SXSW: For Musicians, Is It Worth It?

Published: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 10:15am
Updated: Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - 5:21pm

(Photo by Sarah Ventre - KJZZ)
Qais Essar playing on an Afghani instrument called the rabab.
(Photo by Gabriel Flores)
Tucson-based band XIXA is playing at several venues at SXSW.
(Photo courtesy of Qais Essar)
Qais Essar is one of several Valley musicians at SXSW 2016.

The South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival is underway, which means the city of Austin is bursting at the seams with musicians who are hoping to get noticed. At one time, a good performance could maybe even get you a record deal. But now, things are different. In the 30 years since it got started, it’s become bigger and bigger.

When the festival first started, it was really a way for people in the music industry to connect with one another in a pre-internet era. And now, people who are not at all connected to the industry come for it. A lot of them are music lovers, but some people complain that there are those who treat it more like a glorified spring break.

“It’s a business meeting, basically SXSW. It’s not supposed to be Mardi Gras," said Brian Lopez, a Tucson musician who has been attending SXSW off and on for almost a decade.

Over 2,200 bands played on official showcases last year, which means it’s harder and harder for bands to get noticed. Is going to SXSW worth it for bands?

Last year, when Tucson band XIXA went to SXSW they said they were hoping to make some contacts, be heard by agencies, maybe even find some opportunities for licensing — which is when your music is placed in TV and movies.

So did it happen? Not so much.

“There is the professional side of it, but it’s so hard to tell who’s who now because there’s just too much," said Brian Lopez, XIXA guitarist and singer. "It’s too exploited. You can’t see through all the muck.”

It’s fair to say that Lopez is jaded about the possibilities of success at SXSW. He’s been a handful of times over the last eight or nine years, and while he knows that on some level it can be valuable, he’s also kind of over it.

“And of course you’re gonna go because, yes, the whole music industry is there," Lopez said. "Whether they’re paying attention or they’re using it as a free ticket to party, like, which a lot of the industry does.”

Lopez knows it’s very rare for a band to get something concrete out of a showcase, be it a record contract or a write up by a well known music critic. Instead, you try to build up your name and your band’s recognition there.

“I mean kind of think of it like if you’re in high school, and you’re like a varsity player, and you are hoping to get a scholarship, and you’re hoping that some scouts will be there,” said Rachel Brodsky, a music journalist for Paste Magazine.

"It’s not, I think, just going to SXSW that will, maybe clinch some write-ups and discussion among journalists. I do kind of think it’s a combination of factors. And SX can certainly play a key role in a band’s ascent. But I wouldn’t say: just go to SX, people will see you and you’ll get written up. It’s not that easy. Nothing is just that easy."

Brodsky said for artists, the key is not going in with lots of expectations.

“I would go into it just saying: I’m gonna do my job and have fun. I’m gonna play shows. I’m gonna have a good time. Hopefully meet some people," Brodsky said. "If that didn’t happen at the end of the week, then I wouldn’t say it was a bust, because at least I got out there. At least I did it.”

But it can be hard to have that attitude when it is so much effort to go. Many bands lose money going to SXSW. And it can be a logistical nightmare getting to Austin and navigating your way through crowded streets and alleys with all your gear, while dozens if not hundreds of other musicians are doing the same thing.

Qais Essar is a Phoenix musician who played at SXSW for the first time last year, driving about 15 hours to get there and then returning to Phoenix immediately after his show. Since that performance, he’s released an album, started playing more shows and bigger shows.

“I don’t wanna attribute all the success that I’ve had in the last year to that, because I don’t feel like, you know, anything really came out of that," Essar said. "But it’s like something you would like on your resume.”

But was SXSW worth the effort?

Both bands said they would go back under the right circumstances, which means something different to both of them.

Music journalist Brodsky has seen some bands whose careers were directly impacted by their time at the festival. Still, she said it might not be for everyone.

“I think it’s just a really case-by-case thing," Brosdky said. "But try it at least once, because, you know, you may regret it if you don’t.”

Brodsky also said that this year she and her colleagues have noticed a lot of corporations are scaling back their sponsored stages. While this may not be intentional, it has the potential to result in SXSW moving a little closer to what it was originally intended to be.

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