Entertainment & Arts

How to stand out from the musical crowd at SXSW

Band walking the street at the South By South West Festival Image copyright AP
Image caption SXSW gives bands an opportunity to get noticed in the US market

Since its inception in 1987, the SXSW [South by South West] conference has become the world's biggest music industry event, with the number of delegates leaping from 700 in the first year, to more than 25,000 in 2013. But with hundreds of acts a day on display, just how easy is it to get noticed?

It's an event where, this year, audiences could see free concerts from Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Coldplay and Soundgarden, to name but a few.

As well as the headliners, there are about 2,000 bands playing the small pubs and clubs of Austin - of which more than 100 are British, making them the biggest national contingent outside of the US.

Established artists like Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker can be found, as well as newer bands like London Grammar, Syd Arthur, Jungle and Fat White Family.

"It's an amazing opportunity really," says Russell Marsden of Southampton-based rock group Band of Skulls, who played the first ever US edition of the i-Tunes Festival this week, which was launched as part of SXSW.

Image copyright Danny North
Image caption Newer bands like London Grammar can rub shoulders with more established acts

"The reason everyone should try and do it is that you never know who will be listening or standing in the audience watching you. We first came to SXSW in 2009 and got festivals and live event bookings over here in the USA.

"Of course this year we are playing the luxury version of SXSW, as even the carpet is softer as well as the iTunes venue being bigger than most of the ridiculously small venues we usually have to play.

"But those small venues are a great leveller for bands. It brings out your punk rock spirit and shows you what you are made of."

Money, however, is the major reason that many bands cannot afford to travel to Austin, due to the expense of flights, accommodation and business visas.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Lady Gaga was not short of attention

Each year the PRS for Music Foundation, based in London, donates funding to selected artists to travel. This year 19 British acts have been chosen, including Oxfordshire-based quartet Glass Animals.

According to frontman Dave Bayley, "it would have been really difficult without financial help".

"The exposure to the US market is so important because it's the biggest market in the world. And it's a showcase for us to see what we can do.

"There are so many bloggers, magazines, and industry people here to connect with. And it makes such a difference to connect face to face than be a digital file away.

"I think there is a certain thing about being British which is still fascinating to Americans, especially in Texas. They keep asking me to pronounce Harry Potter for them."

Some kind of concrete international "deal" is the holy grail of what most British bands are searching for at SXSW, according to Vanessa Reed of PRS Music Foundation.

She says that since the British first "invaded" the city in 2002, which was the year bands really started coming out and trying their luck, "we've seen success stories like Bat for Lashes, Everything Everything and Django Django coming out here and becoming the buzzed about band.

Image copyright Rachael Wright
Image caption Coldplay are used to playing the huge crowds the festival attracts

"That's what everyone's seeking - that 'buzz' - but just because they're British it doesn't mean they're entitled to it, although our music industry has immense creative respect over here.

"The festival's a different animal to what it was a few years ago with much bigger acts wanting to play SXSW. To some extent, everyone's already made up their mind who to see before they arrive in Austin."

Reed estimates that about 82% of British bands her organisation funds returns with a tangible offer of distribution abroad. Last year, Canterbury-based group Syd Arthur's trip to SXSW resulted, three months later, in signing a global deal with Harvest Records.

"SXSW can be beyond your wildest dreams," explains Joel Magill, Syd Arthur's bassist.

"Certainly it was for us because we went there only seeking to create opportunities for the band. I think what happened to us though is still unusual.

"It's important for artists to come out to Texas at the right time, when they're ready to go looking at broadening their horizons internationally, because there are so many bands out here that if you're not ready, you can come back home feeling crushed. You have to manage your expectations."

Spandau Ballet premiere

Ironically, in 2014 the British band causing most of a sensation in SXSW has been 80s group Spandau Ballet, who premiered their career-spanning documentary, Soul Boys of the Western World, at the festival.

They also performed their first American concert in 28 years, which the LA Times described as "pulling it off in grand fashion."

Singer Tony Hadley explains: "Making it here in America is as difficult as when we first tried it.

"You need to come out here and stay out here, you have to prove yourself every time you go on stage because they have their own amazing artists."

Guitarist Gary Kemp adds: "America loves Britain for its idiosyncrasies.

"I think those kinds of bands do the best, rather than trying to be American. It worked for us and I think it's working for those bands who make a success out of the festival."

Russell Marsden from Band of Skulls says the festival has "really got that global feel to it now".

"When we first came up here, you couldn't find Lady Gaga. As long as it has an open door policy though and new bands don't get crushed under the weight of the superstars, then it can get as big as it wants.

"It's not just luck that gets you noticed. You have to impress and bring your show. But a great band will always be a great band and do the work. If you can manage to get out here, it's still the best opportunity the industry offers."

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