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Spotify, Apple, Google, Pandora, Oh My: Marketing at SXSW Steps It Up

To market or not to market at the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas? And if a company decides to market, will they outshine the competition or fall unnoticed into the white noise of competing…

To market or not to market at the annual SXSW festival in Austin, Texas? And if a company decides to market, will they outshine the competition or fall unnoticed into the white noise of competing showcases?

Even a standard SXSW showcase is expensive. A quick survey at SXSW reveals a basic event — an official, branded event — will cost about $20,000 to $25,000 a day for the venue and event production. The larger events can easily cost $500,000, according to a source, and a larger event was rumored to cost north of $2 million — not including the hours invested by staff to plan and work at the events. Hosting a big star will increase the tab. As Billboard reported three years ago, Lady Gaga received $2.5 million from Doritos for her performance.


Digital music services’ showcases at this year’s SXSW festival reflected their personalities and, for the most part, correlated to their respective market shares. Spotify went big and got the most attention. Pandora’s large event put the music first, while reinforcing its brand. Amazon Prime made a small appearance and streamed some acoustic performances. Apple Music and Beats 1 surreptitiously held some events at a sleek space far from downtown.

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Nearly everybody was talking about the Spotify House. A couple years after four tragic deaths and three years following an over-the-top Doritos vending machine, the size of the Spotify House was second only to the massive, long-running Fader Fort (and like the Fader Fort it had long lines). Just a couple years ago the Spotify House was an actual small house painted green in the burgeoning area just east of I-35. In 2016 it felt like a small festival attended by both fans and Spotify  executives and staffers. The large main stage played host to CHVRCES, Miguel, St. Lucia, Kacey Musgraves, Vince Staples, the Kills and many others. A small stage, the size of the house-abutting mainstage just a few years ago, was found in a quiet back patio. Extra marketing courtesy of Spotify House-branded Car2Go rental cars added to heavy word-of-mouth promotion. The event was so large that people were privately wondering if an event that size was worth the price tag. But whatever the cost, Spotify landed sponsorships from PlayStation 4, SoulCycle, Google’s Chromecast and the Syfy show “Hunter.”

Now in its fifth year, Pandora’s Discovery Den returned to Gatsby’s near Red River Road. A good production with a viewing area the size of a large backyard in the suburbs, with free drinks for VIPs upstairs and a good view of the stage. This had the markings of an expensive production. The performances were caught by multiple cameras caught and fed to a large video screen, branded by Scotts lawn care company, in a small lot across the alley where people could relax, play cornhole and visit booths by two other sponsors, Olay skin care and Chick-fil-A restaurants. In the adjacent green room, head of artists marketing Jason Feinberg gave artists demos of the new AMPCast app, a simple-to-use tool for recording messages that will be streamed inserted into fans’ listening experience.

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Apple snuck up on Austin this year. It hosted a big event in 2014, bringing the iTunes Festival to the U.S. for the first time. After taking a break last year, Apple quietly set up shop over a mile-and-a-half from downtown, far east of the area where the Fader Fort and Spotify House mark the eastern edge of the concert zone. Invites were so few that many of Apple’s competitors, usually well attuned to their competition’s marketing efforts, knew the Apple space existed. It was a comfortable, understated but stylish space with a crowd to match. The flashiest item was a Beats 1 neon light hanging on the back bungalow and visible from a small courtyard. The opening day included a Beats 1 broadcast in the afternoon and dinner and drinks in the early evening. Music streamed through Sonos speakers while Robert Kondrk, Zane Lowe and Apple Music staffers from Los Angeles, Nashville and London mingled.

Google always has a presence in Austin. This year, YouTube returned to Copperfield’s, a large club with a small courtyard perfect for resting reliably exhausted feet. YouTube Music played host to Santigold, Future, Chairlift, Jamie xx, Blood Orange and Troye Sivan, just to name a few. Like last year, the dim-lit space was filled with video screens showcasing the YouTube platform, but like the service itself YouTube Music’s event didn’t bring the buzz of previous years.

In general, Rhapsody tends to quietly go about its business, growing steadily and happily enjoying the uptick all streaming services received from Apple Music’s heavily publicized launch. Its marketing spend at SXSW reflected its personality. In other words: Rhapsody went small. It passed on a splashier event — and the higher price that goes with it — by partnering with Goose Island Beer and DoStuff Media to sponsor an event at Empire Control Room, a block north of Pandora Discovery Den.

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Not all events were thrown by streaming services. TuneCore hosted music from Thursday to Saturday at Vulcan Gas Company, a 650 person-capacity indoor venue that regularly hosts hip-hop and dance events. The last day was sponsored by cigar maker Swisher Sweets and featured R&B and hip-hop acts such as Talib Kweli, Waka Flocka Flame, DJ Whoo Kid and Andy Allo. Sony Music and digital distributor the Orchard hosted a tequila-fueled happy hour with DJing by Akira Records, ATP Recordings, Fortuna Pop! and Frenchkiss Records.

SXSW is such a good marketing opportunity that companies are willing to find and fund a space for just one day. Landr, a startup with an online tool for track mastering, was able to get a good deal on a space, at Public School just east of I-35, between tenants in a building that will soon be the home of ride-sharing company Lyft. Landr shared the space with Native Instruments, spending an afternoon giving demos.

Getting attention at SXSW isn’t easy. It usually takes a year or two to get momentum before growing into a must-see event. But these activations aren’t about just consumer marketing; many are simply prime opportunities to hang out with business partners and clients in a fun environment. It’s work, not just play. Some companies just play harder than others.