Lessons from a First Time South by Southwester
Today it’s my pleasure to present a blog post penned by traveling writer and rocker Eleanor Whitney.
Eleanor hails from Maine and writes, cooks, and plays music in the shoegaze indie rock band Corita in Brooklyn, New York. She also likes geeking out about arts policy, funding and education and is writing a book entitled "Grow: Take Your Do-It-Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job". You can follow her adventures on her blog Killerfemme.
Eleanor Whitney (second from left) and the SXSW panel
This year, along with thousands of other intrepid musicians, music fans, and industry insiders, I packed my bags and headed to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest, a little media and music festival you may have heard of.
While I usually avoid events that draw large crowds, I felt like I had to experience South by Southwest at least once in my life. Thankfully, due to some intense advance planning, my South by Southwest badge, which granted access to showcases and the conference, was free because I spoke on a panel about Crowd funding, social media and fund raising for musicians [event audio here]. In addition, my lady-powered indie rock band Corita picked up two unofficial shows, one as part of the Austin Girls Rock Camp party and one at Waterloo Cycles. All this meant I got to experience the professional intensity of the conference and the frenetic energy and inspiration that comes with the unofficial events that take place in every part of Austin when SXSW rolls around.
Corita performing in Waterloo Cycle's parking lot
My favorite part of SXSW wasn’t the new bands that I discovered, or even the gallons of free beer that seemed to be available almost everywhere, but the insights I gathered about building your career as a musician that conference panelists shared. Before we get down to business about that, the one musical piece of news I will share with you from SXSW is that fuzzy, reverbed out garage rock is back, which will hopefully save us from all those sensitive guys with beards and acoustic instruments that critics seem to love these days.
I come from a do-it-yourself and nonprofit arts background and I was not sure if SXSW would present information relevant to me as a DIY musician and someone who supports artists growing in their careers. Admittedly, I was even a little nervous to be on a panel with some “industry” heavy weights and was unsure what I would have to contribute to the conversation.
David Gedge of the Wedding Present at the Brooklyn Vegan day party
However, what I found is that “industry” and do-it-yourself are not so far apart, especially these days when huge changes are afoot in all aspects of the music industry. I found that the insights that folks in the for-profit areas of music shared were very similar to the kind of challenges, frustrations and opportunities I help the artists I work with navigate everyday.
I wanted to share some of the big ideas I walked away from SXSW that I will share with “my” artists and also work harder to put into practice with my band Corita. So here are my big takeaways from SXSW:
1) Take initiative.
Having a do-it-yourself ethic and approach can open up great opportunities. These days labels, managers and PR agents are looking for bands and musicians who are willing to make the effort to build their fan base. That means that you can’t sit around and wait until someone discovers you. You have to start blogging, tweeting, and regularly updating your Facebook page, as well as getting your music onto social networking sites like Reverbnation and Soundcloud to help build your fanbase and keep in touch with those who are already fans. Knowing that we were going to SXSW lit a fire under my band from a social networking perspective. We joined Twitter (you can follow us @CoritaNYC), and added our music to those aforementioned sites, as well as updated our Bandcamp, Last.fm and Myspace pages. We knew people who we had never met would be looking at our online presence and we wanted to make sure we were easy to find and they could hear our music, get a sense of who we are as a band, and have a way to keep in touch after SXSW.
2) Do It Yourself
The DIY approach also applies to paying for your projects. Crowd funding, through sites like RocketHub, Indie GoGo, and Kickstarter, have certainly caught on big-time with musicians. While I could spend many blog posts talking about crowd funding, if you figure out a realistic amount of money to raise through sites like these, they can provide a great jumping-off point to pay for recording, album production, or a tour, as long as you give you fans a compelling reason to support you. Kevin Bruener, the head of marketing at CD Baby, who spoke on my panel discussed how one of his bandmates feared that doing a crowd funding campaign was akin to begging for money. Artists express similar concerns to me everyday when we talk about fundraising. However, the best thing about crowdfunding is it actually a way to get your fans involved with a project beyond just contributing money. They have an investment in your work and they get something in return, like a CD or a personalized, meaningful piece of band merchandise, as a thank you for getting involved.
3) Follow-through is important.
Try to do one little thing for your band or project everyday. It doesn’t have to be much, but all that little effort adds up. Billy Zero, of Zero Management, said that he often offers bands simple steps they can take to boost their fan base and build their brand. He mentioned that rarely do bands follow through and implement the advice or steps he recommends. So forgo that TV show or video game and instead send that tweet, seek out that new band, reach out to that club, design that badge, and have band practice!
4) E-mail Isn't Dead
In this world of social media, e-mail newsletters are still a key way to keep up with your audience. This came up in the panel I was talking on and several of my co-presenters (who email newsletters I receive and read, by the way) said it was absolutely key. Start sending out a regular newsletter, perhaps monthly or bi-monthly. If you don’t have one yet organize your contacts into one and add to them by collecting addresses at shows. Give out “exclusive” content to your subscribers and let your fans know you appreciate them and thank them for being there. Here’s where I’ll admit that I don’t have an email newsletter for any of the projects that I do. This is a real problem because every time my band plays a show I need to go through a list of people in my head who live in New York City and invite them. It’s inefficient, people get left off the list, and how many times has someone asked me, “Let me know when your band is playing!” and I forget to tell them?
5) Target your booking outreach.
Club bookers at respectable venues that care about musicians carefully select their lineup based on a coherent vision. You need to demonstrate to them how your music fits into what they are presenting. Reach out politely and also go to events at that club and integrate yourself into the local or regional scene you admire. Do you see a lineup your band would fit into perfectly? Offer to open. These tips were shared on a panel of talent buyers and managers from some of my favorite clubs in the country: Cakeshop in NYC, the Hideout in Chicago, the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia, the Mohawk in Austin and the former manager of the famous Brownies in NYC. It was nice to hear the club owners’ perspective, since I am always on the side of asking clubs to book my band. I realized that if I approach them more like curators (I know that word is overused, but I work in the art world) maybe I’ll have a better chance of landing a show on a bill I want to be on at a club I feel honored to play at.
This is my distillation of three days running around to as many panels as I could. Perhaps it seems anti-climactic to spend the illustrious “South by” inside a sterile conference center, but I found that hearing from and talking to industry experts motivated me to reflect upon where I’m on the right track and where I can do better with my music. Maybe you think, “But I am already doing these things!” However, every panel I went to emphasized the bigger picture and the long haul for building a fan base for a band and a life in music.
Rocio Pena, from Chile, plays an official showcase at the Steven F. Austin bar
I think something great about South by Southwest was that it encouraged me to take what I’m doing with my band to the next level, even if that means just being a little more consistent with our outreach, promotion and fan base building. Step 1: start an email newsletter.
Going to South by also resonated with me on an emotional level because it was a key bonding moment for my band. It was our first time playing outside of New York City and taking that trip together helped us understand who we are and why we play together. In Austin we spent a lot of time hanging around (and playing in) the Waterloo Cycles and Trailer Space records parking lots, sampling breakfast tacos, meeting bands from all over the country, getting odd sunburns, and feeling like we did when we were in our teens and twenties doing the exact same thing. Being there together was a reminder about why we have chosen the lives that we have. While some might call it hipster spring break, I call it reconnecting with a rock and roll lifestyle that’s about friendship, fun and sharing what you love.
Torches in Trees performing in Waterloo Cycle's parking lot
One other parting thought from South by Southwest, which you could call my South by Soapbox: I saw that there are women everywhere in the music industry. Women are managers, booking agents, club owners, PR agents, not to mention musicians, photographers and journalists. So I ask myself, “Why does sexism in the industry persist? Why is our image of ‘women in rock’ still so limited?” There’s really no excuse for this, besides sexism in society at large, so I think if we keep chipping away at that, we’ll be seeing more gender equality in rock and roll too.
Have you been to SXSW?
If so, what have been your big takeaways? What are your favorite memories and impressions?
If you haven’t been, what are the steps you will take to take your band to the next level? What inspires you to do so?