Springboard to Fame? Why Festivals may still be Worth the Trip

Sunspot is a regular at the SXSW festivalDreaming about getting your band on a festival ticket where your music will get heard by those in the industry who may be able to help? Well, read on as The Sound of Local is pleased to share this guest blog from Mike with the hard-working band Sunspot. He explains what keeps luring them back to one of the biggest music gatherings in the country. It may just make you want to go, too.

As we rolled into South-by-Southwest (SXSW) this spring, we realized it was the ninth time Sunspot had been to the festival.

Sunspot’s First SXSW Festival

The first time, was back in 2006, and we thought it was going to be a springboard to getting discovered. We planned to get passes and attend the music conference, which is a big part of SXSW, but costs close to six hundred dollars a piece. We worked out a two-week tour specifically around it. We’d performed in Austin before, so knew people there, but we didn’t know anything about the festival or what it was going to be like as a band. We printed 1000 special promotional CDs to hand out on the street. We worked like a machine and wanted people to see us. We also applied to play at an “official” SXSW showcase, but didn’t get selected (and we’ve applied every year since with the same result), but it didn’t matter to us. We’d already booked our own show in Austin, and wanted to play and meet people during the festival.

When we got there, it really was like nothing we’d ever seen before, and we didn’t end up getting official passes– because you didn’t have to as there were plenty of bands from around the world to meet and hang out with for free, so why spend the hard earned money we’d just gained on our tour? We walked around to bars and dropped off our promo packs, offering to play for free if there were cancellations. We were meeting other bands and working together to find more places to play. And then when it was showtime, sometimes you played for a dozen people; sometimes a few hundred, depending on the time of day and the proximity to East Sixth Street (where the party goes down). But we played every show like our lives depended on it, because we honestly thought our professional lives DID depend on it. This was the place to get discovered, right? This was the nexus of the music industry.

The Returns of Sunspot

We left our first year’s visit with a  thousand connections, and a van bursting at the seams with hope and hangover. We vowed we would return.

So, we did, and had a great time. And then we did again. And again. We started bringing friends along who wanted to experience it with us. We gained a few corporate sponsors (from Madison companies like Broadjam.com, to southern staple Lone Star Beer, to a UK energy drink still trying to break into America) and it helped with some promotion and the expenses. We ended up becoming close friends with an Austin promoter who puts on a showcase, and now invites us every year. We made friends with bands, both local and from around the country, and reunite every year at their shows. Austin has a local community of art and fun we’ve integrated with and it’s completely outside the SXSW corporate sphere of influence. It’s just awesome people who want to do something great (the Music Madness ATX Showcase) while taking advantage of the hullaballoo surrounding SXSW. We’ve been extremely lucky to be involved for so long because it gives us a place to strike out from and friends to reunite with every year. There’s so much more than a business reason now for us to come back; it’s personally fulfilling as well. And we wouldn’t have any of this without the take-no-prisoners attitude from the first year we went to SXSW.

And so Thursday night, 2014, we rolled into Austin for our ninth trip to the festival.

And this time we paid $250 to be here. A spot opened up at a showcase and it was going to be completely packed, and we jumped at it. Sure, we’ll pay to play. If there’s a crowd, we’ll be there. We want people to hear us. We’ve done it to secure slots in a bunch of cities, and we make up the difference in tickets, merchandise sales, or emails. It’s advertising and it’s the cost of doing business. Another example: when you spend $120 in gas to drive your two band vehicles to Chicago, spend $60 on a hotel, run a bar tab, and then sell 3 CDs and get $50 in door money, you’ve just paid to play. Our job is to keep the Sunspot bottom line in the black and to do it we need to get in front of lots of people.

And this show just ended up being awesome. Enough people came out and went crazy during the show that the people behind them joined in. The jokes all hit, the crowd participation and the clapping and the singing along all worked. A friend brought us some Shiners onstage so we could toast with the audience. It was a ridiculously awesome rock and roll experience. And only maybe 5% of the people there had seen us before. We converted that crowd and enjoyed doing it.

We agree, and would go play these shows now whether or not SXSW is going on. As I mentioned earlier, it just provides a convenient excuse to perform for the lovely community we’ve been privileged to be part of in Austin over the past few years. Those performances have allowed us to stretch, experiment, and develop beyond just the “showcase set to try and impress music industry hotshots.” Indeed, the most ambitious experiment we’ve ever done–consisted of a multimedia rock opera with synchronized videos and lights, and this is the place we played it for the first time– driving the twenty-plus hours straight and working on the show until the minute we pulled up to the venue. (And you can watch the whole thing on YouTube right here.)

It’s fun but exhausting. And you get completely desensitized quickly, as almost every act you see is great. If they’ve got the drive to come to Austin from whatever part of the world they’re from, chances are they’re hungry, and they practice, and they sound good. We schmoozed and partied and had a great time with old friends and new. By Sunday, it felt like time to pass out, except we had a 21-hour drive home.

Festival, Inc.?

This year particularly, people rumbled about the corporate takeover of SXSW, and that the massive celebrities like Metallica and Justin Timberlake have ruined it for the rest of us.

Well, these things are all true.

Things change, and that’s okay.

There’s still tens of thousands of music lovers who are looking to listen to you, there’s plenty of people without wristbands, there’s plenty of people who can’t get into see the latest buzz band or Jay Z or whatever. Sure, Doritos can come in and run commercial events, and you can stand on a soapbox and decry corporate sanitization all you want– but there’s a thousand shows with great underground bands waiting to be heard.

And if you’re in a band, who cares if you’re discovered by a talent agent? What you really want is to get discovered by someone who just loves your songs.

It’s why we go every year, and why we still play like our lives depend on it.

Sunspot is a Madison Area Music Award winner for Rock Album of the Year three times over as well as winning the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Artist of the Year (an honor shared by the likes of Bon Iver, Willy Porter, and Violent Femmes.) Their latest release, Archaeopteryx, is disco-metal from the cheese and beer galaxy. It’s available for free download at Sunspot – Free Download

Teri Barr is a multimedia feature writer, radio host, and award-winning journalist. She has work appearing regularly in local and regional publications, along with producing news and webcasts at the national level. If she's not on assignment for a project, she may be banging on her drums, hunting for the next road trip to enjoy a live show with her husband Brian, or snuggling with their cat Harrie-Yeti. You can find her on twitter, facebook, and at http://teribarr.wordpress.com

One thought on “Springboard to Fame? Why Festivals may still be Worth the Trip

  1. Interesting and well-written article! Great to see people playing music for the love of the performance and band / crowd connection.

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