[Editors Note: This blog was written by Jhoni Jackson, a music journalist and Puerto Rico-based venue owner.]
Planning is key to a successful SXSW experience, but there’s more to prepping than booking shows and finding a place to stay. Understanding what you could potentially get out of your time at the fest is equally important as accepting what’s very unlikely to happen; whether you’re a first-timer or returning band hoping for better results this year, this guide can help lay the foundation for your plans.
1. Tip: Set realistic networking goals
Getting noticed by important industry folk at SXSW would be a career-boosting dream, of course. But for most bands and artists, even if they’re on full display at an official showcase, enamoring a label rep or booking agent to a point that they sweep in and offer a massive deal that changes their lives forever—that’s simply not reality.
While the ultimate winning scenario isn’t impossible, your time at the festival is much better spent focusing on realistic networking goals. Instead of hoping for the ultimate opportunity, seek out connections with all types of people regardless of presumed influence. The founder of a tiny label you hadn’t heard of before, the blogger who’s there as official press but is covering events on their own accord, that person in the crowd who took a video of your set—any of these people could potentially help you in some way, big or small. Networking as a independent musician isn’t just about moving up the ranks, it’s about finding your people within that community, cultivating those connections and collaborating together to elevate each other’s work.
Taboo: Being obnoxious
Don’t let your eagerness to talk with someone in the industry obliterate common sense. Interrupting a conversation, grabbing at a passing person to get their attention, forcing a chat to keep going despite sensing the other party is trying to move on—all of these things are as unacceptable in industry networking as they are in any social setting. Being excited to meet someone and super-hyped by the possiblity of working together is not an excuse for being annoying or making other people uncomfortable.
2. Tip: SXSW is not just about networking
Don’t forget so wrapped up in making connections that you forget the festival is a stellar opportunity for growing your fanbase. If you’ve landed an official showcase, congratulations—but don’t ignore the unofficial parties. If there’s no stipulation in your contract against playing outside the official fest, then definitely, absolutely look into official shows.
Music passes cost between $800 and $1,000; not everyone wants to or has the option to spend that much for access to legit SXSW events. Naturally, the overflow of unofficial parties is immense. Those crowds are real opportunities to grow your fanbase. If you’re not already playing an unofficial event, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to hop on an existing bill at this point. Still, you can search for shows featuring likeminded bands—go check them out, meet people, watch other bands perform, and talk about your band and pass out CDs or cards with download codes when you can.
Taboo: Forgetting the unofficial shows
Seriously, it’s where the action is. As an independent artist, putting too much importance on official showcases and dismissing unofficial shows altogether is basically sacrilege. If you weren’t contracted for an official showcase, you can still play these unofficial shows and have a productive experience.
3. Tip: Prepare thoroughly
If you’ve got a lot of shows lined up, your time at SXSW will inevitably be chaotic. You already know it will be incredibly crowded, and schedules are incredibly compact, packed to the gills with back-to-back sets. The more prepared you are, the less likely you are to crumble under the festival’s inherently stressful pressure.
Map out your schedule, taking care to allow for time spent traveling from set to set. Whenever possible, include extra time for the possibility of fighting through a mass of immovable party people. Grabbing a bite seems relatively easy in theory, but the crowds can cause serious delays so you’ll want to figure in some time to eat, too.
Carry a snack on you, just in case. Bring along a refillable water bottle, too. Lastly, keep a portable phone charger handy, bring back-ups like strings and cables and, unless you want to feel miserable for the bulk of your trip, consistently use sunscreen during daylight hours.
Taboo: Freaking out when your schedule goes awry
No matter how meticulously you plan, it’s very possible that some outside factor will negatively affect your schedule. Do your best to adapt to whatever changes you encounter. After all, if a situation is out of your control, the best you can do is minimize additional damage: try to be constructive, but above all else, stay calm.
4. Tip: Use SXSW as a chance to try something new
Is there an idea you’ve been holding onto for fear of it not working in your local scene? Sometimes the habits you develop working your city’s circuit—even the positive ones—hold you back from trying new things. You’ve established a certain rapport with your crowd; suddenly switching things up could put off existing fans.
Handing out flyers with your social media info and album download codes in your own city might feel like overdoing it if you’re under the impression that anyone who wanted to check your band out already knows you exist. Austin during SXSW, totally jam-packed with people who’ve never heard of you, is an ideal opportunity to employ that promo strategy.
That’s only one example—you could incorporate new ideas almost anywhere, from your live setup, to how you deliver a particular song or the kind or cost of merch you sell.
Taboo: Not being yourself
Trying out something new is generally a positive thing, but you shouldn’t go so far as to present a version of yourself that isn’t genuine. It’s a fine line between entertaining a possible change and forcing one. Trust your instincts—you know when something feels insincere or contrived.
5. Tip: Enjoy yourself!
As stressful as SXSW can be, you should still be able to have a good time. Following the aforementioned tips will help you avoid major let-downs and stay chill in times of trouble. You’ll make the most out of the fest if you employ all of them—and you can still do that while having a good time.
If you don’t pile up so many expectations about networking, you’ll find it more enjoyable to connect with people. You can make new connections while hanging out and watching bands at an unofficial show—and that should be fun, duh! And that water bottle you’ve been lugging around will prove especially useful in moderating the effects of booze consumption.
Taboo: Having too good of a time, i.e. getting totally sloshed
It should go without saying that if you hit the booze (or whatever else) too hard, you’ll weaken your chances of making SXSW a productive experience. In a too-wasted state, you could screw up a set, miss an opportunity to talk with industry rep or give a music writer a really terrible first impression. Know your limits, and stick to them. The fest is good reason to party, sure—but don’t forget why you’re really there.