SXSW: The Ultimate Guide to Representing your Band and Brand

SXSWIt’s almost March, and if you’re in the music industry, you know what time it is: South by Southwest (SXSW) time!  As many bands make the annual trek to Austin to either perform or promote, we thought it would be a good idea to put together a guide that covers some important things to remember when representing yourself, your band, your business and your music to fans and industry professionals, at SXSW or any music event.  These opportunities are about making a good impression and educating yourself, not getting discovered and signed!

Before you even get in the van to make the trip, you need to start thinking about what you want to get out of SXSW or any festival.  Make a plan.  Are you going as a band to perform and network? Or are you going as music fans to observe and enjoy what the festival has to offer?

Attending SXSW as a Music Fan

If you’re only going to SXSW as music fans, then no problem.  Listen to music, discover new bands for your collection, hunt for celebrities, and have a good time.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Just don’t think that you are doing something for your music career by attending shows and partying.  Sure, it’s possible you may make some connections while being social, but don’t dwell on it.  If this is your plan, you might as well stop reading now.  The rest of this article probably isn’t for you.

Attending SXSW as a Band

If you’re attending as a band, then you will want to make sure you are focused on the right set of goals.  Are you actually performing at the festival or are you only going to network and promote?  Of course, there may be a little overlap between the two, especially if you plan to promote for your show, but it’s good to go into this with a clear definition of what you are want to do and execute properly.

I am going to SXSW as a performer!  What should I do, Oh Great One?

Good first impression, but flattery will get you nowhere. 😉  As a performer, I’m sure you are already a seasoned pro and have your gear packed, the set list written, the cooler stocked and your overnight bag filled with several changes of underwear.  What you may not be thinking about is how you will conduct yourself at your show and leave a great first impression on all these new fans and the venue owner who know next to nothing about you.

The moment you arrive in Austin at SXSW is the moment you and your bandmates put your game face on.  SXSW is among the gold standards of music business trade shows, and you as a business professional representing your brand (yes brand, not band) must keep that in the back of your mind when working through this checklist.

SXSW EVENT PERFORMER CHECKLIST

1.) Scout the venue(s) before you play
Scout the venue a day or two before your show. Get familiar with the load-in area so you know where to park and what time to be there.  Walk around the stage layout and formulate a plot so you have an idea of how you need to setup and arrange your gear.  Ask the bar staff if they have a storage area where you can put your cases and unused gear during the show.  Finally, meet the staff.  Associating your band’s name with your faces will help form a first and (hopefully) lasting impression on the venue staff.  They will feel like they actually know you and will be more comfortable when it comes time for you to load in, sound check and perform.

2.) Respect the venue owner and staff
This ties a little into #1 above.  When meeting the staff in the days before your show, make it a point to meet the venue owner and start building a relationship.  On the day of your show, enforce that relationship by respecting the owner’s time.  Be prepared, organized, on time and communicate clearly.  Going above and beyond like this can really get their attention and lodge your band’s name into their long term memory as “that band!”.

3.) Respect the other bands on the bill
Going beyond the venue itself, remember to extend that respect to the bands you’ll be sharing the stage with.  Making new friends and networking with future tour mates is what this time at SXSW is all about.  Be the band that other bands admire and want to share the stage with.  The long term return on these relationships can be huge.

4.) Manage your gear
Do your best to keep track of your instruments, accessories and cases.  It’s a good idea to make a checklist of your gear before you even leave home so you can quickly and easily go through it when you need to.  This will make it easier and faster to load-in. Better yet, it will make tearing down at the end of the night go quicker so everyone can get to their next party and the venue owner can either close up or prepare for the next event.

5.) Leave your ego at the door
This one is so important that it makes both checklists in this article.  Unless you have the talent and the crowd to back you up, your attitude WILL break you.  No one has respect for your ego, and that can cast a negative shadow over your whole band’s reputation.  Instead, kill your audience and relationships with kindness.  Your music career will thank you.

6.) Be professional at all times
Remember that you wear many hats, including a business owner, salesperson, entertainer, marketer, and manager. People will expect the right hat at the right time.  For example, you should have on your entertainer face when on the stage.  But you should be the approachable, conversational salesperson and business owner when conversing with fans or manning your merchandise.  Also remember to keep business hours and keep the partying and drinking to a minimum until your work day at SXSW is done.

7.) Make time for your fans
After the show you may still have people who want to learn more about you and ask questions.  Be approachable and allow time to talk with fans. Creating new relationships or nurturing existing ones with your fans will help your music and reputation spread virally.

I am going to SXSW as a promoter to network!  Here’s my business card!

Thanks for the card, but I’m not the one you should be marketing to right now. 😉  If you’re going to SXSW to promote your act, then this is the place where it’s okay to be as completely self-promoting/hyping as you want to be. You want people to see your act, you want people to listen to your music, you want to work with other musicians, you want to get some attention. If you’ve got a manager, promoter, brand, or blog who is already championing your music then you’re a step ahead and you might be getting some buzz, good for you. Then anything you do yourself like this is going to be magnified. Awesome.

If you’re an act looking for that champion or just looking to make some new fans and friends, then this is the checklist for you.

SXSW EVENT NETWORKING CHECKLIST

1.) Be prepared.
You are going to be meeting a lot of people at SXSW, so think about the ways that you want to present yourself and your music. Business cards, press kits, one sheets, download cards, CDs, there’s no particular rule to this because all kinds of people will want different kinds of things. Be prepared with whatever you think represents you best. No one thing is better than the other. If you present yourself in a thoughtful way that suits your music and personality, then you’ll be fine.

It’s usually more important to be able to take down other people’s information quickly so that you can follow up. Don’t expect anyone else to Like you on Facebook. Grab their card, tweet them, tag them in a photo on Instagram, get an email address, whatever you need to do to get their contact info. And then when you get it, follow up.

2.) Pace yourself.
You’ll probably be listening to music and hanging out in bars starting at Noon. That’s a long day, so know your limitations, especially if you’re playing later that night. John Lennon could record Number One hits on acid and The Replacements could perform legendarily intoxicated. Chances are you’re not The Replacements and you’re definitely not John Lennon. Partying happens, especially at SXSW because it’s pretty much Spring Break in Austin. But you’ve got to know your limits to put on a good performance and not make an ass out of yourself.

3.) Work it until you pass out.
SXSW is the place where you can work it non-stop, it’s okay to not take breaks. Chances are that you won’t be in a situation this good again for promoting your act until the next one of these, so don’t quit. Don’t go see tourist attractions when you could be meeting fans and making connections. Sometimes the best meetings happen at the end of the night or at after-hours parties. Yeah, you might need to take a break or a short nap, but if you’ve got the energy then why stop?

This also means that you should be constantly looking for opportunities to perform. There’s thousands of people looking for new music, get in front of them any way you can.

4.) Don’t be a jerk.
This is a big one. If you’re a jerk, you better have the talent and the crowd pull to back it up. Prince doesn’t have to “act professional”, he is free to act like a child all he wants because he’s ridiculously talented and can draw 10,000 people to his show with a tweet. Axl Rose can start concerts two hours late because people will wait with baited breath to see the man who wailed on Appetite for Destruction, even if he’s kinda outta shape now.

You can’t do that kind of stuff unless you’ve got the crowd to back it up. If you do, you should be writing articles like this and not reading them. Just by going out of your way to be nice to your fellow musicians and to people who you meet, you’re setting yourself apart. They all want to like your music, remember that. Fans are looking to hear great stuff, all the time. So are people that work in the music business, it’s their job to find good music, so they’re dying to be impressed. Make it easy to fall in love with your music by being the kind of person that people want to be around.

5.) Don’t worry about being discovered, worry about your career.
The days of getting signed at festivals are over. No one show makes or breaks you, ever. What you want to do is to make connections with people that you can work with in the future. If another band is there, chances are they’re working just as hard as you are. That’s the kind of band that you want to trade shows with or go on a tour with. This is where you can develop your Rolodex of like-minded artists and music people. And you never know where people you meet are going to end up, so network, have fun, and brainstorm creative ways that you can work with the people who are at your level. Don’t just seek out the “gatekeepers”, they’ll find you when your time comes. You need to look at the people that you can work with now and they are all around you at festivals.

All in all, festivals like SXSW are the ultimate places you can fake it until you make it. Act like the musician you want to be, no matter where you are. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a musician who wants to perform at their peak ability, works with smart people, is well-liked, and whose fan base is growing. Follow these steps and it’ll make it easier!

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Special thanks to SXSW regulars Mike and Wendy from Sunspot, and Ryan from Haliwel for their contributions to this article.

Sunspot photo courtesy of Matt Apps / Devious Photography

Matt is one of the co-founders behind Local Sounds, a non-profit organization that helps promote, preserve and develop Madison's local music scene. He has played drums for several bands and was formerly on the MAMAs board.

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