The van is packed. You're probably already mid-tour on your way to Austin. Now, how are you going to make an impact at SXSW when hundreds of bands are packed into a small area competing for attention? It's not too late to take a few last-minute measures to get the most out of your trip – in terms of publicity and beyond.
Have realistic expectations:
The first step to making the most out of this trip is being realistic. Bands often ask me if SXSW is worth it. You are going to meet lots of music industry people, and play in front of crowds who have never seen you before. It's unlikely that you will be handed a record contract at the end of the week, but you may meet people who indirectly facilitate that a year or two down the road. Whether or not any trip is worth it depends on realistic expectations, and making the most of what you can.
Make a good impression:
- Never have I heard someone say, "I might want to book/sign/manage that band over there looking bored/miserable/aloof and not talking to anyone." Everyone is tired and stressed out, but try to keep a good attitude. You'll at least be a lot more fun to talk to and share a van with.
- Thank the hosts of any event you play. You may have had to rush across town to get there and play on a backline you didn't like, but they likely turned down a bunch of other bands to give you that slot. On that note, be sure you know whose party you're playing (so you don't, for example, thank the wrong magazine by accident). Thank them during your set if that's your style, but at least go say hi to them before you leave. Besides, they probably have drink tickets for you.
- You never know who could be standing right behind you, so if you're going to gossip or trash-talk, at least keep your voice low (or don’t do it at all). You're in a room full of music industry people, and as you've probably learned, it's a tight-knit community – everyone knows everyone.
- Keep it together. Try to take it easy on the free beers until your shows and introductions are wrapped up.
- Be mindful of your set. I've seen energetic rock bands clear rooms when they’ve decided to break out the "nine-minute acoustic slow jam," as an agent called it.
- This all spills over to social media as well. Unless you're having such a horrible time that it's truly hilarious, it’s not the right avenue to complain about how hard it was to find parking.
Make sure people know you're playing:
- Update all social media with all of your performances. Each day, post an update with that day's venue, time, address, and what event it is.
- If you have a publicist, make sure they know about all of your official and unofficial showcases.
- Do you have a list of media folks? Great! If not, take the time to research blogs and magazines that will be down there. An easy way to tell is if they have a day party or showcase. Peruse the "about" or "contact" page, and send out an email sharing your show information, links to your best songs, a brief bio, and your willingness to participate in any press opportunities you can. A direct email to writers who seem like a good fit based on your sound is best, but if you have to send a mass email, BCC.
- Make a poster image of all your performances. Keep that file saved on your phone, so you can text people the information when they ask where you're playing next. I do this every year with our showcase flyer, and it saves me having to type out the bands, location, and times to every friend who asks.
Make sure people know who you are:
- Don't forget to say your name on stage or have your name visible somewhere. I've seen bands I liked, but had no idea who they were, nor did anyone around me in the crowd.
- When you meet someone, go ahead and say, "My name is ____. I play in ____." I've had great chats with people I’ve met in Austin, but I came away only knowing their first name, with no idea whether they're in a band, an industry person, or just enjoying the weekend.
- Be human. If you're speaking with someone you'd love to work with, show that you’re interested, but don't put him or her on the spot during a first introduction. Ask them about their week and get to know them first.
- Get a simple card printed with contact info and a link to music. If you feel uncomfortable and too business-y passing them out, ask for the card of whomever you're talking to, then reciprocate. It can't hurt to have a few slipcase CDs handy, but people are handed so many promo items throughout the week that I think most would prefer to carry around your card for the rest of the day. If a magazine or brand with lots of social media followers photographs you, give them your card. Wouldn't you rather they tag you in the post, instead of "we love live music at SXSW"?
- Meet the other bands on the bill. You may trade shows someday.
- Meet the party organizers.
- Ask to be introduced to anyone you want to meet. If you're chatting with someone at a management company's party, don't hesitate to say, "Hey, do you know anyone at Example Management? I'd love to meet them." A showcase or party is a marketing event. The organizers want to meet you, too!
After the festival:
- Follow up. Now that you surely have a stack of business cards, some new phone numbers, and a few email addresses from all those people you met, send them an email or Facebook message (if you feel that you spent enough time with them to warrant a step beyond email) letting them know it was great to meet them, and you'd like to keep in touch. Now they have your contact info as well, if they didn't already from your handy cards.
- If there is a specific sort of help you're looking for from your new contact, be direct. It's hard for busy people to do you a favor if you don't ask. Ask that manager you liked if he’s taking on new artists, or if he can recommend a few people he respects. Let that blogger know you have an album coming out soon, include a link, and ask if she might post about it once she catches up from the festival.
Some advice from SXSW veterans:
"Bring a hand truck. It makes carrying all your equipment six blocks between shows easier." – Dan Scheuerman of Deleted Scenes
"Whatever schedule you have as far as getting to other shows... throw it away. There is no way that you'll be able to hit everything you want to, so focus on getting to shows on time and enjoy the ride. Also, make sure that you get on the ‘secret’ wait lists for other shows. Many bands overbook and won't show up, so it's never a bad idea to get more shows than you came with. Always have another point of contact just in case someone misses a call from a club or promoter. That said, also stay sober-ish/ready to play until about 8 PM – that's when they'll stop calling to fill empty spots. Lastly, take in as many shows as possible and network as much as possible. You'll never have another chance to get this many people to chat about the industry in one room/area again. So be polite, professional, and fun. And above all else, have a great time." – Dustin Binns, manager of Sonicbids band Death On Two Wheels
"Lose the 'tude. Have a plan to sound good with one mic, no mics, no PA, vocals through a guitar amp, etc., so that you can play as many shows as possible and deal with the unexpected. Talk to other bands, share gear. Keep a list of good stuff you saw – when and where. Paper and pen don't run out of batteries. Don't start drinking until you're ready to not stop drinking. Write your name on your stuff." – Andy Pruett of Quiet Hooves
Speaking of meeting people during the busy week ahead, the one place you can count on finding me is my company's showcase with our label friends Hometapes. Come say hi! And don't forget to stop by the Sonicbids Official SXSW Party on Friday, March 14th!
Alyssa DeHayes is a national publicist for labels and independent artists at Riot Act Media, and runs a fledgling label of her own. Send her your burning music PR questions to get answers in a future "Ask a Publicist" column.