SXSW Special: Music Festivals and Your Career

Make the Most of Every Opportunity
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Industry pros share advice for a multifaceted approach to gain publicity and exposure to help push your music career to the next level

Austra: a band with a plan.Chances are that as a musician, you’ve heard a lot of career advice from a lot of people. We’re all familiar with the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Well, we all want to be “the next big thing,” but the path to get there has radically changed. One thing’s for sure: The answer isn’t just “practice, practice, practice.” Nowadays, you also have to “promote, promote, promote.”

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With today’s technology, the tools to produce everything yourself are accessible and affordable. However, there are legions out there just like you who are doing the exact same thing. Social media and music distribution websites are crowded with thousands of DIY efforts. The chance of these efforts impressing someone who can put your career dreams on the fast track seems about as likely as picking the right sequence of numbers to win the lottery. So how do you rise above the noise?

As much as we’d like to say having great music is enough, publicity and exposure can make or break an artist. Today, there is more than one pathway to successful promotion of your act. Electronic Musician talked to several industry insiders, who shared valuable advice for calculating your next steps toward stardom.

Forming a game plan Let’s assume that you’re already good, and that you have something to promote: Good music. A website, song clips, YouTube videos. And let’s assume you have the social media thing down, and that you’re touring, at least locally. What next?

“I always recommend coming in with certain goals to accomplish as an act,” says CMJ Showcase Director Matt Macdonald. “Have some goals set like finding a music lawyer or a booking agent, or getting synchronization licensing because a sync agent likes some of the songs you’ll play. These goals will certainly vary, depending on where you are at in your career, but having goals other than just being there is important.” Be ready to make the most out what could be one of your most important opportunities ever.

This is the time to have all of your promotional materials together, whether you’re launching a social media campaign, booking local gigs, recording an album, or applying to festivals. Think of this as presenting your best possible resume; you aren’t going to get the job by making a poor impression.

Publicity, promotion, and the new paradigm “It’s a cultural instinct to wait to get picked,” author Seth Godin wrote, concerning the waning influence of industry ‘gatekeepers,’ on Seth’s Blog ( “To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, ‘I pick you.’ Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you—that Prince Charming has chosen another house—then you can actually get to work.” That said, a little publicity, done right, can go a long way.

You can handle PR yourself, or you can bring in the big guns; it all depends on the stage of your career. Publicists have an omnipresent role in helping shepherd many acts to fame. They have the contacts, know the ropes and can help you climb them. However, just like in any other aspect of your business, you need to know when you really need one (and when you can handle the job yourself ), what they can and can’t do for you, and how you need to prepare to work alongside your team.

Laura Eldeiry, publicist at Nasty Little Man PR, works the media front line for a long line of major acts such as the The Foo Fighters and Jack White, as well as newer bands such as White Rabbits. She believes bands should choose a realistic publicity route for the stage of their careers. “A firm like ours [is ideal] when they’re actually selling music and touring enough to make their sole livelihood. They should have a real booking agent, a real manager, a real label...otherwise, why hire a real publicist? I think smaller, local acts are better off hiring a friend who’s a big fan, or doing it themselves. You can ask club promoters for local media lists and contact them yourself.”

Brian Bumbery started BB Gun Press in 2011, after 17 years in PR, eight of them at Warner Bros. His roster includes Green Day, Muse, Metallica and many other marquee acts, as well as emerging artists. For Bumbery, the earlier an artist has a publicist, the better. “A publicist can help a band develop their story. The media, be it blogs, magazines, TV or radio, are all vehicles for an artist to get his/her points across and reach the masses, and you’d be surprised how many people have a compelling story, but just have a difficult time expressing themselves. Giving a great interview is a performance unto itself, and all it takes is a little practice.”

It’s important to have realistic expectations about what a publicist can and can’t do. “I think a misconception is that we can build ‘buzz.’ when in fact, that’s not what we aim to do at all,” Eldeiry says. “We help shape careers. For smaller acts, it is to help solidify their place in the music world.” Bumbery adds, “Just because you make an album, doesn’t mean people are going to respond to it, listen to it or offer you the cover of a magazine. Ultimately a band’s or artist’s music is going to be the thing that a blogger/journalist/TV booker/ producer will get first, and that music will have to speak to them on some level. With our relationships, we can get the music to these people and in many cases get the music listened to. It doesn’t mean they’re going to like it.”

Once upon a time, getting signed to a major label and getting airplay on terrestrial radio put you on the path to fame. There’s no denying the marketing machine of a major label, and who doesn’t want their song on the airwaves? But today there are countless new options for bands to get new music out to people’s ears and gain fans.

Alexandra Greenberg is Vice President at Mitch Schneider Organization, a veteran PR firm that represents iconic and cuttingedge artists ranging from David Bowie, Aerosmith, and the Smashing Pumpkins to Deadmau5, Paul Van Dyk, and Junkie XL, as well as international festivals and events such as the Vans Warped Tour and Voodoo Fest. After working in PR for more than a decade, Greenberg has seen promotional channels evolve dramatically. “Ten years ago, focus was on placements in magazines (there were more of them then), newspapers (there was more space in print at that time for music), TV and fanzines,” she says. “Nowadays, I’m pitching premiere placements for song streams, downloads, and videos on the web. Placements with blogs and online counterparts to magazines are also really crucial to the success of a PR campaign.”

“There are many channels to work with,” says Bumbery. “Developing an artist is always the best for an emerging artist. Start building the house from the foundation up. Start seeding their music in the blogs, both on a regional and national level. It’s really important to not take a band from their culture but to invite people in. Continue to build the base with them while they tour and then introduce them to the larger media, late-night television shows, etc.”

Panos Panay, CEO of Soncibids, which helps more than 60,000 bands connect to more than 26,000 promoters online, is heavily involved in consumer branding as an outlet for new music. “I won’t sit here and tell you that labels have no value,” he says. “Certainly, a 40- to 60-year track record of knowing how to market an artist an create a buzz is valuable. However, they have a particular business model and a specific way of marketing a specific type of artist in a particular type of way.” And these roles are changing, he says: “Where radio (terrestrial) used to be the channel, and the DJ was the editor, or the channel was the retailer and the editor was the buyer for Tower Records, the concept of who’s editing to the masses changes annually and monthly. Now it’s channels like Spotify and consumer brands presenting new music through extensive social media connections. They have the organization, budgets and marketing teams in place already. Through a program we have called Red Bull Sound Stage, one of our acts is appearing on David Letterman in September. I’ll tell you that as a guy who came from the traditional music business model, that any label or agent would trip all over themselves to get a slot on Letterman, because it’s one of a handful of ways to reach such a mass audience.”

Bumbery offers his perspective from his long tenure at a major label. “It appears that the changes continue as they try to figure out a new model,” he says. “I feel like the amount to be gained to being signed to one isn’t as big as it used to be. Of course, there is more money for emerging artists, and the labels are able to pull in more money from the multi-rights deals. I have seen this work well in some cases, but it’s in no way a guarantee. As an indie for the past two years, I’ve also been on the other side, where I’ve worked with bands who have left the major-label system, spent a lot less on making and promoting their albums, hiring the teams that they want to work them and recouped in under two months.”

Eldeiry emphasizes a multi-faceted approach, and a long-term strategy. “I don’t think that there is any one thing that will make or break a band. I would never put more weight on festivals than I would on a feature in a local alt-weekly. It is the combination of all those things—as well as good music!—that will build a career. Don’t worry about hype or buzz...that is almost guaranteed to go away. Focus on the things that will shape your career, things that will live forever. Your record will live forever; an item on a big blog lives for about a day before it’s archived and forgotten.”

The festival phenomenon 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.” is SXSW’s exclusive submission engine; CEO 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’s 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?

James 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 Bumbery. “Just because you’re on festival bill doesn’t mean people are going to show up and watch you. You 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 Electronic Musician and Mix magazines.