How To Win Big At SXSW (Guest Post)

Stephen Sternschein
– Stephen Sternschein

Editor’s note: Although coronavirus fears have dominated the news cycle with some major participants pulling out at SXSW, Sternschein’s guest post applies to past, future and present South By’s — and the event by all accounts at press time is still happening, of course.

Stephen Sternschein
Managing partner at Heard Presents in Austin, Texas, and president and co-founder of Prism.FM

Over a decade ago, I came to SXSW for the first time. I got my law school to pay for flights, and I shared a hotel room with an old high school friend (now my business partner of 10 years) who had scored a DJ gig for Tumblr’s launch party.  
The first few days I was in town, there were all these tech people (I call them “nerds”) who for some reason mistook us for important music industry people and actually took us seriously – these conversations and connections inspired an idea for remonetizing recorded music, and a year later we had built a MVP of an “interactive album experience,” which was a fancy name for an app for an artist that went beyond just making it easier to buy T-shirts, downloads and concert tickets.  
To let industry and media know about our app, we did what everyone else was doing – we rented a bar and threw a launch party. I called the handful of people in the music industry I knew at that time, most of whom I had met in Austin a year earlier, and every one of them had something great to contribute to the event, whether an artist, a brand or a label connect… that show (which was completely packed out because of this band Foster the People) changed our lives and led to years of successful showcase events and eventually to the acquisition of the venue we were working out of in 2012, which became Empire Control Room and Garage. 
Since then, my team and I have produced over 1,000 SXSW events of all shapes and sizes for our clients and partners, launched our own tech startup Prism.FM at SXSW, and have worked with major labels, indie labels, blogs, consumer brands, tech startups, etc., etc. to ensure they and we win at SXSW.
Along the way, I have learned a thing or two about what it takes to make great events happen during South By, and the fine folks at Pollstar have asked me to share some of that with y’all.  
While I have spent time at every position in a live music organization, the majority of my time for SXSW over the years has been spent on producing and programming – talent buying, “curating curators” (like Stones Throw Records), developing and pitching event concepts to brand clients. I am also the co-founder and president of Prism.FM, with over 140 promoters going into 2,000 venues around the world using our system. Prism was conceived, funded, and launched at SXSW and our presence at the conference has grown significantly over the past few years. I also have been a band manager and experienced SXSW as an artist representative, so I would say I have a uniquely multifaceted perspective on the “spring festival season” as it is sometimes referred to in Austin.

Diego Donamaria / Getty Images / SXSW
DRINKING/STRATEGY Meeting: South By Southwest has become a global destination.


For the purpose of this article, although there are many ways to win at SXSW, as venue owner in Austin, winning for me means generating over 20% of our gross annual revenue in 10 days with high-quality programming that cuts through the noise and leaves our partners, clients, artists and customers with a smile on their faces coming back for more next year.
The most common type of event we book are official showcases – and the way that works is confusing so I think that’s a useful focus for my MEAGER word count. As a venue, we have a rental agreement with SXSW, Inc. that gives them partial control of our space during official showcase hours, which are 5 p.m. to close. It is ultimately up to SXSW to decide what events are confirmed during the hours they are renting, but every venue can choose to be more or less involved with the curation, and typically the process is collaborative. SXSW does not participate in concession or any other ancillaries, but they understand that if they do not place strong events in the venue, we may not renew our contract for the following year – and, of course, nobody wants an artist to play to an empty room. So, the biggest challenge we face when confirming showcases is understanding the approximate draw of a particular bill or artist to ensure that it’s in the right size room, which also typically means we are making good money at the bar. It is not always easy or straightforward to understand how SXSW will affect an artist’s normal draw, although more often than not, it means they are gonna pull half what they would for a hard-ticket show…and sometimes the challenge is convincing a label rep, agent or manager that their artist is not as big as they think they are. On the other hand, there are some international bands that, at least in the U.S., would never be able to fill a 500-cap room, but can during SXSW. 
As a SXSW official presenter, you contract with SXSW and it is up to them what room you go into, although as venues this is typically a collaborative process. It is your responsibility as a presenter to make offers to and book 5-7 bands to perform during your event. If those artists are looking for fees it is your responsibility to pay those fees or to find a sponsor to underwrite the show. Back in the day, most bands treated SXSW as a PR appearance and did not charge fees, because they could use label tour support budgets, crash on couches, whatever to make it work. As the technology portion of SXSW grew, consumer brands and tech companies began to underwrite massive underplays in an effort to “win” SXSW, while also disrupting the traditional A&R process with streaming and social media – and the result is that showcasing artists command staggering fees for their performances, as if SXSW was Coachella. It’s also grown quite expensive to travel and stay in Austin, even with the programs SXSW has in place, and as a presenter there is no way to recoup if you are operating officially, except from sponsorship funding.   

Empire Control Room + Garage
Hubert Vestil / Getty Images for SXSW
– Empire Control Room + Garage
During South By Southwest 2018
This is why brand partnerships are a critical part of successful SXSW events. When SXSW was at the same time as University of Texas’ spring break, consumer brands were willing to spend buku dollars on events because they were loaded with millennials developing the lifelong brand loyalties that are going to determine what cars they drive, banks they use and sneakers they wear. (One fun thing we do around the office sometimes is read SXSW pitch decks replacing the word “millennial” with “those assholes.” Hilarity ensues. Try it!)
The issue with sponsor-driven programming is a chicken-or-egg problem. Artists can only confirm so many shows. Most only perform once, per SXSW rules, which are in place to protect the showcases from underperforming due to overperforming artists, so to speak. Once they’ve confirmed they cannot unconfirm easily, so everyone waits until the absolute last minute to confirm showcases to make sure they are not missing out on that dream offer for stupid money at the XYZ house (or fort, as the case may be). This is extremely stressful for those of us that rely on SXSW to fund a year of operations.  It does not help that brand clients do the same thing, waiting to see which artists confirm which showcases so they can put their money in the “best” place. One of the most common things to hear in the SXSW programming office is “that sounds great, but what is actually confirmed?” In October, agents send out lists of every artist on their roster that supposedly wants to be at SXSW, but their plans often change between that time and the time that shows are actually booked, and information is outdated very quickly. 
The internal SXSW music team often acts like air traffic control, keeping track of what offers have gone out, what shows are confirmed and guiding hundreds of presenters through the process of identifying and securing artists that fit the criteria – and until you’ve got five of those you don’t really have a showcase. It is a time-consuming and often frustrating process because of the many moving parts, the juggling of multiple interests and relying on outdated or inaccurate info. This is the biggest problem with SXSW, in my opinion. Artists should not be waiting until February or March to confirm their showcases, and brands should not wait to confirm their budgets and start planning. The best way to book an official showcase is to set a budget in October, confirm a lineup before or just after the holidays, and spend the time from January to March PROMOTING A DOPE SHOW rather than hoping it will finally come together.  
The good news is that it always comes together. There are thousands of passionate people behind the scenes that believe in the idea of SXSW – and they work almost around the clock from New Year’s to the Ides of March to make sure the magic happens every year. There are still kids taking their first baby steps into the topsy turvy world of music and entertainment by flying to Austin and buying a badge, there are still artists that are discovered and sign record deals because they performed at SXSW and there are still countless innovative ideas and businesses that are incubated, funded and launched during the conference every year.