How to Survive SXSW as an independent, international artist
I always wanted to go to SXSW. I remember hearing about the festival as a teenager and falling for the idea of traipsing around in the Texas heat watching up and coming bands in tiny venues (and maybe the odd secret high profile artist thrown in for good measure). So back in 2013 I saved up, bought a music badge and travelled from the UK to experience it first hand.
I had an absolute blast, and got a handle on the scale of the festival and how insane, and vast it is. It was clear to me that this could be the place for a new band to thrive if they played it in a way that was genuine, fresh and exciting.
Fast forward four years and my self-managed, UK-based band False Advertising has just travelled all the way to Austin and played four shows at SXSW. A feat we achieved independently, despite many people thinking it was a touch too ambitious!
So here’s my advice to any band planning to slay SXSW in 2017.
Fit SXSW into your existing plan
I applied to play not necessarily thinking that SXSW was essential for the development of the band, or that we’d actually get accepted. But it seemed to fit quite well around the plan that we were starting to form, and our recording and release schedule. So it seemed silly not to put ourselves in the running — at least then we might have the option to go.
The application itself does ask for a pretty fully formed plan of what you’ll be doing release-wise around the time of the showcase. So I basically wrote what would happen if I got my way about everything that I wanted to do with the band (this was back in September 2016). We would have recorded some new material and would be some way into releasing a set of singles, with good PR and radio support on-board. That was the basis of our application.
Be careful what you wish for
So lo and behold back in October, we got our official invitation through to perform at the festival. Feelings went from sheer amazement and excitement to absolute crippling fear. Could we do this? How do we do this? Would it derail everything we wanted to do? As a self-managing band with no experience of playing internationally at all this seemed in hindsight like a pipe dream. Were we crazy? Would people think we were stupid for doing it?
We took a few steps back and realised how lucky we were to get the opportunity, and that the three of us had a good amount of time to figure out how to tackle it together. Having agreed that we all wanted to do it and that we’d find a way to afford it by juggling our band funds / possibly doing crowdfunding etc. We set about figuring out how to make it happen.
It also became a reason to fulfil the recording and release plan that I had set out ahead of the festival. So it helped us get our acts together about finishing new songs too.
Plan all of the boring stuff early on
Accommodation, flights, equipment and visas. I would say these are the first things you need to concern yourself with when planning an international showcase.
Accommodation can be cheap if booked really far in advance through a site like airbnb (pick something with free cancellation and be ready for people cancelling on you because they’re planning to hike their prices for the festival). Plan to stay a couple of miles out and use taxi / ridesharing apps or car hire. There is also a ‘host family’ programme that no one told us about until it was too late that a lot of bands took advantage of — which could have saved us a bit of cash had we been able to use it.
Flights are going to cost you a fair bit. We, however managed to shave a few hundred pounds off the cost of ours by flying direct from Manchester to Houston, then driving for three hours to Austin from there. Do the research and try and fly direct to Austin or Houston if you can (where the border agents will know what SXSW is). You might not want to book your flights until a bit closer to the festival incase anything falls through or your plan changes (we got offered a few other US dates that we could have done if we’d have gotten working visas for example). But know what’s out there and how much it’s roughly going to cost you as early as possible.
Equipment — backline may or may not be supplied for the official showcase that you are assigned. Form a plan for what would happen if you needed to source a full backline. We had originally planned to hire all of our equipment when in Austin (from a place called Rock n Roll rentals which is quite highly recommended), but then opted to bring two of our guitars in flight cases. We did end up hiring a second telecaster while out there as a spare and shared equipment with Leggy for one showcase.
Visas — or lack of. People will tell you that you can and can’t go to the States and perform at a showcase on an ESTA. The truth is that it is an incredibly grey area and you should research and investigate extensively. SXSW themselves pertain that you should be allowed to perform ‘official’ showcases on an ESTA (or similar non-working visa) as a foreign artist, but the truth is that when entering the USA, the border agent may interview you and disagree with this. They could even deport you if they think you are lying and doing paid shows elsewhere in the country (you are NOT allowed to do that, it’s illegal). To be completely safe the best thing is to get yourselves working visas, which will allow you to ‘work’ in the USA as a musician. This should be done as early as possible because it can take a long time to get processed, they also will set you back a few hundred pounds per band member.
We entered under ESTA by the way, but it was a very worrying experience and I’d recommend anyone to look into doing it the proper way to avoid many sleepless nights and realistic dreams of being deported.
Look into options for funding
There are actually many ways of funding a trip like SXSW without absolutely crippling yourselves for the rest of the year, which you can look into if you are accepted. There are many organisations that actually want to support UK based music overseas as it is proven that it has a positive effect on our economy and culture.
The most obvious and first thing to probably try is PRS’s International Showcase Fund — they pick a plethora of acts from the UK to financially support each year for SXSW. You will need to have a bulletproof plan and business objectives for your trip and show that you are deserving of financial support. You can get up to £5000 depending on how many of you there are.
Another option for funding is via the Department for International Trade. We ended up having some fantastic support from DIT and their Northern Powerhouse mission, it’s definitely worth getting in touch with them and asking their advice early on.
You should also consider whether your fanbase could help you out. We saw SuperGlu hold fundraising concerts where their fanbase were happy to donate to their SXSW cause. You could also look into running a crowdfunding campaign (we would have certainly had to do this had we have not secured funding for our trip — if not for SXSW perhaps for our next project).
As early as possible — message other bands you know or admire that get announced saying how excited you are about it. Find out about blogs and publications which cover the festival or run stages and introduce yourselves to them via email / twitter etc. Dig out any people you’ve worked or been in touch with in the past who are likely to be there (booking agents, labels, publishers, startups etc etc). You will want to put as many names to faces as you can when out there so it’s good to reach out to people ahead of the festival.
Attend any SXSW specific events that you see coming up — I went to a really good PRS one in February down in London which got me onto the official UK WhatsApp group for SXSW and introduced me to a lot of the UK industry who were going. We actually booked a gig in London that happened to be on the day of that workshop and managed to get a few people to come down afterwards to see us play Camden Lock. Which was a big stroke of luck.
There is no limit to how much work you can do to plan for SXSW as a new artist. Split up tasks and ask your other band members to help you contacting people or organising equipment, otherwise you may become ill / an insomniac. Enlist a PR company (ideally the one you’re using for your releases anyway) to help out too. You never know, they might help to get you onto the DIY or Clash or BBC official showcases.
You are only guaranteed one official showcase as an official SXSW artist, artists with multiple showcases will have been invited to play extra ones by magazines, blogs and companies.
Make the most of it
Playing SXSW as a new artist is a big achievement. You should be shouting about it before, while you’re there and be doing as much press as you can afterwards about your experience. I looked at the whole thing like it was a privilege that I might never get to repeat, so we documented it as much as possible. We enlisted a photographer to get some promo shots while we were there, we filmed all of our sets. We made a point of introducing ourselves to as many people as we could, where else can you walk down the road and bump into Steve Lamacq and Huw Stevens and find that they actually already are semi-aware of you? A bit crazy really.
Reach out to your SXSW booker contact saying you’d love to do extra showcases if they come up at short notice. Be ready to drop everything to play a short notice official showcase if it turns out one band hasn’t made it over / has had visa issues. We got our first showcase on the first night of the festival this way.
Don’t forget to play well
You will probably be jet lagged when your first showcase rolls around. You will have one night where you end up on the VIP list at a Smash Mouth concert and then run around having had one too many drinks at the free bar singing ‘Somebody once told me the world is going to roll me’. You need to enjoy yourself and make friends, but you also need to make sure you play the best shows of your life. Live up to the hype, practice your set as much as you can — book a rehearsal space if you have to. Do well and you never know what you may just start while out there.