Jim Carroll: SXSW puts divide between music’s haves and have-nots into focus
Many acts play for free at Austin festival in hope of catching break that is unlikely to come
Attendees at a concert during the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The music industry’s caste divide between the haves and the have-nots was clear for all to see in Austin this week. Before SXSW Music began on Wednesday, the big acts had already been out and about playing the branded parties during the film and interactive festivals and picking up five and six-figure cheques for a night’s work.
Blockbuster acts such as The Strokes, The Arcs, Sia, Lil Wayne, White Denim, Common and many more could be found in venues around the city singing for their supper at bashes hosted by free-spending brands such as Samsung and Capital One. It’s what a band has to do these days to make a living and no-one really thinks too much about it.
In a recent interview with The Ticket, Santigold talked about how normal it has become. “How we make money now is by doing corporate gigs which are not even in front of your fans,” she said. “It’s so strange how you make money in this business now. It’s so separate from the art.”
But the vast majority of the 2,000 bands in town this week can only dream of such a reward for their endeavours in venues around Austin.
They don’t get paid for playing the festival showcase or most of the unofficial gigs and parties which have become an essential part of the SXSW experience. Unless they have a generous record label or government-funded body such as Music From Ireland throwing some cash their way, most are paying their own way to be in Texas in March.
You have to wonder how many of the music fans who come to see the acts in Austin know about this state of affairs. There’s probably a casual assumption on the audience’s part that the bands are getting something for their troubles. After all, wasn’t the live music industry supposed to step into the breach when piracy and downloads and streaming reduced the revenue acts received from recorded music? Where’s the money at?
Many might also wonder why the money they’ve paid for tickets, passes and wristbands is not going to pay the bands. However, like many similar events worldwide such as Eurosonic and The Great Escape, SXSW is a showcase festival and bands play these events for reasons other than monetary ones.
The main reason why they’re here is that they’re hoping for a break. The acts hope that a passing manager, record label, lawyer or agent will take an interest in them and get them into the fast lane. They want to be the ones who get the calls from the brand managers and private-party operators. They want to be the ones who get paid.
The truth is, however, that most of the acts who’ll get traction at SXSW 2016 have had their key team members in place for months and have been long working on a plan to game the festival. The days of a previously unnoticed act coming to attention in Austin are well and truly over. The music industry’s talent seekers who keep tabs on these things have already compiled their list of acts who’ll make a splash at SXSW – before a note is played.
Even though the game is rigged, new acts keep coming. The music industry has always attracted wide-eyed dreamers who arrive and give it their best shot and they’ll be out in force at SXSW. They may not be getting the attention and payoffs afforded the one per cent, but they’re not giving up on those rock’n’roll dreams. Not yet anyway.