Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

It’s not all Gaga at SXSW 2014

While the one per cent of acts may be hoovering up all the press and profile at SXSW, spare a thought for the other acts working hard in Texas this week

She's here for the crisps: Lady Gaga

Fri, Mar 14, 2014, 09:30


Chances are if you Google SXSW this morning, most of the top-ranked answers will concern Lady Gaga shilling for crisps brand Doritos at a gig in Austin last night. She’s box office so she will get paid handsomely for her time – in cash, not crisps.

At Soith By Southwest, acts divide into the one per cent and everyone else. The former are Lady Gaga and her peers like Jay Z and Kanye West, the familiar list of acts you see hitting the heavily branded stages and venues around SXSW all week. They’re recognisable names, acts with an already established audience or profile, acts with the moxie and muscle to ensure they are going to get paid well by the brands who want some of that SXSW-associated cool.

The other 99 percent? Most of the 2000 odd – very odd in some cases, it must be said – acts playing SXSW this week would probably welcome a free bag of crisps for their efforts in getting this far in the first place.

The vast majority are here on their own dime. They don’t get paid for playing their SXSW showcase and their outgoings, from visa application fees to travel costs, will be both lengthy and expensive. A small minority may have a record label throwing a bit of cash their way to cover costs, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

At this stage, many observers will question their sanity in travelling all this way to play three or four gigs in the Live Music Capital of the World. This is before you take into account what the bulk of the gigs will be like. Many of the shows will be poorly attended – even that fabled one-man-and-his-poor-dog won’t show – and there’s a never-ending sense that you are a bullock or heifer on parade in a cattle mart.

For those of us who come to SXSW annually to see bands, things are much different from our side of the fence. SXSW’s music festival gathers the cream of the crop, the best new acts around and the potential stars of tomorrow in one place for a week. We get to run, walk or cycle around this lovely city and spend days and nights just watching band after band after band. It’s a paradise, with a downside of potential earache.

Now and then, though, you look at these bands and wonder if they’re enjoying themselves, if SXSW is everything they imagined it to be, if the trip was worth all that effort. There is probably a school of thought which goes ‘well, what else would they be doing?’ but, as sure as eggs are eggs, there will be bands or band members who may begrudge this splurge.

But the bands still come because of what can potentially happen here. Most are savvy and sussed enough to realise they won’t be leaving with record contracts (though there’s no accounting for some acts’ naivety in this regard). Instead, they’ll have done their advance work and see SXSW as a step in the right direction towards a manager, an agent or a tour. Serendipity, chance and coincidence may play a part but bands get out of SXSW what they put in.

Spare a thought for them, then, when the bulk of the mainstream dispatches from SXSW are full of Gaga and brands and others here to snaffle all available promo oxygen. The real stars of the show are the unheralded ones and they’re the ones we’ll be cheering on this week. They need all the help they can get.