Top 10 SXSW Tips For Musicians

I’ve been attending the phenomenon that is South By SouthWest in Austin, Texas, for 6 or 7 years now. I love it, I look forward to it every year, but that wasn’t always the case. I wasted a lot of time and money hoping to get “Discovered” at SXSW. I don’t want that to happen to you.

I first went to South-By as a performing musician, then as a music industry professional, and now, also as a business owner.

It can be extremely overwhelming! It can also be a complete waste of time and money if you don’t know what your doing, or at least have some idea of what you are getting in to.

It can also be a very valuable source of music industry contacts and opportunities.

At SXSW, I’ve played from the tiniest of make-shift venues to a headlining spot on Saturday night, made valuable business connections, and created memories I will never forget. I have put together a list of important things musicians and industry professionals, as well as business owner alike MUST know about the craziness that is SXSW!

Before we get to Top TIPS For SXSW For Musicians, let’s first take a quick look at people in Austin during Magical March:

There will be around half a million people attending SXSW, and another million who live in Austin, so you’re going to encounter 4 basic groups, as depicted in this fancy “People Attending SXSW” chart.

  • People Looking For Free Beer: Music lovers who also love free alcohol and are there to party. If you’re lucky, one or two will become fans, but will probably be to hung over in the morning to remember you.
  • Austinites Who Hate SXSW: You don’t have to worry about these people much. They stay away from downtown, but should you venture too far north or south, you may get a fake smile from them while they silently wish you would leave town.
  • Other Musicians: There will be a ton of musicians there. Many will have arrogant, rock star attitudes, but most will be humble and are there to play, make connections and learn. Be the latter. Make friends.
  • Music Industry Professionals: These are the folks you want to meet. They aren’t impressed by the false confidence of mediocre talent. They are there for business. It’s their job. Treat them as a business colleague. Exchange cards, ask questions relevant to their niche and yours. Show them you want to learn the business and they will often help. Plan and plot events to attend which are listed on the SXSW website or the SXSW GO app and have a game plan before you go. People really appreciate quick, concise, meaningful conversations.
  • The One Dude That Can Get You A Record Deal: There could possibly be 100’s of people that would tease you with a deal, and probably only one guy that could actually make it happen. You won’t meet him. Even if you did, it probably wouldn’t be a good deal. Learn the business, do what you can on your own, partner with professionals to handle what you cannot.

Super Tip: One of my biggest pet peeves is when a musician says they need a “record deal”. Don’t even get me started… Say you need distribution, say you need marketing, say you need radio promotion, anything but a record deal!

To me…. if you NEED a “record deal” or a “manager”, it means you want someone to come in and do all of the work for you while you smoke week all day and build a list of groupies. You need to be pulling in some major cash before your major deal if you want that to happen.

Caution: You may meet people that tempt you with amazing promises of a “record deal”. I have listened to them, delayed album releases and licensing strategies because I was being “Shopped”. Nothing happened. Don’t wait, continue moving forward and working hard everyday. The further you make it on your own, the better off you will be when it’s time to partner with the big boys.

RECAP: Focus on identifying and meeting the 10% of Music Industry Pros. Make friends with other musicians. Make friends with everyone, you never know who can help you or who you can help in the future.

And Now…

Top 10 Tips For Musicians Attending SXSW

1: There are SXSW events and there are NON-SXSW events.

There is a big difference between an actual South-By Showcase, organized and scheduled through SXSW and a gig put on by one of the many people who do “events” that coincide with SXSW. You may not be able to even tell the difference at first. It could be a huge stage in the middle of 6th Street, but if it isn’t on the actual SXSW schedule, you’ll get foot traffic at best while all of the badge holders are watching someone else.

I’m not saying some of those other gigs aren’t worth it, just know what you’re getting into before you “pay to play”.

2: Apply early.

The first round deadline for artist applications ENDS in September. That’s 6 months before the festival!! I had a quick chat with one of the organizers at a SXSW networking event who told me the time to start planning for the next SXSW is the day after it ends.  I’d say maybe even before that.

3: Housing and Transportation:

Photo courtesy of LDAVE Lighting and Events

There’s no good solution for a place to sleep. Hotels are expensive and sold out far in advance. In the past I have: slept in the van, slept on the couch of a strip club owner where we played a gig, slept on the nicest of tour busses in front of the Four Seasons, crashed with friends, found a place on craigslist, and thankfully, now have my own place in Austin. Like everything else, start early, be open, be creative.

There is currently no Uber or Lyft in Austin. If you have a badge, sign up for Mazda Express at the convention center. SXSW also suggests FASTEN, an Uber substitute. I recently used a similar service in Austin called GetMe, but who knows if your gear will fit in their vechile.

You may not be able to get your tour van full of equipment within 100 yards of the venue. Plan ahead, drive by the venue before hand, meet the sound guy, ask questions! It will be a pain in the ass.

If you want transportation in style, Chalk My Car is offering arrangements for people and equipment using old VW buses painted with chalk board paint. With or without photo booths inside.

SXSW is BIG, covering miles of area. Parking is scarce. I have found the BEST way to get around is by motorized scooter. Yes, that’s me and my moped in the picture. I was lucky enough to trade an old mattress and $50 for the pink moped. With a scooter, you can ride pretty close to where you want to go and park with the bicycles. My moped changed my life. I also recommend pink as well. Not only do chicks love it, you can push the law a little more and get away with it. Moped rentals are available in Austin, but like everything else, book EARLY.

4: Leave your ego at home.

Oh you’re the best band since The Beatles? You KNOW you’re going to be huge? You just need to get in front of the right people?

That’s what everyone thinks. Don’t get me wrong, confidence is sexy, but results are sexier. I believe a humble, hard working musician will get much further in the music industry than a cocky know-it-all with a big ego, talent being equal.

Be thankful and helpful to everyone you meet. It could be the person who can teach you what you need to know to get to the next level.

5: Go to the bar.

Some of the best connections I’ve made at SX were at hotel bars. In fact, I recommend this for any industry conference or event you attend. Stay at the host hotel (if you can), and go to the bar and network each night. SXSW is a little different since it’s so big and times vary widely, but when you get some free time, head over to one of the nice, big name hotels within walking distance of Downtown, order a local craft beer (I recommend Pearl Snap from Austin BeerWorks) and strike up a conversation with that “regular guy” next to you. You never know who it could be. It turned out to be Billy Bob Thornton sitting next to me one year.

6: Don’t drink too much.

This is extremely EASY to do. Most of the industry events have free alcohol. While this can be good to break the ice or put you in the right mood, it’s not hard to find yourself having downed 10 Ginger Hells (Eslena and Tito’s Vodka) before noon, and your gig is at midnight.

Pace yourself before you space yourself!

What??? Whatever. Alcohol affects everyone differently, just make sure you remain clear-headed so you can perform well, learn well and network well.


7. Plan, Schedule, Plan, Schedule.

In my opinion, the panels, roundtables, and events hosted by companies within the music industry are the most important part of SXSW. Search these events out and plan ahead. If you have a badge, go through the SXSW events and attend as many as you can at the convention center. Even if you don’t have a badge, get on websites for companies such as ASCAP, BMI, SoundExchange, TuneCore, BillBoard, etc… and find out when and where they have events. Go. Introduce yourself to the people representing those companies. Formulate questions ahead of time that show you are truly interested about furthering your career in the music industry. Then drink their free beer.

8: Use Social Media.

I could write a complete article about this alone, but there are several reasons social media is important regarding SXSW.

Connect with people in the industry and find out where events are: You can do this by keeping tabs on specific people you feel are play makers, specific companies and specific #hashtags.

Marketing for yourself: There is ample opportunity for great marketing and online content at SX. Take pics, video and make posts about all of the interesting stuff happening! If you are from Idaho, the people in your local region will totally think you have made it after seeing rad content from Austin.

9: Get a badge.

Hopefully, you’ll be lucky enough to be accepted as an artist, which entitles to badges for you and your band. If you don’t have a badge, you will miss out on valuable music industry meetings and events, as well as (less important in my opinion) music showcases by big named artists.

If you aren’t accepted, I still recommend getting a badge, at least for the one or two business minded people in your band. Do this early in the year because it’s much cheaper! You can’t just borrow someones badge either. (If you get one on craigslist, you have to transfer it and it’s kind of a pain.)

And my #1 most important tip to keep you from punching the side of your van, smashing your guitar, and getting a real job is…….

10. Make friends with the sound guy, monitor guy, lighting guy.

This really goes for any gig, but is extremely important for SXSW. The sound man holds your fate at his of her fingers. They have the power to start and end your gig as well as make it sound good or horrible. And, at SX, they are probably working 14 hours days for 10 days straight.

Kiss the sound guy’s ass and make things as easy as possible for them! There is a shortage of good engineers at SXSW. Your crew may not be experienced, may not be qualified, or may not be getting paid enough. A few things are for sure… they will be overworked, they will probably be grumpy, and they will need sleep.

At my band’s “big headlining gig” (not a SXSW event), they had two huge stages next to each other. It looked amazing, but we got NO sound check and never had monitors the whole set. It would have been better not to play at all. I should have spend $20 on latte’s for the crew.

Get to your gig early, make friends with the entire crew at the venue, go get coffee for the sound and monitor guys or whatever they want.

SXSW is an amazing experience, I recommend going to musicians and music lovers alike. And with these tips, you can make it even more pleasurable and worthwhile.

I wish you the best of luck! Connect with me on social media, I’d love to buy you a free beer and talk about the business 🙂

Tony Coke
Licensing and Artist Education – Monkey Mountain Music