Surviving SXSW and other Music Conferences
This is a re-post of an article I wrote a couple years ago about what I learned through my own experiences with music festivals and conferences. It was also picked up by the folks at Disc Makers, who put it up on the Echoes blog. With SXSW already in full swing, I thought now was a good time to revisit some of these music festival “do”s and “don’t”s.
The Music portion of SXSW starts soon, which makes me want to share some of my experiences at music conferences. 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 some 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 whole heartedly 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 will come up again later.
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. This was 1994. Strangely, that hasn’t changed too much.
- 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, 2nd 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…”
Have a plan.
- 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) Here goes–
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!” Roughly 2 out of 3 of these insane stories are actually true.
Even if you are that special someone who could comfortably mingle and shoot the shit at an insurance seminar and will know a ton of folks at the conference- it is probably good to reach out to people and schedule some meetings a few weeks out 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 night too… 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 when you need to and I don’t recall a hangover ever helping with that.
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,