South By Southwest, which kicks off tomorrow with SXSW Interactive (March 7-11) and SXSW Film (March 7-15) followed by SXSW Music (March 11–16), is one of the year's most prominent music events and, as is often said, the most overwhelming. For at least a decade, industry pros have complained the confab is marred by overpopulation, innumerable events at all hours of the day and night, corporate sponsorship ad nauseum— all of which beg the perennial question: Has SXSW jumped the shark? In 2012, the number of people who attended at least one SXSW activity totaled some 155,000.
With that in mind, Billboard polled a brain trust of veteran music execs to get expert strategies for how best to approach the conference; and to explain why, exactly, it's still worth the ticket to Austin. From now through Tuesday, Billboard.biz will roll-out first-person narratives from five music executives— The Windish Agency's Tom Windish, Def Jam's Sickamore, Mom+Pop Music Company' s Michael Goldstone, Glassnote Record's Daniel Glass and MTheory's Madeleine Bennett—who give us their seasoned perspective on the industry's annual Texas takeover.
the Windish Agency
We have 121 artists at SXSW this year. The bulk are playing Music, but we have them at all three sections of the conference. To prepare? I meditate for hours, days, weeks ahead of time. I haven’t had any alcohol for the entire year. I don’t recommend that for everyone, but I find doing South By sober is a completely different experience. You’re having all these different conversations with bands and other people in the industry and it helps to just have a clear head. Plus you remember a lot more!
When I’m there, I usually walk down 6th St. in the middle of the afternoon. There are always bands that I want to see playing like a block away, no matter what time of day it is. I’ll try and see 10 or 15 in a day— pop in for 20 minutes here, 15 minutes there. Those are usually my most satisfying South By moments. I’ve got more energy in the afternoon and my ears are a little bit more fresh. I find that the events at night are more crowded, and even for me it takes a little longer to get in. I can’t bounce around quite as much.
"South By sober is a completely different experience."
South By is always evolving and always getting bigger. A lot of the bands there now that are getting attention from the industry and the media already have agents and management teams and labels. If a band has an agent, there isn’t much point in me going to see them. Finding the ones who are still unrepresented is usually a matter of talking to friends in the business and just asking them “What are you listening to? What’s new that you like? Who’s getting popular in your city?” I’ll ask promoters, publicists, lawyers, all kinds of people. There’s a level of band that’s still going there to be discovered, but they’re very small and not very well known.
I think South By is becoming more of a marketing platform than a discovery platform. That’s not necessarily bad or good, it’s just a change. It’s kind of like the technology side— it’s a place where people go to market a new product and make a big impact on the world.
South By is an international event and the international audience is very, very big. People from Australia and Europe and Asia all go. It might take one of our bands years to make it to those markets in person, but at South By they’ll be able to meet those people and form relationships with promoters, publicists and labels. Usually we have bands that end up doing business that way.
Friday afternoon this year we have our big event at Mohawk with Vans, where Phantogram, Lee Fields, Jungle, San Fermin, Conan Mockasin, Wet, and a bunch of our other bands will play. We’ve been doing that party for 5 years. Partnering with Vans has been good for us because the cost of producing events at South By has increased over the years. It used to be that you could put things on for little or no money, but now there are a lot of people with deep pockets and the price has gone up. A great venue like Mohawk is in really high demand, so it’s nice that Vans helps us pay for it. Plus we can do free drinks and ice cream sandwiches and fun stuff like that.
One year we did eight events at South By, and then we pulled that back to two. This year we’re doing just one. My philosophy is that I want the event to be as crowded as possible. I want to turn people away; for it to be something that people really want to get into. Usually a number of key people in the music industry will show up. We’re known as an agency that has a lot of up and coming talent, so people love to see who’s playing with the thinking being that one of those bands is going to be the next big thing.