Artists Are Organizing Against SXSW, and It’s About Damn Time

Music artists are banding together to stand up to the organizers of the annual music gathering in Austin every March called South By Southwest (regularly shortened to SXSW), and it’s about damn time. For years now this organization has fleeced aspiring and up-and-coming musicians with the promise of big exposure to important people in the music industry while charging musicians an application fee simply to be considered to play, and often not even allowing them full admittance to the rest of the conference.

At the time of this post, over 1,700 musicians have signed on to a petition demanding fair pay from SXSW and its new owners of Penske Media. Penske is the owner of prominent music publications Billboard and Rolling Stone.

The petition from the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers demands for artists and bands:

1. Increase the compensation for showcases from $250 to at least $750 for all performers. (Which is still less than the cost of a single music badge to attend the festival.)

2. Include a festival wristband in addition to financial compensation. Stop forcing artists to choose between being paid and attending the festival they are performing at.

3. Provide the same compensation + wristband deal to international artists and domestic US artists.

4. End of the $55.00 application fee.

SXSW began in 1987 as a music seminar/conference in Austin hosted by alternative newsweekly Austin Chronicle. The festival has expanded to also include film, tech, games, and interactive media over the years, and its keynote speakers have included superstars and former presidents. SXSW is considered one of the biggest festivals and conferences in the world, overtaking the City of Austin each spring.

The idea that SXSW or any other festival is charging an application fee to be considered for acceptance is arcane. Sure, you need to compensate qualified individuals to vet and curate artists for the festivals and individual showcases. But with the egregious amount of revenue SXSW brings in through corporate sponsors, this burden should be shouldered by SXSW, not artists who in many cases are not even earning revenue from their music yet, and will spend significantly more than they make at SXSW even if they’re accepted.

If SXSW was more exclusive—or if this was something like a song contest where a winner would be announced—this would be a different matter. But with the amount of overall performers swelling to over 2,000 acts each year, being accepted to SXSW is not necessarily a distinguishing honor. The way SXSW charges application fees yet takes most all comers is the fatal flaw in the system that has allowed the festival to overflow its borders, and become a logistical nightmare for performers, attendees, participants, and the City of Austin.

Not allowing showcasing artists access to the rest of the conference and festival as a default—or making them choose between access and compensation for playing—is just as egregious and nonsensical, especially since many of the discussion panels are set up to help inform aspiring musicians about how to navigate the music industry, how to find proper representation, how to optimize their exposure, the new opportunities in the music industry, and how to not get taken advantage of.

Performers also want to see their peers and competition perform, network with their fellow performers, connect with side players and collaborators, etc. Not allowing them access to the the full breadth of SXSW completely takes away from the spirit of SXSW as a gathering of independent-minded musicians.

SXSW will say there is just not enough space to allow every musician access to all of SXSW’s resources. But again, this is the systemically flawed approach undergirding everything SXSW that has allowed the scope of the conference/festival to overflow its boundaries. Corporate hob nobbers who can afford expensive credentials that allow them all access across the festival should not be favored over the actual musicians who built SXSW, and who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the gathering.

As for demanding increased compensation for performances, this point probably deserves a little bit of devil’s advocacy. SXSW is not like a field festival where musicians travel to Austin, play in front of large groups of fans, and generate revenue for the festival in the form of ticket sales and concessions.

Most artists come to SXSW to showcase, meaning they’re looking to get their music in front of label representatives, managers, booking agents, festival and venue promoters, journalists and critics, and others to spread the word about their music and bolster their career. Attending SXSW is an investment an artist or band is making in their future. Many official showcases are not attended by more than a dozen people. But those dozen people could be very important.

Should musicians be better compensated than the current rate of $250 for a band, and $100 for a solo artist? Yes, they should. It costs significantly more to travel and stay in Austin for SXSW than this current stipend will cover. Perhaps raising it to $200 for a solo artist, and $500 for a band is fair in this inflationary market, and now that SXSW has the backing of Penske Media’s deep pockets.

The SXSW organization was especially affected from the COVID-19 pandemic since the shutdowns started right as SXSW 2020 was set to transpire. Since the organization had already outlaid money for rental equipment and temporary staff, they were hosed worse than any other major event that was forced to cancel, while their insurance did not cover a pandemic. SXSW was forced to lay off 1/3 of its workforce, or roughly 50 people after the cancellation. Penske Media purchased a 50% stake in the organization in 2021, which helped keep SXSW afloat.

It’s important to underscore to musicians that they are not going to SXSW to entertain, unless they’re one of the top headliners. They’re going to SXSW for networking and exposure. Many artists play for free at the scores of unofficial showcases and day parties surrounding SXSW, and gladly do so. In fact, these unofficial events are usually where musicians will play in front of more actual fans, and in certain circumstances, more important people.

Demanding fair compensation for musicians is important in most contexts. But with things like SXSW, Folk Alliance, AmericanaFest, etc., the point is to help make important connections to help further your career. Demanding you get paid, or paid higher or you refuse to play can potentially hamper the future prospects of your career. It may not feel fair to play for cheap or free. But in the case of events like SXSW that specifically attract important music industry individuals looking for new talent, it ultimately might be the wise move.

The Union of Musicians’ demand of $750 for bands is probably just as much a negotiating platform as anything. Doubling the stipend creators receive for playing, while also eliminating the application fee and requirement to pay for a wristband or a badge to experience the rest of the conference seems very reasonable.

Anyone who has been to SXSW will tell you that money is all over the place. Corporations flood the event with promotions and activations, and then write it all off as business expenses. Day parties offer free food and drinks, and no admission fees. The local economy and corporate sponsors reap big rewards from SXSW. That is why it has grown so big. It only seems fair that the musicians should at least come out flush from the experience, especially since only a small portion will come away with the record deal, booking agent, or big media write up they seek.

And while we’re citing grievances with SXSW, the journalists and the media have many of their own. SXSW demands you report any coverage of the event to them if you’re a credentialed journalists. All cameras must carry a physical tag and be checked in by SXSW. To attend the event as a journalist, you basically have to give up your 1st Amendment rights.

Whether this effort by the Union of Musicians to unite artists will work or not remains to be seen, but it is long past due that SXSW cease enforcing unreasonable and sometimes draconian restrictions on musicians and other participants simply because they have the power to do so since many musicians see SXSW as vital to their careers. Hopefully by banding together, musicians can levy a more equitable situation.

But it’s also worth pointing out that the unofficial alternatives to SXSW are usually so much better, even if there is no compensation involved at all (though sometimes the compensation is even better). Since SXSW has been so restrictive for so many years, unofficial SXSW has become just as big as the official conference, if not bigger, and arguably better.

As an Austin-based major music publication, Saving Country Music has never paid for a SXSW badge, and never participated in SXSW Official, and still has more than enough options to participate in the gathering of talent each year without having to deal with the SXSW organization and their egregious restrictions.

It’s 2023, and even though SXSW can offer important opportunities to musicians, with the internet, social media, and alternative conferences and opportunities to SXSW, having to succumb to the unfair and restrictive environment that has been allowed to fester at SXSW Official for years is no longer required.

SXSW and other organizations promising exposure prey off the dreams of aspiring artists, some of whom have a career in music waiting for them, and others that likely don’t. SXSW is one of the annual events that helps weed out those who probably can’t hack it as musicians, and those that are destined to rise to the top.

Now that the conference encompasses so much more than music, musicians feel like an afterthought. But SXSW was built off of the backs of independent musicians looking to get discovered. It’s only fair that they finally start to be treated with the dignity and respect they’ve always deserved.

© 2023 Saving Country Music