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.
February 10, 2023 @ 10:18 am
Point of order Trigger. The copyright notice at the bottom of the post still says ©2022.
February 10, 2023 @ 4:19 pm
i hope he leaves it as it is, and capitalizes on the whole “retro” vibe that is so hip among the youngsters
maybe add some background fiddle and guitar and call it TriggerPolitan
February 10, 2023 @ 10:52 am
Austin is a lie it’s it’s been coasting on it’s long since faded musical coolness for more than a decade, Tulsa is where you find new music now. You’ll find a lot more great music by following Tulsa’s Mercury Lounge show lineup than you will in Austin or at South by Southwest.
February 10, 2023 @ 11:13 am
South by Southwest is the perfect icon for Austin. The “Live Music Capital of the World,” is the biggest lie told by a city’s’ marketing department, it’s not by a long shot. The second biggest lie ever told is that it’s “weird.” Austin is about as weird as Tampa in that it’s not weird at all.
The tech bros priced the artists out of Austin and they all moved to Tulsa.
February 10, 2023 @ 11:52 am
The whole model is outdated. If it’s exposure you desire, save your money and get a social media manager. If it’s wisdom you seek, there’s a hundred articles and books written about making it in the music industry. Anyone attending SXSX is usually drunk by 3 pm anyways.
February 10, 2023 @ 12:38 pm
Why don’t the artists just boycott it? You think I’m gonna go work for someone who is offering me only half my normal hourly rate? Hardly. They can rot in hell for all I care. But that’s just me.
February 10, 2023 @ 12:46 pm
The power an organization like SXSW holds over artists is dwindling by the day, but it’s still the year’s biggest collection of industry representatives in the independent music world in one place, and artists do get signed and find representation at this event every year. It’s the anecdotal stories of this happening that have so many coming from across the country to attend it. The idea behind SXSW has always been a good one. It’s the implementation that has always been problematic. They expected 150 attendees at the first one and there were 700. Since then, SXSW has always been behind the curve at controlling this event, and in a position where they hold so much power, they can basically ask anything from artist and the public that they want.
Referee Ron Cherry
February 10, 2023 @ 2:18 pm
I don’t see what the big deal is. If you want to take a pay cut for some additional exposure within the industry play SXSW. If you don’t feel like its worth it, don’t agree to play SXSW.
February 10, 2023 @ 2:24 pm
As I tried to convey in the article, my issue is not with “pay.” The way the Union of Musicians worded their petition, it makes it seem like the musicians are “workers” earning “wages.” That is to fundamentally misunderstand the reason artists perform at SXSW, or other showcase events. I do think the musicians should be compensated better, but my bigger issue has always been the logistics of this event, which are catastrophically bad. As I also tried to convey, musicians have many more option than what they did in 1998, and don’t necessarily need to participate in SXSW Official. This, I think, actually gives them more power over leveraging a better situation than they’ve had in the past.
February 10, 2023 @ 2:18 pm
I say we get BJ Barham behind this movement and, much like small venues taking a cut of merch, it will all get solved.
February 10, 2023 @ 3:14 pm
Admittedly, I’ve never been. But seems like its turned into a shitshow. Not sure how much I would respect any band that’s whining about not being treated “fairly” at a laptop class, overly corporate event like this. I wouldn’t go if you paid me $750 to attend. I have to agree with Hoptown….way better ways to promote yourselft these days anyway.
February 10, 2023 @ 3:38 pm
Totally off-topic note to Trigger…It blows me away how much content you produce while also monitoring and administering all the comment sections on every article. You must be the hardest working guy in journalism, but I think you should also have a SCM station that you produce and curate on Sirius XM. I mean, Outlaw County and the Willie Nelson channels are okay but too based in older music and we need a station of current, un-heralded by the mainstream, non-commercial country music to feature today’s best and brightest, and who better to handle that than you, Trigger. Just a thought…
February 10, 2023 @ 7:37 pm
Hey If SiriusXM called, I’d talk to them. But they seem to be more excited about giving shows to old artists and the offspring of legends as opposed to the folks with their noses deep in the new releases. I’m already too busy to go soliciting for something like that, but if they did call, I’d have to have insist upon complete control over any show.
I appreciate the sentiments Mitch.
weak knee-ed willie
February 12, 2023 @ 4:10 am
Sirius Outlaw Country is just a shadow of what it used to be IMO
February 10, 2023 @ 4:05 pm
Never been to SXSW or even Austin, but Austin seems very far from authentic these days. Kinda like Niagra Falls, go check out Yosemite to get more authentic. I think the small music scene in Spokane is probably better than SXSW.
February 10, 2023 @ 4:57 pm
Raising the pay should be easy enough, although, no matter what it is (in that range), it will always be a loss and an investment for an artist.
The wristband issue is a different thing. If i was a talent scout etc paying to see a showcase of music, I’d hate to get swamped by 2000 other musicians who got a free wristband.
You’ll have everyone who can play 3 chords applying as a cheap way to get in to the festival.
I don’t know the festival, so i have no ideas for a solution, but i think this is a harder issue than the extra half a million dollars in total compensation to artists.
February 10, 2023 @ 5:26 pm
“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.”
How do they demand you report any coverage of the event? Every article written by a journalist needs to be sent to them? Seems like that would be impossible to enforce.
The camera thing seems odd considering how many people have cell phones with great cameras, but how are they making you give up your rights? I’m not trying to be snotty – I just want to understand.
February 10, 2023 @ 7:31 pm
To get official media credentials for Official SXSW, you have to submit any previous coverage of the event, then you have to agree to submit any coverage you post for the current year to SXSW shortly after. The idea is they don’t want people who are not media, or are not actually reporting on SXSW to get in through the media system since wristbands and badges are so extremely expensive. But this also a system that allows them to vet media coverage, and deny journalists who may publish critical coverage of the event. This is not a hypothetical. This has happened to numerous journalists over the years, and the ones who do get credentials subconsciously weigh this into how they cover the fest. No, SXSW does not have direct editorial power over media members. But they might as well through their system.
I was at a music festival last week. Clint Black and Sara Evans said that media could only shoot photos during the first three songs, and only from the General Admittance area. The resulted in terrible pictures for these two artists. This is much more common in music than you may think. You’re exactly right, everyone has a 4K video camera on their hip and have no idea how to use it, but the media members who are professionals and are there to take flattering pictures of them are restricted from doing their jobs, which does nothing but directly hurt these artists. A lot of these provisions are left over from the ’90s, and nobody questions them.
At SXSW, you have to check in your camera, and they give you a little tag that MUST be on any professional camera equipment whenever photos are being taken. If an unapproved camera is used, your press credentials will immediately be revoked, and you will be kicked out of the conference. You have to sign to this agreement to gain access to the festival with a professional camera.
February 10, 2023 @ 9:08 pm
Wow – I didn’t expect SXSW to be *that* overbearingly bad in regards to journalists, but that’s really crappy. I figured they threatened to not give credentials to anyone who wrote lies, not bad press.
You’d think the artists would want the flattering pictures! I understand specifying the first three songs when hair & makeup look the best and the artist isn’t super sweaty, but the location part doesn’t make sense to me. Guess I can at that to the list of many reasons I’m not an artist!
Thank you for the detailed explanation! I really appreciate it.
February 10, 2023 @ 5:46 pm
Mitch said it so well (above). I’ve thought similarly about how talented, skilled, hard working ‘Trigger’ is. I would love to pay to have a SCM channel. I could pay more because I wouldn’t want to also pay for any other channel. Hopefully ‘Trigger’ and the actual musicians would be fairly compensated — and we the listeners would be hearing better music ‘right in the radio’.
February 10, 2023 @ 8:32 pm
The logical Q to ask after reading this is . . . What festival(s) have started in other cities recently that are more pro-artist and closer to the promise (on paper, anyway) of O.G. South By?
February 10, 2023 @ 10:47 pm
The first thing is that you can’t really think of SXSW as a “festival.” It’s more of a conference with a festival aspect to it.
AmericanaFest in Nashville is similar, does not charge submission fees to artists, and does allow showcasing artists access to the rest of the festival. The pay may be about the same as SXSW but it’s less of a logistical nightmare, and you’re more likely to play in front of actual people at a decently-curated showcase.
Folk Alliance is another, though membership and fees can be pretty steep to this one, it’s also probably the easiest to navigate for independent artists. I attend both of these events annually. I attend both of these events and actively look for up-and-coming talent that I commonly will write about later (though missed Folk Alliance this year because they moved it to an earlier date).
I saw Sierra Ferrell and Logan Ledger first at AmericanaFest, for example, and wrote about them before anyone else. I saw Willi Carlisle, Allison Russell, and more at Folk Alliance as well. I can see a dozen artists a day at these events. So can label heads, booking agents, etc.
February 10, 2023 @ 8:51 pm
Glad to hear that the musicians are taking a stand. I hope it leads to positive change. Haven’t been to Tulsa in over 20 years, but based on the Comments, I might need to make a trip.
February 13, 2023 @ 7:26 pm
SXSW was a shitshow when I first started reading Americana blogs. I’ll pass. Make friends and go to Folk Alliance. Read Donald Passman and Bob Lefsetz. I’ve never been to Austin but I enjoy “Austin City Limits”.