SXSW veterans spill the secrets of success (plus the first dates you need to know for 2018)
The South by Southwest conference has never failed to grow and evolve every year since its inception in 1989, and remains a massive, exhausting, thrilling and inspiring time for industry professionals, artists, startups and enthusiaists.
But if you want to go along, where do you actually start? And is it worth it?
There will be two informal “grip’n’grin” nights in Sydney and Melbourne next month, where a number of veterans (with 54 SXSWs under their belts between them) across music, marketing and interactive will share their experiences and advice for making the most of SXSW 2018.
They’re free with RSVP – email firstname.lastname@example.org to put your hand up.
MELBOURNE – Corner Hotel, Wednesday August 2, 5:30pm
SXSW’s Phil Tripp asked six of the biggest names in the business who summed up some of the highs and the lows of their SXSW experiences over the years.
JOHN WATSON: CEO, ELEVEN A MUSIC COMPANY
Photo: Hot & Delicious
“Over the years we’ve had several artists showcase at SXSW including Missy Higgins and Little Birdy.
“Probably the biggest success story, though, was Wolfmother, who I managed for their first album cycle. In 2005 their Austin showcase turned a strong buzz into an outright bidding war.
“Within a couple of months they’d landed a big recording deal with Interscope and were fielding multiple publishing offers. That experience was so fundamental in putting the band on the map that the following year they returned to SXSW to launch their debut album that went on to go gold in the U.S. and win them a Grammy.
“In that instance it was a great way for them to cover literally dozens of the world’s most important media outlets in the same place over just a couple of days. Wolfmother’s experience across those two years is a great example of the different ways in which this unique event can be used to turn “buzz” into genuine global success.
“It also reflects the different ways in which SXSW can be useful for individuals – it’s both a great place to discover new music and an opportunity to connect with other people at all levels of the international music industry.”
GREGG DONOVAN, DIRECTOR, WONDERLICK ENTERTAINMNT
“I’ve been to SXSW myself about ten times and I always get something out of it. We launched Boy & Bear’s second album there and did all the parties before we headed out on an extensive North American tour.
“It was the boost we needed to get the ball rolling. We ended that cycle with a Top 10 (Triple A format) radio hit and selling out theatres across the States, UK, Europe and of course Australia.
“A few years before that I had a lot of heat on Aussie hard rockers Airbourne so, we headed to SXSW to play the Aussie BBQ showcase and try to get in front of the A&R guys who were interested in the band. We left with three deals on the table and ended up signing to Roadrunner Records out of New York.
“Fast forward several years later and the band is now playing main stage at many festivals across UK and Europe, and selling out massive headline shows all over the globe.
“Their latest album was a top ten release in several countries including the UK & Germany. SXSW has proven to be a great place for me to network, launch careers and get deals…that’s what it’s all about, right!?… Well that, and a good BBQ.”
PHIL STEVENS, FOUNDER OF PHIL STEVENS MANAGEMENT AND CO-OWNER OF JARRAH RECORDS
“The Waifs, 2001: My first SXSW experience. I had just come from the North American Folk Alliance, where people with beards and big bellies were very happy and eager to talk, share stories, watch showcases, mingle and generally fall over themselves to flatter you and the artist.
“Attending SXSW was terrifying in comparison. It took me three days before I managed to get into a meaningful conversation with anyone. I thought he was a record company executive, but turned out to be the carpark valet at The Four Seasons! Fail!
“The Flairz, 2006: This was the classic example of the band that created a huge hype and stir! Being only 12 years old they would have been the youngest band to ever play SXSW.
“Word spread quickly and the various showcases got bigger and bigger each day. It was very exciting and an amazing experience for the band.
“We had many record label lunches and formed friendships with Steven Van Zandt and featured on his Garage Rock show.
“San Cisco, 2012 and 2015: The first time at SXSW was for the release of their debut album on Fat Possum/RCA. The label used their showcases to highlight the release of the album and created much publicity.
“The second times was for the independent release of their second album. They again had an absolute ball, but missed the pull of the major label assisting with coordinating all the promo opps.
“Overall SXSW is an incredible experience for an Australian band. BUT you need to be the hot ticket or have some very specific goals and aspirations.
“It is easy to get lost in the crowd, and end up $20,000-$30,000 worse off. Which is fine if you can afford it, but not if you can’t.
“I look forward to going back to SXSW with my new artists POW!Negro and Stella Donnelly soon.”
BILL CULLEN – ONE LOUDER MANAGEMENT
“Sarah Blasko: “We went over just a few months after Sarah’s first album The Overture & The Underscore had been released in Australia, and we had just started managing her. There was a real buzz – we already a US label deal sorted, but their commitment increased massively by getting to see her perform.
“The showcase itself was almost a disaster. The PA stopped working just as Sarah was about to start. Like a true pro, she decided to just start performing acoustically, which had the crowd spellbound. The PA kicked in soon thereafter, and Sarah’s now US booking agent walked in the door about then.
“Shane Nicholson: I first went to SXSW in I think 2003, with Shane Nicholson. It felt like a country club compared to what it is now. Shane came home with a record deal with a great US indie, and also some songwriting opportunities that he took up the following year.
“Kate Miller-Heidke: It was at SXSW that Epic Records picked up their option to release Kate in the US. Unfortunately that was the worst thing that could have happened to her North American career…
“Paul Kelly: Paul played at SXSW in 2008. He had not toured in the US for several years, and going to Austin proved the perfect re-entry point for him. There was great press and AAA radio attention, and he is making his 11th trip since then back to North America in September this year.”
LEIGH TREWEEK, HANDSHAKE MANAGEMENT
“I have been lucky enough to experience SXSW on a number of occasions as both a media owner and as an artist manager.
“I have never walked away from any of my trips without positive outcomes.
“My most recent visit was 2017 as manager of Alex Lahey, it would be an understatement to say it was successful. Alex played eleven shows and received amazing international media support. As a manager I was able to secure international touring opportunities to solidify our label and agent relationships.
“With planning and a strong strategy there is no event anywhere where you can create such amazing business outcomes.”
PAUL CASHMERE, NOISE 11
“SXSW is a meeting of the minds. You can spend years developing relationships in Australia that seem to cement within a week at SXSW.
“SXSW weeds out the ridiculous. The people who attend are serious about the business. I’ve developed some great top shelf contacts who have become lifelong friends at SXSW.
“To quote that old philosopher David Byrne: ‘This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no foolin’ around’. SXSW is the brains-trust of the business. It is essential for those doing this for a long career.”