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Lee Simmons

SXSW value proves elusive for some

by Lee Simmons | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

March 22, 2011 | 1 Comment »

Moby, left, with OMD at SXSW 2011

They came to Austin to play, network and have a good time. Now comes the proverbial week-after question: was SXSW worth it?

It’s a question thousands of bands and musical artists who flooded our fair city are increasingly asking themselves, as the “mother of all music festivals” continues to grow in a recording industry that is decidedly on the decline. Let’s face it, folks aren’t coming to the annual event to pursue the brass ring of a record deal, and those who are may need to splash some cold water on their faces.

Most bands and artists pay their own way to come to SXSW, only to play shows that don’t pay. For indie bands like Michigan-based Hounds Below, SXSW can cost up to $3,000 to attend, chief Hound Jason Stollsteimer recently told Dane101. Up-and-coming bands that do happen to be signed to larger labels, such as Candy Golde (signed to Chicago’s Ten-O-Nine Records), may have an easier time getting their SXSW experience funded. Still, there’s no guarantee the trek will generate the buzz a band needs to sell enough records, merchandise, and live show tickets to turn a profit.

Case in point: storied indie label Rough Trade brought only one band — the Strokes — to the conference this year. “There’s so much stuff to wade through that it’s difficult, if you are an artist, to have a presence here where you rise above the din,” Steve Knutson, the label’s general manager for North America, told NPR.

Adam Cohen, member of the band Low Millions and son of one Leonard Cohen, was even less optimistic of SXSW’s value proposition. “It’s either the mark of my career having gone so dreadfully poorly that I’m finally here, or I don’t know,” he confided to NPR. “I’m not very happy to be here.”

In the end, the real value may lie in simply getting a chance to make music for a few days alongside other likeminded artists. It’s a recipe that may not translate to record sales, but it will certainly keep SXSW comfortably in the black.


Photo by Sean Phillips, used under a Creative Commons license.

SXSW surely takes its toll on musicians. No longer is it accepted to play your one 45-minute showcase event at night. Bands squeeze out every oportunity possible to get in front of as many people as possible. Many play three or more shows a day during the festival. I’m also interested in all of this “day after” talk in town about limiting free booze next year. All of the sponsors and attendees will freak.

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