The Mammoth music mecca that is South By Southwest (SXSW) is due to kick off this week and it’s going to be another monster of a year. While Aussies have a long tradition of undertaking the annual Texas trek, that doesn’t mean the sheer scale of the festival isn’t still intimidating AF.
Having braved the festival last year and in the spirit of comradery, Melbourne’s Pretty City have set out a comprehensive list of SXSW tips to aid first-timers, apprehensive artists and all you other music industry nerds who are curious about the conference’s logistics.
From airline luggage hacks, foodie recommendations and the most effective way to introduce your band to the myriad of bookers and industry folk around the scene, there are some no-bullshit, real deal insider tips here for all uninitiated SXSW artists that’ll help you get the most out of the ensuing madness.
Tips for SXSW with Johnny Rock from Pretty City
Hey, so you’re going to SXSW! Or at least, you want to go. We went last year! It was rad. Let us tell you what it was like, what we learnt from it and what tips we can give you.
Gear on the plane
How are you taking your gear over? Hugh and I devised a clever way to take two electric guitars in one case without breaking the bank on flight costs. Stick them in a hard body acoustic case! Hugh shoved the guitars in soft cases then into the acoustic case with clothes packed around it. I got foam and cut it out. Either way, weight will be 12-15kg max and you just got a spare guitar to SXSW without too much issue. Why do you need a spare guitar? Cause shit goes wrong all the time. And breaking a string mid-set can throw your whole game off. Much better to just pick up your spare and keep going than try and transcribe your song up or down the frets to accommodate the lack of a missing string.
Also, mark your luggage with something bright and colourful. I know you think you can recognise your own bags but, honestly, the worst feeling in the world is arriving at LAX and NOT seeing your bag after everyone has taken theirs.
Power on stage
Don’t expect every stage to have 240-volt power. We bought some voltage transformers at a place that was similar to a Tandy. Maybe $30 each. Worth it for peace of mind. Though most gigs had transformers, no one could give us a clear answer if the stages would have them or not before we left. If you have 10 effect pedals, batteries aren’t really always as simple an option as you may think.
You’re in Texas for God’s sake! If you don’t go out for BBQ at least once I consider that a wasted trip. At the very least check out Ironbarks in the city centre. There are heaps of places that say they are the best and will make you line up all day for it. I went to about 5 different BBQ places. Ironbarks was amazing and didn’t have stupid long queues or hipsters.
Seriously, though, health is important. Hugh had a weird relationship with food the whole week we were there. No food on the plane. And no food at SXSW. I literally saw him eat a few bowls of Fruit Loops for breakfast but mostly just Starbucks coffee in a can and Twix. I get that you can run on adrenaline but seriously don’t do that.
Out and about in Austin
Jet lag works in your favour. You sleep in all day till about 2pm. Roll out of bed, go play a show or see shows that evening until 2am, go to bed and repeat. Everything closes at 2am so the regimen works like clockwork.
On the topic of 2am, don’t try to get an Uber at 2am. You think 20k people all trying to get an Uber at the same time is not gonna surge prices? Guess what? 7.8x surge pricing was not uncommon. Weird thing is, taxis were just sitting there empty in front of people yelling at their phones. We figured out a regular Uber trip home costs $20 and a taxi was $40. If there was surging more than double we just jumped in a cab.
Accommodation is ridic expensive. Unless you’re clever and get accom 30 mins out of town. Even factoring in Ubers to and from city centre we were WAAAAAY better off, cash-wise.
See some talks at the conference
Don’t ignore the talks. Hey, remember SXSW is actually a conference. That means they have the world’s top minds talking about the state of the music industry there, all day, every day. I saw a talk where the guy who developed Google Play and invented Rhapsody was talking about his new wiz bang thing about bands releasing albums as apps. It was pretty cool.
See some shows
Don’t forget other bands exist too. Remember that you can walk up to the Spanish stage at any point and see a bunch of awesome bands and if you introduce yourself that may end up being someone you can contact to tour Spain. This goes for any show. Fancy going to Canada? Why not go to the Canada tent and check out the bands. If you like any band you can give them your card and keep in contact. Which brings me to…
Get a business card
No one does CDs or USBs. Just have a handy card with your deets and country. Remember people will be going home with 100 cards in their pockets. Why not have space on the back to scribble where you met? Then they might actually remember you. We also attached button badges to the
cards. You would not believe how many people loved our badges. Our badges travelled further around the world than we did. Only steal that idea if you’ve got sick ass badges.
Have an elevator pitch
No one understands Australian humbleness. Don’t be humble. Be aggressive. The answer to “Who
are you?” should always be “The fucking best (insert genre) band out of (insert city you’re from).”
What you sound like should not be cryptic. People are quickly trying to assess if they should spend more time talking to you or not. “I’m in a folk band” will quickly tell the heavy metal booker that he needs to move on. “Stylistically bringing elements of emotion and drive to an otherwise wasteland of consumeristic ethos and space”, will just make people not want to talk to you. I know people are all uncomfortable about pigeon holes but get over it. We told people we are a “cross between Dandy Warhols and Smashing Pumpkins”. Boom. You immediately know where in the musical world we fit. We’re not looking to chat to pop producers or folk festival bookers. If you happen to be chatting to someone who thinks that description was pretty rad then you can tell them all about your anti-consumerist avant-garde pop performance or whatever it is you do.
Pro tip: Remember not all musical references are universal. Dandys and Pumpkins really only worked for people over a certain age and from certain countries. Many USA people didn’t know Dandys. Younger people didn’t really know Pumpkins. Easily changed to Tame Impala and Royal Blood in an instant, though.
Do your research before you go. Find out anyone you want to speak to before you go and contact them to tell them you’re going. Repeat interactions guarantee more of a likelihood someone will go see your show or catch up with you.
How will they get in touch when you’re there? Heard of a thing called a phone? What about global roaming? What about all the money you earn in a month? One of these phrases probably should not be seen close to the other two. Vodafone have $5 per day global roaming with all your current data included. So maybe look that shit up so “All the money you earn in a month” isn’t the phrase that follows “Ao how much was your phone bill after a week in the states?”. Ps, also not that easy to get sim cards over there. Also not much data per dollar value. I wouldn’t waste a day walking all over Austin to find a T-mobile to pay US$40 for 2GB of data.
Be tight as fuck. This goes without saying. We knew our set time lengths ahead of time and rehearsed sets separately. We also rehearsed set times longer and shorter so we had learnt four sets at different lengths before we went. Why was this important? ‘Cause shit goes wrong. Without fail nearly every gig we played had set times moved ’cause a band on the lineup didn’t make it through customs. Not only that, but then even if you can set up and pack up in 5 mins flat doesn’t mean every band at the conference does. We learnt this the hard way. Most stages have short change-over times but this one had a rare 20 minutes change-overs. The band before us took 40 minutes to set up. (Pro tip: drum pads are not yours or the sound guy’s friend. Don’t amplify that problem by bringing two that you only use for one song.)
Then, instead of cutting their set short, they played for a full 45 minutes. Then they spent 30 minutes packing up because they were busy taking photos with fans after their set. Now, we were guests in the country so I wasn’t going to start a fight. But both Hugh and Drew had to hold me back from throwing their gear off stage. In the end our 40 min set was reduced to 20 mins because the stage needed to be cleared by a certain time. So prepare for shit to happen.
Do some PR before you arrive. A trip to SXSW on its own is quite useless. It really needs to be part of a bigger plan. For us, our album was coming out in April so SXSW in March meant that could help launch the album in the states. We locked in PR for the three months leading into SXSW. This helped the publicists because more places could write about us with the understanding we would be coming to visit. But it also meant that our SXSW show was full of people. Why? All the blogs and music sites that had been writing about us were there to see us in action! Plus they brought friends. That’s how you build relationships and champions of your music. And really that’s what it’s all about.
You may think that the world’s cream of the crop bands are playing at SXSW, which is true to an extent. But for every awesome band I saw, there were two that sucked. So where are the good bands? They’re at home thinking about applying for SXSW. Don’t think. Just do it. Get an excel spreadsheet out, do some costings, get a bank loan and get there. I could book better lineups than SXSW any day of the week in Melbourne. Which means you need to get off your ass. Australia has a great reputation in the States. Saying you’re an Aussie carries some weight. So don’t think, just do.