a band’s Facebook page?
Minor: I’ve never seen a Facebook page that’s wowed me. They’re all pretty standard.
TechHive: What music websites do you use to keep an eye on upcoming artists from around the world?
Minor: Everybody has their own set of online media outlets where they find out about new music. All the bookers have their own sources that they go to.
TechHive: Do you have a network of people all over the world who scout out great bands to invite?
Minor: All of the bookers are tied in to each other; we’re constantly talking to each other and finding out about new bands. We also find new things through friends and people we trust—record labels, people we’ve met at SXSW and are friendly with. We’re passionate about music; we live and breathe this stuff.