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SXSW: Experience, or Exploitation?

The Recycled Instrument Orchestra
The Recycled Instrument Orchestra
The Recycled Instrument Orchestra played SXSW multiple times in 2015.

Most of us have been there. ”We’re looking for someone with more experience.” ”Come talk to us after you get a little more experience.” ”How much experience do you have?” You can’t a job without experience, nor experience without a job. It’s the ultimate catch 22.

Wait…there IS a way. How about an internship? You know…long hours, low pay, or NO pay. However, you’ll get experience.

Been there, done that, got the – err – experience.

My early radio experience prepared me well to go out and get a job. Much of it, whether as a deejay on student stations, in clubs, or practicing into a recorder, failed to put much food on the table or gas in the car, but I learned a lot.

It can be even tougher as a musician. No matter what kind of music you play, finding an audience, especially a paying audience, is difficult. One place with a built in audience is Austin, Texas, home of the South by Southwest Music Conference, better known as SXSW.

The annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival offers attendees the opportunity to present and exchange ideas, network, and – for musicians – perform before lots and lots of people. Between ticket sales, merchandise, and corporate sponsorships, a huge amount of money flows into the festival.

Estimates are that, during the SXSW run, over $218 million dollars flows into the Austin economy. The musicians must make some pretty good money for working, or at least have their expenses covered, right?

Wrong. In a recent article (Why South by Southwest is a huge, exploitative scam) for the publication, The Week, Emily Hauser wrote that “Volunteers get festival passes; artists get to choose between a tiny honorarium, or festival passes. Neither goes very far at the grocery store.”

Another point of view (At SXSW, Stepping Back to Allow Hopeful Artists to Step Up) was presented in the NY Times by Jon Pareles, who wrote,

“The promise for musicians is that a stray festival encounter or its ripples across the Internet can bring new opportunities, and many of them spend the festival in a whirlwind of performances, interviews, handshaking and making contacts. For many others, it’s an epicenter for exploiting music in ways both benevolent and predatory, in an era when music often seems to generate value for everyone except the people who make it.”

I can imagine it is both exhilarating and exhausting for musicians who don’t want to miss any opportunity to be heard. One singer from Ft. Worth did eight performances in a day. Another said his band had started at 7am doing a live radio performance, followed by four more throughout the day. Pareles quoted him as saying, “We’re a lot better now than we were at 7 am.”

I have been to conferences where musicians came in to promote a recording or try to give airplay a boost. The conference provided a large number of Public Radio music programmers as a potential audience. Most of them were supported by a record company or promoter, which covered expenses. Not only that, the conference presenters were not making millions of dollars.

I can’t say whether this model is right or wrong. I do believe that, if millions of dollars flow into peoples pockets while those aspiring musicians provide much of the reason for people to show up, some of that cash needs to flow their way.

Below: Pirates Canoe is an Americana and roots music group that hails from Kyoto, Japan.