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Surviving South By Southwest – A Music Conference Primer

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Music conferences were never exactly my forte, but I’ve come to view them very differently over the past several years. Below is a summary of one of my first conference experiences. Let it serve a perfect example of what NOT to do.

When NYU’s Independent Music Festival rolled around in 1994, I was amazingly excited… and amazingly clueless. At the time I was a member of an eight-piece funk band, an NYU student, and someone who believed wholeheartedly that I would be able to “make it” as a musician, even though I had never defined what “making it” would entail. I just knew it sounded better than getting a real job.

I sat in the audience for a few of the panels, I signed up for some demo critiques with independent label A&R people, and was generally bewildered that there could be so many musicians in the world.

You see, that last part was important for my perspective. Sure, I knew a ton of musicians. But it always felt like we were a very small subset of the population when I was starting out. The first time I saw a thousand musicians milling around I was … speechless. I vaguely remember thinking, “Oh, this is why everyone assumes I’m stoned when I mention that I’m a bass player.” At the time there were other reasons for that assumption, but that’s another story.

I began to see the different musician stereotypes emerge:

  • The guy with the black Zildjian t-shirt = drummer.
  • Long greasy hair, high top sneakers, and acid wash jeans = metal band.
  • The collared shirt tucked into belted jeans with tennis shoes = horn player.

For all our creativity and originality, it’s funny how many of us choose to wear a uniform.

Here are some things I didn’t do:

Find like-minded peers. Often the real value of these conferences is that you meet like-minded people who are in situations similar to yours. It’s not hard to find them; they are in the audiences of the panels or out in the streets or… well, everywhere.

Forming relationships with other musicians can be as important – if not more important – than getting to know executives who have very sexy business cards. At my first conference, I spoke to no other musicians. I didn’t know where to start. Think about it though: other musicians who are doing well (locally or regionally) tend to have a hell of a lot more practical and ground-level contacts and advice that you can use immediately than executives have.

Present yourself and your product well. At my first conference, I made a dash for the independent label demo critiques. I had a hot-off-the-tape-deck, second-generation dub of four of the best songs from my band’s last live show. I quickly hand wrote my contact info on the cover and included the names of the songs. It didn’t occur to me (how could it?) that as quickly as two years later I would be getting demos sent to me as a major label employee, and that I’d be ignoring the ones that were presented this poorly.

I don’t recall 100%, but I believe that …

  • I was wearing one of the two pairs of pants I owned at the time that were stapled together where they had ripped. Yes, stapled.
  • I was wearing a baseball jersey with the words “Junkie Coach” stenciled across the front of it (oh sweet, sweet irony).
  • I was either intoxicated or hung over.

Needless to say, that was how I presented my band and myself to a potential independent label partner. I can only imagine that looking into my red-rimmed eyes, the label executive must have thought “This kid is more likely to make progress eating a bale of Twinkies than making progress in life, let alone the business…”

In summary…

  • I had no clue about just how many musicians there were.
  • I spoke to no other musicians at the conference.
  • I dressed like I was an extra in a Cheech and Chong movie, and I was far too impaired to be effective at networking.
  • I handed out a sloppy, hand-labeled cassette tape long before I had a product that was ready to be promoted.

So, what should you know about SXSW and what should be your plan? I get asked this a lot for some reason. (And of course, this advice applies to just about every trade show and music conference you may be attending.)

1) Prepare
If I can impart anything about SXSW, I would say, “It’s big.” Massive. It’s the size of any three other conferences combined (at least the ones I have been to). It is important to consider who you are in a social settings and who you are going to know before going to any big conference.

Who am I? I’m a wallflower. I’ll stand on the edge of a circle of people and not know where to begin or even where to put my eyes, and I have a general distain for small talk. If this sounds at all like you, and you won’t know many people down there, it may be a good idea to schedule some appointments beforehand – but not too many, so you can allow for spontaneous meetings and random events to pop up … and they will pop up.

I can’t tell you how many times my best experiences have come from bumping into someone on Sixth St who said something like, “Somethingorother.com is throwing a party, and Metallica will be performing for only 13 people, and there’s going to be lobster rolls and animal balloons for everyone!” My guess is two out of three of these insane stories are actually true.

Even if you are that special someone who could comfortably mingle in any situation, and even if you know in advance that you’ll know a ton of folks at the conference, it is still a good idea to reach out and schedule some meetings with people you want to connect with. The whole conference can be a bit of a blur just on the pure volume of people you meet.

2) Pace Yourself
Yes, there will be parties that go until dawn the first night. And the second night. And the third… Pick and choose your battles for the late, late nights and the excessive consumption. It will be there whenever you want it. No judgments – you just want to be able to turn on the charm and deliver your pitch at a moment’s notice and I don’t recall a hangover ever helping with that.

3) Let go and enjoy
This may seem like a weird suggestion but – find a quality group of people and enjoy Austin Texas. Try the BBQ, take a run along the river, take a few hours to get off the main drag and see some of the sights. I highly suggest seeing the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. Sitting down at a meeting in a restaurant is one way to get to know someone, but sharing an experience unique to a city that you are not from can really help cement new relationships.

Have fun out there!

Rick Goetz is a music consultant and musician coach by way of a fifteen year career at major record labels and various online and television projects. For more articles like this you can visit his site, musiciancoaching.com.

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4 thoughts on “Surviving South By Southwest – A Music Conference Primer

  1. Yes good advice. I am at SXSW as a hired drummer with only a fistful of business cards to offer other than the 4 shows I am doing this week. I want to get many more gigs wherever I can across the country, nay the world, and I am just starting to promote myself as such. I live in Seattle so it can be hard to meet people that want me to play their show in Nashville. I am going to do my best to meet as many people as possible and hopefully I will need more cards. Thanks.
    Aaron

  2. I’m glad I got a chance to read this and the above comment. My band will be playing Shakespeare Saturday at noon and around 4:30 on Sunday at Cheer up Charlies. We’re hoping to find a touring group or company that needs a band to travel with, as my band RCU is a live band and want to remain on the road as long as we can. Please check us out, I would enjoy any further thoughts of what a good band could get out of a couple shows in Austin during this great event.
    Peace
    k

  3. Great advice! It’s so easy to get lost in the shuffle at SxSW (at any big conference, but this one’s bigger than most). The key is establishing a goal for the trip before you depart. Is it to meet someone in particular? Make an appointment. Confirm. Be on time. Is it to learn from one of the tutorials? Make sure you know where it takes place and give yourself time to get there. Is it to be discovered as the next big thing? Unless you’re part of a showcase–and you’ve created a strategic invitation list that includes people who can discover you–don’t expect to be discovered. Use Twitter to your advantage. “For (your specialty, i.e., blues drummers) only: Longnecks are on me at 2 PM at Hill Cafe.”

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