3/21/2013 9:32 AM
Now that SXSW is over, it's time to start thinking about performing at next year's festival. No, it's not too early...read on to learn how to work festivals to your advantage...
Assuming you’ve polished your stage act and are touring or at least performing locally regularly, showcasing at a festival is a chance to take your act to the next level. Arguably, the two most important festivals are SXSW and CMJ. Each year, literally thousands of bands submit their applications for a coveted showcase slot. The scale of these festivals is huge, with attendance as large as 350,000 attendees and 2,200 acts at SXSW, and 1,300 acts playing CMJ. However, it’s important to have realistic goals and expectations going in. First, realize that a festival gig is not a magic ride to stardom. Ask yourself, what are you going to accomplish if you get in? You’re going to have to make a significant investment of travel expense, time and effort, and there’s no guarantee of a return on any of that. Are you ready to make the supreme effort?
“There’s been a myth attached to the festival where people assume that SXSW is a place where young bands go to get signed, says SXSW General Music Manager James Minor. “It does happen sometimes, but this is rarely the case. The proper mindset an act should have when coming to play SXSW, is that they are attending because they are at the point in the career where they will greatly benefit from the potential media exposure and have the proper work ethic to not only perform well, but to network and promote themselves effectively with the hopes of making the right connection which could in turn elevate them to the next stage in their career.” Sonicbids.com is SXSW’s exclusive submission engine; CEO Panos Panay says pacing and preparation are key. “The thing is, don’t try too early in your act’s career. You should have both experience and some very clear objectives that you want to accomplish with an important showcase opportunity. You must be ready to stand out in the crowd; if you aren’t doing that already, you aren’t ready to showcase.”“Having great music and a great performance is the most important thing, a history of some touring and playing notable venues in their home town or elsewhere is good, and certainly touring nationally helps,” adds CMJ showcase director Mtt MacDonald. “We aren’t looking for someone who’s just thrown together some tracks in their bedroom.”Panos stresses a point that’s important to remember in any promotional efforts. “You need to make sure your band’s calendar is up to date. It is the single most important marketing tool a band can have. Where have you played? Are you playing within a one-mile radius of your home, or are you building credibility with regional or national touring, or even getting gigs outside your own country? Are you already getting booked at well-known venues?” Panos also emphasizes video as a key tool, and it doesn’t have to break your band’s budget: “With videos being inexpensive or even free to make with an iPhone, having a solid idea of what the band looks/feels/ sounds like live onstage is very important. Give me something cheaply produced that really shows the band’s stage presence and the way an audience responds to them over some $10,000 slickly produced video that’s made as though you were marketing it to MTV.”Minor adds, “The key thing that artists need to keep in mind is that they should provide us with an application that’s as complete as possible. Uploading a few songs, videos, and select press are essential, but including more information can really make a difference. Did you tour the US a few months ago? If so, that’s a great thing for us to see. Do you have a booking agent, publicist or manager? Once again, even though these are not detrimental to acceptance, they are good things for us to know about.”Once you secure a spot, remember that being on the show roster doesn’t guarantee an audience for your set. You’ll need to promote yourselves through as many methods as possible right up to your last tune up and first song count off. Blog about your experiences on the road to the show, pass out flyers once you are there, update your fans and potential audience on your Facebook page and Twitter feeds, go out and talk yourselves up in person to anyone and everyone. You want a packed house? Bring friends to help you if you can. You are going to have to earn your audience, because there will be a tremendous amount of other acts playing all over town at the same time as you. We asked, are there common traits among the acts that have gained the most showcasing? Minor says, “My personal favorite recent example of this would be Austra. They came to SXSW in 2011 with a really well-thought-out plan, the backbone of which was non-stop touring. They toured before the festival to spread their name around, came to SXSW and played a very select handful of shows, and pretty much continued touring through the end of the year. Now, the fact that Austra have a great record and live show aided their success quite a bit, but I wholeheartedly believe that SXSW was a pinnacle moment for them. Austra paid their dues and did those tours where no one was there. I firmly believe that if you have something special, and back it up with hard work, people will take notice.” “If there was a basic formula, I’d be a wealthy man” says Macdonald. He cites Alabama Shakes at last year’s CMJ as a great example. “They didn’t have a lot of name recognition coming into the event, but they put on a great show to the right people, and word just spread from there.”This all reinforces a key point: No amount of publicity or exposure will help you get to the next level if you don’t have a solid foundation of a strong work ethic, a willingness to “own” your career, and really good music. “Just because you record an album doesn’t mean people will like it or listen to it,” says publicist Brian Bumbery. “Just because you’re on festival bill doesn’t mean people are going to show up and watch you. You'd better make that performance memorable.“Things don’t happen overnight,” Bumbery continues. “It takes hard work on all fronts. Artists should never wait for a record label, publicist, or promoter. There are many things they can to get the ball rolling even while recording their album. Don’t wait for anyone.”Craig Dalton is a freelance writer, musician, and Recording Academy member who has contributed features and reviews to both Mix and Electronic Musician magazines.