“SXSW is undoubtedly one of the greatest music festivals in the world, and last year’s SXSW crowd can attest to that: 16,000+ festival attendees, 2,900+ media reps and 2,000+ performing bands! With upwards of 10,000 bands applying every year, and “only” 2,000 performance slots to fill, what does it take to be a SXSW performer? And who gets to decide that and how? Elliot Usrey, SXSW’s Music Festival Administrator explains all that and more in the interview below. Don’t forget; if you want to apply to SXSW, submitting by Oct. 7th will save you $10!
Tell us a bit about yourself. What's your musical/professional background?
My name is Elliott Usrey, and I’m the SXSW Music Festival Administrator, but like the rest of my fine colleagues, I also wear some other hats. I’ve been into music since I was very young--when my parents owned a dinner theatre, where they brought in many fine national acts from the 60s and 70s in a beautiful, historic atmosphere. My interest in music developed into becoming a musician myself, and eventually became a career choice as I graduated from Indiana State University with a degree in Music Business Administration.
Tell us about the event you select artists for: Which genres do the best there?
On the surface, SXSW is most known for introducing and launching the careers of the hottest indie/rock, pop, and electronic bands, but if you’ve ever looked at our entire lineup each year, you know that we welcome EVERY genre. Every band who plays here has something to take away from the experience, as the attendees/registrants are always looking for something new.
What do you look for when selecting a band?
I’m going to say this in the best way possible without using the damned cliché of the “X / WOW / IT FACTOR,” but we’re always looking for the bands who have something that makes them stand out. What we consider as standing out is whatever holds our attention when looking at their tour schedule (past, present, and future), their level of talent, label, management, and booking agents, any uniqueness that sets them apart from others in their genre, dedication, and BUZZ from listeners (social media, live, and print media). Don’t forget the most important thing—HOW IS THEIR MUSIC?
Which presentation elements of a band are the most important?
I would say the most important thing for presentation with a band is to show that you know what you’re doing. If you’re new at it, at least act like you’re a veteran. Rehearse the hell out of your set and always be able to know what you need to do next. Put on a good show, and make sure you do at least one thing that will stick in somebody’s mind, even if it means pouring beer down the neck of your guitar into your drummer’s mouth.
When you're reviewing an artist’s materials, what's the first thing you review, the second, etc?
We each have a different system when it comes to reviewing artists, but here’s mine: The first (most important and obvious) thing I do is I start listening to their music. I can usually get a good idea of the direction they’re going within the first few seconds, which is when I start looking at the rest of their EPK. I read their bio (we like shorter, more to-the-point, bios :)), check out their discography, then I head over to their calendar to see how active they are, click through a few photos to get an idea of their image, and navigate their Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and YouTube pages to see what they’ve got going on in those areas. Keep in mind I’m still listening to their music throughout.
What are some common mistakes you see artists making when they're submitting to you?
The biggest mistake is lack of material. A lot of bands will provide one song, one sentence for a bio, no links, and no tour dates, which means we have to take the time to search that whole World Wide Web thing to find more on them, and it makes it look like they don’t care. On the opposite end, some bands deserve a PhD for the extremely long dissertation of a bio they write, which won’t all be read.
Another thing to note is that your “Primary Contact” is your Primary Contact. Don’t put someone’s email address down if you’ve only met once, or if you don’t have good communication with that person. They receive all of the important messages we send. Bands need to be sure they are in good communication with their team, so if their Primary Contact gets an important email from us and doesn’t tell them about it, we don’t want the blame.
Oh, and WE DO NOT LIKE BEING YELLED AT WITH ALL CAPS AND RUN ON SENTENCES BECAUSE IT TENDS TO SCARE US BECAUSE WE GET SCARED FROM SEEING A GIANT PARAGRAPH WITH A BUNCH OF LOUD WORDS AND SOME THINK THAT THIS REALLY BRINGS ATTENTION TO THEM BUT IT REALLY JUST SHOWS THAT THEY CAN’T TURN DOWN THE VOLUME FROM ELEVEN TO TEN OR MAYBE EVEN NINE.
What do you wish bands understood about the time and effort that goes into the selection process?
The main message that we’re always trying to convey is that we have upwards of 10,000 acts applying each year, and we only have room for a little over 2,000, so there’s naturally going to be a lot of disappointed bands out there. We want every band to know that we give each and every one of them a fair evaluation. Along with that, because we have so many applications to review, they aren’t going to know their status the day after they submit. It takes time.
SXSW bands travel from over the world to perform in Austin. Does SXSW provide any type of assistance or guidance for international bands?
International artists and their needs, regarding visas and travel, are one of our priorities. When I said that I wear some other hats in the company, this is one of the things I work on. I’m part of what we call our Advancement Team, which is focused on communicating with the artists to make sure they do everything they need to do to get over here and play their showcase. An important thing to note, however, is that the only involvement SXSW has with an artist’s visa process is that we provide a support letter and advice, but we don’t work through the rest with the artist. We provide links to sources and agencies, but the rest is totally up to the artist, because of the amount of international artists we have. Visas can be complicated and they’re a very delicate matter.
Do you have any other advice you'd like to share with bands?
Listen to criticism. You’re only going to get more as you move further in your career. Try to develop an ability to know when it’s meant to help. If a label executive tells you to work on your songwriting—work on your songwriting. Write every day. Don’t take that as a slap in the face from a corporate asshole. Take it as a piece of valuable advice from someone who knows what works, and what doesn’t. If you can’t handle criticism, then you can’t handle the industry. Google your favorite successful band and look at the range of criticism they receive. They get anything from music scholar notes to death threats. Everyone’s a critic, but it’s up to you to create a filter.
Network and get your name out there. Use all your resources to let people know who you are, but know your boundaries. Don’t spam the hell out of them and turn them off. Talk to anyone in the industry you get the chance to interact with. Some really great connections come from the industry positions that you don’t hear about.
Keep your cynicism at home. By nature, we’re all programmed to talk more about bad experiences than good, so you could play a great set, but if you tell the club owner afterwards to go to hell for not allowing you more than 2 free beers, he or she’s probably going to tell his or her club-owning friends not to book you. Be positive in what you’re trying to do. I sound like a motivational speaker now….
It’s the music industry. Some people have made a career out of failing, but it’s up to you where you go with it. One of the things I hate to see is a band that keeps going and going, but going nowhere because they don’t make the effort it takes to get better and go further. No matter where you are, always try to look at the big picture and ask yourself, “What can I do to make this better?”