By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)

I’ve seen SXSW change drastically over the nearly 20 years I’ve been attending. Unfortunately, many of those who attend—both performers and labels—have not changed with it.  As we approach SXSW 2012, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how you can make the most of your time there.

As most reading this are likely performers, it’s important to realize that if you’re heading to SXSW in the hopes that some A&R person will sign you, you’re deluding yourself and wasting your (and the A&R person’s) time.

While there was a time (the 90s) where this happened a lot, and, yes, artists will get signed out of this year’s SXSW, the likelihood of it happening without a tremendous amount of other factors coming into play is pretty much non-existent.

So, what can you do to maximize your time there?

You need to first get in the mindset that your music career is like a start-up business (by the way, businesses often remain in the start-up stage for a number of years).  To this end, rather than viewing SXSW as a way of selling your business (i.e. getting someone to sign you, which, again, ain’t gonna happen), look at it as a way of accelerating/growing your career.

You do this by focusing on a few specific things.  First, view SXSW as a way to acquire knowledge and connections.  There are fantastic panels throughout. Not-so-subtle plug for the TuneCore panels. Attend these panels. Listen, learn, interact. Also download our booklets that we’ve prepared for SXSW.

In terms of connections, seek out those people who share your values.  This could be other performers, people in the industry, and, yes, fans.  By this I mean: get out there and hear music; hang out at the various hotel lobbies and talk to people, and, of course, if you’re performing, talk to those who are out to see you, and try to forge relationships.  As I’ve written, in order to find those who share your principles, make sure you know your own.

Once you’ve identified people who share your values (whether potential fans or those in the industry) find ways to connect that allow for the relationship to grow.  You do this by talking, seeing if there is value-alignment, and then exchanging something.  If you’re connecting with a fan, that exchange should be your music for their email address (better yet, if there’s really value alignment, give them a CD/drop card for themselves and a second one for them to give to one of their friends).

If you’re connecting with someone in the industry, do not give them one of your CDs, unless they ask for it.  Please don’t ask them if they want one. Please don’t just hand them one. If they want to hear your music, they will ask you. Likely, they will want to listen to it online, so be sure to have some sort of business card with a URL to your website where your music can be heard.  Don’t have a business card, or a website? You really need to question if you’re treating your career like a business or a hobby.  Again, please do not give people CDs unless they explicitly ask for one.  Here’s the thing: they won’t.

SXSW is an opportunity for you to begin—as I’ve recently written about–thinking about A&R differently. It’s no longer about meeting some A&R person, and forcing a CD in the vague hopes that this will mean something.  Rather, it’s about Attracting & Retaining relationships with those people who share your values.

To be clear, these people you attract and retain may very well be A&R people. However, remember that relationships (and markets) are conversations.  Sure, go to the panel where the A&R people are speaking, and, if in fact one of them seems to align with your values, see if you can’t at least thank them for their time, and tell them you appreciated what they said.  Do not give them a CD during this conversation.

The funny thing about networking is that it’s most effective when you do something for someone without asking for anything in return. In this way, seeds of a relationship are sown.  These seeds—perhaps scattered among fans, A&R people, media companies, managers, agents, club bookers, etc.—need to be nurtured over time before any thing of value grows.

SXSW is a place where seeds can be effectively and easily sewn.  Who knows how, when, or if they will take root, but if you think in terms of A&R as attracting and retaining relationships with people who share your values, these relationships will be far more durable than whatever might come of you foisting an unsolicited CD on an already-overburdened A&R (in the historic sense of the word) person or other gatekeeper.

For those of you coming to SXSW, I’d love to meet you at the TuneCore panels and live distribution times. For those of you who aren’t coming, download the our guides, and look for ways you can do the new A&R (attraction and retention) wherever you are.

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George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650

Related to this article: 7 Ways To Increase Your Odds Of Success In The Music Business In 2012

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