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Hey this will be my last post about sxsw. But it's super long so enjoy:
We put on our own showcase to try and highlight the importance of actual bands and musicians at sxsw. Like every other part of the music industry, it's musicians and artists that are the oil in the machines of this festival. But all too often artists are treated exactly like that - as a simple combustible energy source to keep something much larger afloat. Like any other industry, there are producers and owners. The reality of music can be the same on as any factory floor, and there are the same economic units that get spread around - if you are in a band, you have a miniscule amount of power, and if you are an owner (a record label, a corporation, the sxsw company), then you have a lot more power. Bands often try to deny that they are part of any economic system - and in some cases that's true. But if your band has anything to do with sxsw, has released a record on any sort of record label, plays in any sort of club, then you are an economic unit just like any Walmart employee or Chase Executive, and at least a part of your energy as an artist should be spent trying to get more power.
For most people, and most bands, sxsw is a lot of fun. Even though we play 2 or 3 shows a day during the festival, and only get a few hours of sleep a night, our general attitude towards going is that it's like a holiday from our usual touring life. It's sunny, lots of our friends are there, we sometimes get free jeans and sunglasses, and generally it's one of the most chill(wave) times of the year. If your band has the right attitude, sxsw is a lot of fun.
It's also a great way to move forward with your artistic career, because it puts a lot of people together in one intense burst of activity over a few days. You might go down there a no one and come back signed to Mexican Summer Records. For a lot of bands, it can be the opposite. 2010 was our third time playing the festival, but the first time it didn't cost us $3000 of our own money to do. The expense is high, and is rightly seen by most bands as a sensible gamble, weighed either against a week of good times, or at a chance at moving forward with the business of being a band - money well spent to meet managers, agents or record labels. But it's still an expense, and while bands from all over the world are spending thousands of dollars to get to Austin, there are a lot of companies already there and with massive economic power (a whole bunch of those units I was talking about earlier) who are using these bands to varying degrees to get even more powerful.
Here are a few relatively innocuous examples. The first time we did sxsw there were these little packs of gum everywhere by this company called 5 (actually owned by Wrigley). I had never seen this gum before, or heard of this company. They didn't put on a showcase, they had just left thousands of packs of gum everywhere for people to grab, and I guess also chew. That year we travelled around the country and started seeing the gum everywhere. This is called passive advertising. There weren't any 5 gum billboards anywhere at sxsw that year, just all these packs of gum by this company that seemed to have come out of nowhere. Lots of cool people came down to Austin, got some free packs of gum, and then presumably went back to Williamsburg and started buying packs of 5 gum. Now you see the stuff in every super market. Same thing Sweet Leaf Tea. I had never heard of this stuff before we played FYF in LA last year. It was all over the place at sxsw this year, and now you can find it at Whole Foods. Same thing with Incase. I'm not saying that any of these companies are evil in any way, but I also don't remember any of them helping to pay for the gas we had to buy to get all the way down to Austin and back (actually it was jetfuel).
Another example is Thriller Energy Drinks. When we first started going to sxsw in 2007, this was just one sad looking guy handing these tiny cans to people out of a garbage can full of ice at the corner of Red River and 7th. I guess he was at one of our shows that year and wrote some ridiculous shit about us on his website. Since then Thriller has grown into a relatively successful energy drink brand, and his mostly gross ads were spread all over sxsw this year. He got in touch with us this year about co-promoting a few shows and asked us to play a few of the shows he was presenting. We think energy drinks are some of the most vile stuff you can put in your body and didn't really want to have anything to do with him as a person or his company. He was persistent in bugging us for the first half of 2010 so we finally let him shell some of his gross drinks at our official showcase. We were a bit stretched for cash and came into some problems really close to the date of our event, so we took some money from him, which we immediatly felt bad about. Really just a gross company, and even though we did help him promote our show, we wouldn't do it again. While all the companies we've mentioned in this article up to this point have been ones we've worked with on multiple occations, and hope to do in the future, and admire, we can say with force that Thriller Energy Drinks is a bullshit company and we won't be working with them ever again.
Same goes for sxsw as an organization (except that we do want to keep working with them). A festival pass can cost almost $800 a person. A band gets either wristbands or $250, which is enough to buy enough gas to get your van maybe 15 hours away from Austin, one way. Most bands are from outside that radius, and are well within the range of losing a shit ton of money by coming. In exchange, sxsw gets access to the best bands in the world, every club in Austin, and sponsorship money from all the coolest companies on earth. One of the more creatively heinous examples of branding I learned about this year was the Green Label Sound record label, which is a branding exercise of Mountain Dew soda. When my friend was offered to do a record with Green Label Sound for many thousands of dollars, I was happy to concede that it was a great deal for his specific band. Then I saw the giant 4 panel billboard for Green Label Sound right next to Stubbs on Red River St. Great for Chromeo, Neon Indian and the two other bands on the advert I forget ("great" in the sincere and non-facetious sense) and realized how maybe it was a bit more of a serious issue than I'd thought. Think of all the bands that had to blow their wallets apart to get to their one sxsw showcase, and all the partiers who had to pay to fly or hitchhike from Greenpoint or Plymouth to get to Austin in order to create the cultural critical mass that allowed Mountain Dew to greenlight a giant billboard in the epicenter of American indie rock. Think of why there is so much free beer and cigarettes and energy drinks at sxsw, and why every year there is even more, and why every year there are a dozen more huge shows presented by even bigger companies than last year. It's because you paid your money to go there and see these ads.
This is important for a lot of reasons, all of which have to do with you as an economic actor. Something that should be forefront in the minds of every band and every record label is how this is the most visual example of music money leaching away from the people most connected to music. You may have heard that the music industry is sort of falling apart. It isn't really a matter of there being less money in the pool - just that the money people have to spend on entertainment (which will always be somewhat of a constant) is just being diverted away from where it historically has gone (record labels and managers). The music industry is by definition an operation invented to divert money spent on music away from actual musicians - the problems that the music industry is currently facing have specifically to do with the fact that the money that would usually flow directly to the bigger economic actors is now going somewhere else.
Sxsw should be an example of where some of that money is going. While labels are trying to figure out how they can get their piece back, the question sxsw should leave for bands is how to get theirs, or to at least not throw it directly at hospitality and energy conglomerates in order to get to Austin and see your fans money go straight down the throats of Mountain Dew incorporated instead of into your pocket. And again, just to re-iterate - it's not like these companies are inherently evil or vicious. I kind of like Mountain Dew. It's just that they are way better than you at figuring out how to get peoples money, and while your job as an artists should mostly be about making great art, it should also be a little bit about how to be smart at if not making money, then at least not throwing an undue amount away just so someone else can make money at your expense. This is the crux of the matter - there is a big pool of money out there that everyone is trying to get - the music industry is panicking because a lot of the money that used to go from music consumers right to them, is now going to companies that are posted just on the periphery of music, letting bands and labels spend money making music, and then swooping in with music related marketing strategies aimed at getting some of that relatively free money.
Sxsw then can be seen as an economic battle ground. Our first time down there in 2007, the biggest buzz was about how sxsw was shutting down unofficial venues left and right, presumably because the money and the buzz created by those shows was flowing away from the festival, rather than towards it. The shows were mostly free, which made them irresistible to music consumers tired of needing to buy expensive passes from sxsw to check out cool bands. This is a pretty good analogy for what then started to happen to the entire industry - it became possible for fans who had spent most of their lives buying CD's (that they knew cost 50 cents to produce but cost $17.99 to buy) to download them on the internet for free, and record labels, who started seeing CD sales plummet, immediately starting trying to shut these sites down. While sxsw quickly learned to lay off the free parties and start using them to their advantage, the record industry has yet to figure out how to profit from "illegal" downloading. This year the focus of the festival was free parties only tangentially related to sxsw. Sxsw knows that it's never going to shut down every free party, so it makes more sense just to let them happen, and use the initiatives of the bands and labels and companies throwing these parties make sxsw as a whole more appealing.
So you might be asking at this point why we decided to put on our show as an officially sanctioned sxsw show. For a few reasons. First - we believe that sxsw provides an invaluable service to many bands. It is one of the genuine places where a band can become a success overnight. Just ask Freelance Whales or Wavves. For a few select bands every year, the ability to go from a small buzz band to a band with a record contract and an advance is very real. Second - it's really fun. We love going to sxsw and will probably continue to do so, even though we are locked into a record contract for the next 50 years and us going down there really serves no direct purpose. Third - had we just thrown an unofficial party it wouldn't have helped us make the point we wanted to make. As was discussed earlier, bands need to recognize that they are economic actors, and start acting like it. In 2007 we didn't know anything, and our official showcase was a mile away from any other show, no one came, and Damian was so disheartened that he spin kicked a stop sign after the show (I am not kidding). In 2010 we know a lot more and have spent the last 3 years learning about how to get as much money out of the music industry as possible without resorting to advertising and other lame shit (we even sued Rolling Stone for using us in an ad without our permission, remember? Ps we lost). This year our show was right in the center of town, we programmed five other amazing bands, lots of people came, I got in a fight with a the official sxsw doorman (which is pretty much the reason I'm writing this article), we got to help publicize a good cause (shirts for a cure), got good reviews on choice websites, and we made money, all because we set out to make decisions that would help us as a band, rather than help out sxsw or any other company. The point of doing a show within the sxsw framework was to show that it doesn't take a record label or a company to put on a concert at sxsw - you are the band, you should be the one calling the shots.
(Altamont [a shoe and clothing company] gave us $1000 to help out with our show, which we used to rent $1000 worth of back line for all the bands to use. As I mentioned, it's not about completely disavowing participation from outside agents, it's about using them to your advantage. If Altamont sells a few pairs of shoes because of our show, we're fine with that - we feel like we got what we needed out of our relationship with the company.)
For bands it should be about making conscious decisions. The first one is obvious - should you come to sxsw? The trip back can be a lonely one. Your assigned showcase was east of the highway, or west of Congress, and no one came. Every morning I walked from my hotel to the grocery store for breakfast, and along the way I passed a dozen clubs that had bands playing to no one at 11am. It's this overkill of content that sxsw is able to thrive on. Every year the festival expands because every band that's ever been written up on a blog feels like there is a signed record contract waiting for them on the off ramp of the I-35. Bands making bad decisions is part of why big companies are able to prey on the festival as a whole. Every company on earth could program a show at sxsw, because every band thinks the best way to get exposure is to play five shows a day for a week. The Black Lips were written up in The New York Times in 2007 because they played 12 shows at sxsw, because in 2007 no one had done that many shows, and it was a remarkable idea. At this point every band in America is trying to play as many shows as possible, and it's no longer interesting. Playing that many shows is just going to exhaust you, make your performances less interesting and vital because you are so tired, and just compound your disillusionment when your feat of strength isn't celebrated by every blog on the internet. It's about being creative and smart.
What's important to remember is that even if you are a small band with no label, or even just a fan of music, every decision you make at the festival has a ripple effect on the music industry, which you are a part of. If you are a band, and are offered to play the Dewars Pampers Ultra Soft stage, it may be a legitimately good decision to take part in, if you can get a good slot and play for a few hundred people, and maybe even walk away from the show with a cheque. But is it worth playing in the middle of nowhere to no people if the only meaningful economic relationship created by the show is between a few companies that won't pay you, and a few hundred people that are still asleep while you are playing? If you are a label, is it worth taking a few thousand dollars from a beer company to help pay your bands that day if they are just going to turn around and use those bands in a print ad without paying you? It all comes around in the end.
Thanks for reading, and apologies to 3rd year economics students who read this as pretty much a straight re-telling of Capital.