We’ve asked this question before. We ask it every year. We’ll most likely keep asking it. Was SXSW worth it? Was it worth attending as a band? As a journalist? As a fan?
This year we asked Jack Inslee, founder of Full Service Radio and a producer/musician with Odetta Hartman, if SXSW was worth it from a performer’s perspective. He just returned after his third consecutive visit the music industry’s annual Austin get together.
Jack Inslee: Most cynical days when I think of South By I think it’s a complete waste of money, it’s extortion, it’s not worth it, it will crush your soul and you’re better to save your money and like plan a proper mini-tour somewhere else.
Brightest Young Things: Was the first year worth it?
J.I.: The first year was really…Really every year has been worth it.
BYT: Okay. So if every year is worth is why do you still have that connotation?
J.I.: Because I feel like I have been really fortunate with unique circumstances. A lot of friends that I have who are in similar positions have not had the same success.
BYT: What does that mean. Are there any tangible successes?
J.I.: Yes, year one Stephen Thompson from NPR’s Tiny Desk was at our show and reviewed it very well.
BYT: Did you invite them to go? He just happened to be there?
J.I.: He went because he featured us on NPR’s Austin 100.
BYT: So play as many shows as you can because you don’t know who’s going to be there?
J.I.: No, because that might burn you out. Make sure you’re booked for something that’s an official showcase that’s at a good venue.
BYT: So official showcases mean something?
J.I.: They do.
BYT: Do good venues mean something?
J.I.: Yes and good venue is not so cut and dry because Hotel Vegas is a “good venue” but it’s outside it’s dusty and there are other outdoor stages nearby so if you’re playing delicate music you may be drowned out by a trap artist next door at the FADER Fort.
BYT: If you don’t have a label, if you don’t have a publicist, should you go to SXSW?
J.I.: Only if you’ve been invited by a label to play their showcase. You don’t have to be an artist of the label to play the showcase but if you haven’t been invited to do an official show at a reputable venue with a good line-up around you, the chances of somebody in the industry popping in and seeing you are slim to none. You will incur all of the same costs that anybody else would.
BYT: Let’s go through the costs. Clearly you have to fly down there if you’re from D.C. or drive.
J.I.: Drive, sure. That’s what a lot of bands do. I think it would be worth it for a band that maybe has part-time gigs, maybe this is part of a larger tour for them, they have a van, they’re stopping in Austin on the way to other places.
BYT: So if you view it as part of a tour…
J.I.: Do it, absolutely do it.
BYT: If it’s not part of a tour should you make a special trip for it?
J.I.: No. Not if you’re not on an official showcase.
BYT: But you are on an official showcase.
J.I.: I’ve been lucky to play with Odetta on an official showcase every year.
BYT: Yet you still have this negative connotation.
J.I.: I think because I have empathy for everybody else. I’m feeling, I’m seeing what the mechanism at large is and I’m saying god, it’s just like, yeah, okay, yeah, it feeds the local economy and it’s all well and great but all these businesses that are getting this boom, it’s off the backs of musicians that are broke.
BYT: We’ve established that if you have a publicist, you have a label, and you’ve been invited, it’s probably worth doing.
J.I.: You probably have to. It’s a rite of passage a little bit.
Most labels are going to want you there.
BYT: Why does that matter?
J.I.: Because the label is doing their own positioning and networking.
BYT: After three years is there anything more to gain from going to SXSW?
J.I.: For me personally, no. I would not go as an isolated trip. If it were part of an album release cycle and tour it would be a fine stop and a beneficial stop.
BYT: Is it worth planning your tour around?
J.I.: Because of the way the industry works a lot of the times that’s the way the calendar works so a lot of new things come out around South By because that’s when everyone’s ears are perked up so that’s why it becomes this rite of passage.
I’ve seen so many people pay their own way down, pay $700 on a flight because their friend put them as an opener at an unofficial party off the grid and it’s like at best you got 15 drunk people there and it’s like, “Why did I do this again?”
BYT: How many showcases did you play this year?
J.I.: Two. One was official, one was unofficial.
BYT: How many people were there?
J.I.: The rooms were packed both times.
BYT: But what is a packed room?
J.I.: The first one was 100, 150-ish. Maybe I’m being generous.
BYT: That’s fine because when people hear packed they maybe think of 9:30 Club with 1,200 people. But at best it’s a packed DC9 or Black Cat Backstage.
No matter what the smallest crowd at Lollapalooza and Coachella is going to be way bigger than any average size of SXSW crowd. If you haven’t been you don’t know that
J.I.: Yeah cause there are all these satellite shows. There’s not one big stage necessarily. There are things like the FADER Fort where it is a huge outdoor stage, it’s more festival style.
BYT: Would you recommend going as a music fan?
J.I.: I don’t think it’s worth the trouble if you’re not from nearby.
BYT: Is it worth buying a pass?
J.I.: They give you an option. You can get $250 or you get wristbands. Wristbands get you into official events.
BYT: And you took the money or the wristbands?
J.I.: I took the money.
BYT: Did that prevent you from seeing anything you wanted to see?
J.I.: No, because anything I wanted to see I’ve had a friend at or I just pay the $10 cover if it’s that important to you. Generally if you’re playing shows and traveling you’re too busy to be dealing with that shit anyway. But if you’re a band of six people, splitting that 250 up is like what’s the difference you might as well get a wristband and get a bunch of free swag or whatever. Fucking coozies and sunglasses or whatever.
Our venue, this is going back to the earlier point, our venue was like a craft cocktail bar. It was fucking awesome. They had a great sound system, an awesome back room, it was not a really well known venue so you didn’t have any drunk walk-ins so the crowd was very attentive.
BYT: That goes against what you say about reputable venues. It doesn’t sound like a normal venue.
J.I.: Right, it’s a newer venue. It’s reputable, it’s just newer.
BYT: There’s a lot of places down there that don’t usually do shows but for SXSW they are
J.I.: Like pop up a stage, those are usually hit or miss.
BYT: Did you discover any music you didn’t know about before this year?
J.I.: Awesome bands that played alongside us at the showcase. But that doesn’t really count. Any connections we have made have been through the label, through friends. We had BBC at the first gig we played as well.
BYT: This year?
J.I.: No, in 2016. NPR is there, BBC also. We developed a relationship with a publisher in the UK. We got a publishing deal. We got invited to play a festival in England, we ended up on BBC 1. So really great things came out of SXSW for us. 2017 we had an Irish booking agent put us the Other Voices festival in Ireland. So like, tons of great stuff has happened because of SXSW. But only because Northern Spy [the label of Odetta Hartman] put on a great showcase that drew these people.
BYT: And how did Northern Spy find out about Odetta?
J.I.: Because she hustled her ass off in the NYC music scene for years.
BYT: So does it make more sense for a band to try to figure out how to spend a month in New York a year and play as many good shows and meet as many people or does it make sense to go to SXSW for four days?
J.I.: If you don’t have any networking, if you don’t have these relationships already, I think it’s really hard to go to SXSW and just expect to meet people.
BYT: Okay, so if you’re in Washington, D.C. and you don’t have any of these relationships is your time better spent trying to figure out connections in New York
J.I.: Yes. Or in Richmond or D.C. or neighboring cities.
BYT: So if you’re not already making yourself part of a thing. Going to SXSW is probably not going to do anything for you. We can’t say for sure
J.I.: We can’t say for sure, but probably not. That’s what I tell a lot of my friends in D.C. that are like, “Ah, you’re going to South By I’d love to go to South By, I’ve been dying to get to South By,” like dude, you aren’t on a label yet, you’re going to hate it.
BYT: What’s success in 2018 for a musician specifically a musician going to SXSW. Is the trip worthwhile, cause you’re not doing this to sell records, you’re not doing this to sell merch.
J.I.: So from my experience, success was going back to the Holiday Inn, looking at NPR’s Twitter and saying, “Holy shit, they featured us as one of the best shows,” listening to the podcast and hearing Stephen Thompson say, “Odetta Hartman and Jack Inslee really blew me away it was really unique and original,” that was success.
— Northern Spy Records (@northernspyrecs) January 25, 2017
BYT: What about 2018? When will you know if this trip was successful?
J.I.: It was a success. The label was there, the publishing company from the UK was there. Our Irish friend was there. We have a new album coming out. It was good to see them, it was good to play some new songs for them to keep them excited about what we’ve got going on.
BYT: Is there anything that you think if you were considering going you would want to know?
J.I.: Yes. Have a plan early. If you want to go to South By make that decision now. As early as possible. Secure an Airbnb with as many friends as you can, split those costs.
BYT: Above all, if you’re down to network and you know how to network, worth your time
J.I.: Knowing how to network being the most important thing. If you’re coming at this from your bedroom, spend some time in NYC, spend some time in D.C. Meet other people on record labels, learn the language first. Don’t go down there like an amateur and just expect to figure it all in SXSW.