John Shearer / WireImage/Getty Images – Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse Plays her first U.S. showcase at South By Southwest at La Zona Rosa in Austin, Texas, March 16, 2007. The performance is included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s library & archives as one of the “greatest festival moments in rock and roll history.”
Three decades in, South By Southwest has been both exalted and excoriated by artists, managers, agents and fans alike. Is it a launching pad for artists’ careers (standout moments have included Amy Winehouse’s U.S. debut at La Zona Rosa in 2007 and Hozier’s divine 2014 performance at St. David’s Episcopal Church) or a dystopic shark-jumped clusterfest (Snoop Dogg in the Doritos machine in 2012) straying from its mission of music discovery with too many corporate sponsors, big-name artists and restrictions on performers?
“I personally still think South by Southwest is important,” said ICM Partners’ Zach Iser, whose clients include SZA, Future, and Rae Sremmurd. “I think it’s important to go down there if you’re a developing band because of the marketing and publicity potential. As an artist if you’re about to gear up to start an album cycle or you’re trying to do promotion, you’re trying to get a record label, whatever you’re trying to do, it’s a way to hit a lot of different media outlets at the same time.”
Iser said he’s been taking SXSW “seriously for a very long time,” having been going to Austin both with clients and to scope out new artists for about eight or nine years. He noted that ICM has 30 clients playing more than 80 showcases this year and the agency often ends up signing between half a dozen to a dozen new acts at SXSW.
For WME’s Kirk Sommer, who has been sending artists to SXSW for about 15 years, his list of memorable shows by his clients include the aforementioned Winehouse and Hozier, along with launching The Killers’ campaign and performances by Adele, Ellie Goulding, and Sam Smith.
“It’s one of far too few truly relevant and viable discovery and development platforms in the world,” Sommer said. “The U.S. has SXSW and the U.K. has The Great Escape. With a combination of different looks and different unofficial and official settings, with specific partners, you can accomplish a lot in a short period of time. It can become an upfront of sorts for stars embarking on their ascension. It can also be an expensive and time-consuming endeavor.” (laughs)
As this week’s Hotstar, Caroline Rose, pointed out, SXSW can cost a pretty penny. She said she’s actively losing money by playing the festival in exchange for the exposure it can bring.
“Should you send your band there? It depends on the kind of band and what you’re looking to get out of it,” said Paradigm’s Tom Windish, who has been sending artists to SXSW his entire 25-year career. He has seven or eight of his own clients going this year (including Billie Eilish, The Teskey Brothers, and Drama) while Paradigm is bringing “a lot more.”
“Would I encourage a band with a new record to go there if it meant they were going to spend $10,000 that they weren’t going to get back unless some sort of magical discovery thing happened and they blew up off of it?” Windish asked. “It depends how much money they have in the bank. If they have $20,000 in the bank then I would probably not encourage them to do that. If they have $100,000 and they have a new record coming out and a buzz, then maybe I’d say, ‘Yeah, go for it.’”
As for where SXSW is at today, Windish said he appreciated that the festival had noticeably fewer branded events and high-profile bands in 2017.
“I actually enjoyed South By more last year than I had maybe the year before, maybe two years before when there were more big bands, more big brands and more people because it was just easier to manage, easier to get into things,” he said, adding that the bigger bands often overshadow what he likes most about SXSW – artist discovery.
“If you’re trying to be discovered, I think now is a better time to go there than in the past,” Windish said.
Iser concurred, saying, “There used to be a lot more big commercial brand opportunities down there. I think that this year for the first time in a long time it’s headed in the other direction. I feel like it’s been getting bigger and bigger and this is the first year where a lot of the brand money does not exist. I think it’s actually headed back into an opportunity to develop more artists. It’s a lot more independent this year than it has been in the past.”
The numbers line up: Super Sponsors, or official sponsors of SXSW in the six-figure to $1 million range, peaked in 2015 with 10 brands – Miller Lite, Esurance, AT&T, IFC, Mazda, Monster Energy, McDonald’s, Capital One, PepsiCo and The Austin Chronicle.
Notably, this was the year after the 2014 edition, when Lady Gaga was carried out on a spit for her Doritos #BoldStage performance and, tragically, a DUI car crash during the conference resulted in four deaths. This begat cries for reining in SXSW.
Taking a look at the last seven years of data, 2014 marked a high for SXSW in the number of artists at 2,371. The festival has since cut down on the lineup, with 2,085 artists in 2017 and 2,000 artists expected to perform this year.
“South By Southwest has entered that natural phase of any festival’s growing pains where it’s no longer the shiny new toy for brands to play with and create buzz in the music industry,” Andrew Hampp, VP-brand strategist at music sponsorship and experiential agency MAC Presents, said. “Plus, you saw the artist community start to push back when brands like McDonald’s tried to host branded showcases without paying artists.
“This year, only a few brands can afford to activate at SXSW in breakthrough, innovative ways that still fairly compensate artists – Bud Light’s third year of its Roots Jam showcase featuring surprise cameos from both up-and-coming and established acts is a good example,” Hampp continued. “Once South By can re-establish its credibility as the go-to place for discovering the next Amy Winehouse or The 1975, the brands will likely return at 2014 or 2015 levels. Until then, you’ll see more sponsor investments in other emerging festivals as well as companies trying out their own branded festivals.”
But not everyone has the same view of sponsorships.
“It’s funny because year by year it will be like, ‘There’s too many sponsors.’ Then someone will say, ‘Where are all the sponsors?’” SXSW Head of Music Festival James Minor said, laughing.
“There was that peak time [where] it did seem like these big sponsors were coming in and trying to make a lot of noise. I feel that organically everything’s kind of corrected itself where these brands have learned how to activate at South by Southwest in an impactful way. … It was trial and error for a while.
“There’s plenty of them here,” Minor added. “They’re just not in your face as they have been in the past.”
As far as the big-name artists playing South By, he said that while SXSW is happy when those acts approach the festival and want to do something, that’s not been the focus.
“I would say that everything kind of comes in waves,” Minor said. “I was really happy with last year. And the year before. I feel like the focus really has been more and more on the discovery element.”
He added, “We’re here to help creative people achieve their goals. That’s something that applies toward the interactive and film components of the festival as well. That’s our main initiative,” he said.
Last year South By took heat for its artist performance agreement, specifically a portion of the contract that warned that SXSW would notify U.S. immigration authorities if international acts violated the festival’s terms. The festival quickly released a statement reaffirming its public opposition to President Trump’s travel ban and pledged to change the language in its artist invitation letter and performance agreement for 2018 and beyond.
With that issue resolved, the festival still faces criticism of some restrictions on artists. Keep in mind that the lineup numbers quoted above don’t take into account the hundreds of artists who perform outside the festival and the many unofficial showcases.
“At first it was a free-for-all of sorts and then over the years there were a lot more unofficial shows,” Sommer said. “And then obviously South By was mindful of that and wanted to make sure that you were playing their official shows so they were policing that a bit. It became this larger effort to really manage and approve what shows you were playing and which shows would be first. … And more recently, really scrutinizing specifically which shows you were playing and trying to restrict artists from playing shows that are really beneficial to their careers. That’s the whole point to going.”
He added, “They’re great, great people and great to work with. I’m sure they’ll get it right.”
Minor explained that the festival contracts with about 100 venues and in order to protect the venues, SXSW has a loose exclusivity clause, just like any other festival has a radius clause in which [artists] can’t play the surrounding area for a certain period of time.
“Our exclusivity is between the hours of 7 p.m. and 2 a.m. each night – those are our showcase hours,” Minor said. “So we’re protecting our venues by having that exclusivity and we’re also protecting our artists. We would rather have somebody going to see the acts that we’ve programmed in one of our venues than something that we haven’t programmed and is off the grid. We want to keep our registrants in our venues. And like I said, it’s very loose. People do what they want during the day and even after 2 a.m., that’s fine.”
Minor offered a few suggestions for shows to look out for at SXSW, from Max Richter’s overnight performance of his eight-hour album Sleep to sets from acts such as
Superorganism, Starcrawler, Lo Moon, Hater, Holy Motors, and Bad Gyal.
ICM Partners is especially excited about its March 15 showcase at The Belmont, with an all-female lineup featuring Willow Smith, Kamaiyah, Kodie Shane, Rapsody, Cuban Doll, Izar, Kamillion and more.
“Every year we try and do something important and relevant,” Iser said. “This year we’ve decided to do an all-female artist lineup for our showcase. … More than ever we need to celebrate women and their viewpoints and backgrounds and it’s going to make everything better. It inspires creativity, it inspires dialogue. So we’re just really proud to be able to have the opportunity to do that.”
As for the future, Iser said he hopes SXSW continues featuring more R&B. He added, “I don’t want to exaggerate and say, ‘I hope it becomes more independent and there’s less brands and all that,’ because obviously I love booking my clients for large corporate checks, as well. I’ve always thought there’s a place for both.
“Some people say it’s too exhausting or whatever it is. I still have a great time,” said Iser, who has motives for going beyond the festival. “I love Austin and I wish I could go more often. And this is always a great excuse. For me it’s about just meeting new artists and managers and getting an opportunity to eat tacos two to three times a day. (laughs) And be able to work while I’m doing it.”