Despite its spring-break reputation, plenty of real business gets done at SXSW. Amid thousands of bands, tens of thousands of attendees and heaven knows how many thousands of gallons of alcohol served, you've got deals being made in every nook and cranny of Austin associated with the festival.
More formal business is done at the trade show in the Austin Convention Center, where companies set up booths to meet existing clients and pitch to new ones. The focus is often on less formal -- but still important -- activities that lead to new or better relationships that lead to new deals.
Michael Schneider, CEO of do-it-yourself app developer Mobile Roadie, said he gets a lot of important business done during the chaotic event. This year he busied himself with seven meetings a day in the lobby or café of the Driskill Hotel. But he said the later hours can be especially fruitful for him.
"I've found that starting around 11am and going till 2am or 3am was usually the right tempo, and that often the most valuable connections with people were after-hours." Schneider said, calling SXSW 2011 his "most productive yet."
Many industry professionals have found that just walking the streets of downtown Austin can get results, said Brad Navin, CEO of digital distributor the Orchard. "You get all your business done walking down Sixth Street," he said of the main artery in Austin that plays hosts to many of SXSW's showcases.
To make new connections, it helps to avoid familiar social circles and the more crowded venues, according to Shane Wells of RM64, manager of singer-songwriter David Ramirez.
"I avoid all the buzz shows and events like the plague," said Wells, who lives in Austin. Instead, he spends time with his artists and hops from one showcase to another, which he says helps him to meet publicists, booking agents and other managers.
Patrick Foucher, co-founder and chief technology officer of direct-to-fan company Nimbit, says his company has also turned late-night networking into business opportunities. A chance meeting one night turns into a casual meeting with the Nimbit team the following day, he said.
That strategy works because the team has set up shop in the bar of the Hilton Hotel. Not only is the bar comfortable and open to the public, it's a lot cheaper than some other methods. "We said, 'Screw paying eight grand for a booth, we'll just tell people where to find us at the bar,'" Foucher said. In addition to specific invites, Nimbit encouraged walk-ups to its demos from 3 p.m. to about 7 p.m. every afternoon. However, he added, the more structured business development meetings are held in the quieter restaurant or to the side of their table in the lounge.
Of course, the festival's manic schedule makes it challenging for even the most organized people to stick to their plans. "I generally never set up meetings and use serendipity to get me around places and bumping into people," said Stephan Bass, co-founder of London-based Moshi Moshi Records. He added the approach has worked well for him, allowing him to meet new people, run into Stateside contacts and promote his bands.
And there is also business value to simply watching an act at a venue. David Airaudi, co-manager of Odd Future and strategy executive at Interscope Geffen A&M label group, says SXSW allows potential partners to see an act perform live. Before Odd Future strikes a deal, it's important that Airaudi can gauge a person's reaction. "That show is intense," he said, a comment backed up by the group's appearance at Billlboard's showcase Saturday night. "Someone who comes to that and sticks around is obviously very interested in getting involved in the entirety of who that artist is."
Even though the music portion of SXSW may appear to be a four-day party, businesspeople wear themselves ragged. After all, it's a competitive business. When most of the industry is in the same place, leaving a stone unturned can be a lost opportunity. "You're shell-shocked by the end of it," said Foucher. "And if you're not, chances are you didn't do it right."