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I Took a Record Label to SXSW Last Year

Here’s What We Did Well, Here’s What We Did Wrong.

By W. Tyler Allen

SXSW is important.

SXSW is important because as an artist, especially in today’s digital landscape, you need to stand out. Social media and the online world generates so much static, because there are dozens of artists utilizing the same tools as you. They’re on Twitter, they’re pitching blogs, and they’re using digital means to be everywhere. And with that much static, it’s hard for you to make your own noise as an individual.

SXSW is one of the few chances that  an artist can genuinely network with journalists, executives, and most importantly, other artists. Not to mention you can perform at official showcases and garner new fans and listeners. You aren’t in competition with others, and you can have real face-time with decision makers and influencers, rather than just being words behind an email.

In 2015, I was working with a relatively new independent label, as a marketing consultant and project manager. The label was bringing their entire roster (5 artists/acts) to SXSW for showcases,  events, as well as the overall experience.

This project was one of my largest in 2015, and for the most part — our experience at SXSW was a huge highlight for the entire label project, for all of us.

So, if you’re reading this and wondering how to best prepare and what to look out for when hanging out in Austin, here’s a look at what my team did well, and what we wish we did differently.

What We Did Well: We Did Our Research

For those of you who don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, SXSW is made up of various events that go on across downtown Austin. There are networking events, lectures, pitch sessions, and then at night, the actual artist showcases. It’s key for you to understand events, so you can then leverage them for your own benefit and success.

For instance, we did some research (and blatant Twitter lurking) to find out which journalists and writers will be attending SXSW. Some of them we already had a relationship with and others — not so much. However, we reached out to these writers and invited them to our artist’s showcases.

We simply emailed them, told them who we were, and let them know they’d be on our list (if they didn’t have a badge). Did we also bribe them with drinks? Absolutely. But at the end of the week, we had plenty of writers, journalists and influencers at our shows.

This is an incredibly overlooked tactic for SXSW. Folks believe that since they’re playing at SXSW, they’re guaranteed the “right people” will come to their showcase. But not necessarily, and even if they are in the area, it doesn’t hurt to send out a few emails to ensure they know about your performance.

Also keep in mind: it doesn’t have to be writers.

For instance, inviting your distributor (such as TuneCore!) to stop by, could result in some great social media coverage which can boost your growth and reach. Same goes for any affiliated company that may be in Austin. Maybe you’re doing a crowdfunding campaign and PledgeMusic is in town, contacting them could result in them sharing your work on social media, a newsletter, or just simply result in some good relationships. Other cool people to invite: Your PRO (ASCAP/BMI/SESAC), your equipment manufacturers, notable publicists or social media influencers.

All of these entities can lead to great relationships and even potential boosts via social media and coverage.

What We Did Poorly: We Didn’t Really See Past The Showcases

SXSW was an incredible opportunity for our artists to perform. However, SXSW doesn’t end there. SXSW provides a wide array of music industry panels, networking events, and much more throughout the week. These are topics that can really benefit artists, such as licensing meet and greets, royalty discussions, and general industry networking events.

In retrospect, our focus at SXSW was heavy on the few hours of showcases we were putting in, rather than getting our artists and team on the ground to shake some hands and take some business cards.

So, if you’re preparing to go to SXSW as a performer, don’t miss out on the other events. Don’t have an artist or attendee badge? Do some research! There may be some events that are happening “during” SXSW but are open to all artists.

What We Did Well: We Prepared Our Digital Channels

The last thing you want, is to give your fans links and material that aren’t updated. Similarly, if you’re out there connecting with journalists or any other important individual, you definitely don’t want an out-of-date EPK, or dead social media channels when they check out your work.

Therefore, ensure everything is up-to-date. One thing we did well was ensuring that prior to SXSW, we had graphic images that promoted our shows. We also geo-targeted ads, and did keyword advertising that assisted in getting our messages to the right folks.

Also, even though it was pre-SXSW, we updated our EPK to include “upcoming SXSW performances”, and also included verbiage in any press pitch that ensured we mentioned our upcoming SXSW showcases.

Similarly, we printed business cards for not only our team, but for the artists, too. We also created flash drives as well as CDs for our artists — now 9 times out of 10, a physical CD ends up on the ground of 6th street. So, we really only tried to deliver them to decision makers, or have them available at a table, so the fan made the choice to come grab one, rather than us handing them out — then the fan handing them to the trash.

What We Did Poorly: We Bought Gigs, Bad Gigs.

Here we go.

This is going to be the more “controversial” in the list — as it discusses something that’s usually kept on the low, while simultaneously being debated in industry circles: Pay For Play.

Here’s the scoop: SXSW puts on “official” showcases. These are showcases that are curated by SXSW or SXSW partners. These are usually the events that are more likely to include press, media and other entities, as it has the SXSW stamp of authenticity on it. Press also have passes to these events.

However, there are still some “unofficial” showcases that might be next door to an “official” one. Most of the time, you even get the same amount of foot traffic as an official showcase. To up the ante even more, sometimes these unofficial showcases are still put on by large organizations, and even large artists. For instance, one of our artist performed during Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang showcase. He was actually the artist that introduced Wiz before he took the stage.

This wasn’t an “official” SXSW event, but it had a line wrapped around the block and also had reporters, influencers and more in attendance. It was also at a venue across the street from a large “official” show. It’s not just major artists either, large companies, corporations and brands put on showcases that might not have that official stamp on the banner, but can still be beneficial.

Another example is the annual “rock fest” that takes place directly outdoors to a major entrance to the SXSW festivities. It’s an outdoor rock show, that always draws a crowd– since it’s in the heart of everything. It was unofficial, but they’ve been doing it since the 90’s, and luckily for our group, the guy running scheduling was also a producer for MTV. He actually ended up introducing us to some music supervisors to talk licensing deals. So, it was unofficial, but it didn’t matter. We got some wins.

However, official or unofficial isn’t what’s debated. You very well could play an unofficial gig, but you’re taking the stage with a major artist, and you still get to meet fans and press — and if that’s the case, it doesn’t really matter if it has the SXSW logo on the banner or not.

But what’s controversial and debated is that some of these unofficial showcases charge artists to take the stage. They’re pay for play. Very often these shows are just venues in the area that are looking to take advantage of SXSW festivities and charge artists a couple hundred (or more) to perform. Most of these guys/girls will let ANYONE with money hop up there, so you could be taking the stage after an artist that was so bad the crowd booked it out of there.

You also could be dealing with a sound guy that knows nothing about audio, but he’s at the venue because he gets a cut of what you paid to take the stage.

Unfortunately, my label had 5 artists, but only 3 had official showcases. Therefore, the label bought gigs to make the others feel more included and, hey, it was worth a shot, right? Well, we paid for a few shows — and while it was good practice for the artists, it wasn’t necessarily beneficial to our checkbooks or our schedule.

We had our artists go up and deal with sound techs who were clueless, and perform after six acts on the stage, rapping over their own mixtape. We even had our rock band perform at a hip hop venue, even though the “talent buyer” said it was an all-genre stage.

It certainly wasn’t a good waste of time or money — I’d much have preferred our artists to be supporting their label mate’s official showcases, or taking that time to network at a networking event. Again, not all of the unofficial showcases were bad, but we found that the pay-for-play ones, were pretty much a waste.

So, did you just drop a couple G’s on a gig? And it’s pretty much too late to turn back?

Well, for starters, don’t panic. It could turn out to be a fun opportunity, and you could still meet new fans and other folks who wander into your gig. Also, ensure that you take advantage of the “non-musical” events of the week. Get out there and go to some events, and make the best.

Austin is an incredible city, so go and enjoy it! Walk 6th street and the entire downtown, see what else is going on. You’re sure to meet some folks and just enjoy Austin’s great vibes.

What We Did Well: We Got WEEKS of Content.

You know what’s great about a photo?

You could have had terrible sound problems, and been performing to only 5 people, but if you look like a badass on stage in the picture, no one is going to know it.

One thing we did incredibly well at SXSW, was that we got so much content — that we didn’t have to worry about fumbling for new social media images or videos for a good 2 months. We had pictures of the guys on stage, we had videos and photos from the artists on the bus.

We had the rock band’s full hour set, split into 10 or so videos. We also got some great “vine-esque” clips of the fans clapping along to a performance of our outdoor gig. We got photos of fans wearing our artist’s shirts — we got photos of our team with major artists that were hanging out on the street or at our gigs.

We even got the “personal/misc.” photos taken care of — photos of the crew at the club after a performance, or eating after a late night gig.

You may be thinking, “But Tyler, there’s only so many times you can mention SXSW to your social media followers before it’s old news, right?”.

If you did think that, you’re brilliant and absolutely correct! Fans are going to tire of you bragging about your SXSW adventures very quickly. However, that photo of you performing — is also just a performance photo. Save it for later — same with a video and so forth. You can still find ways to repurpose older content to keep it fresh and exciting.

For instance, we did a few freestyles and even an off-the-cuff  “bonus” music video when the guys were on the road making the drive from California to Austin. We edited it, and kept this in our back pocket and released it a few months after SXSW. Similarly, with our rock band, we held onto a performance of their “newer material” until their album was released.

Social media, in itself, is a very straightforward entity. However, what makes it tricky, is keeping your social media and online followers engaged. By gaining a library of content, you can ensure you’re always hitting your fans with clips, photos and videos that showcase your talent and brand.


 

These are just a few things I learned from my past trips to SXSW, and how they can potentially help you prosper this year. No matter what, even if you’re just there to catch some tunes and shake some hands — you’re already 10 steps ahead of the game. Because by simply moving, and taking your energy to a music-industry hub, it shows that you’re serious and headed in a great direction. So, stay focused.


As a music marketing strategist, Tyler Allen works with an extensive array of artists, labels, music tech, and music retail entities. Tyler began his music industry career with Sony Music Entertainment and RED Distribution, as well as the advertising industry.

He is dedicated to giving veteran artists the tools to preserve their legacy, and new artists the tools to begin theirs (as well as everything in between). Learn more at wtylerconsulting.com.