SXSW will not fix your life and give you a music career. But it's really fun.
We sat squished between our amplifiers, instruments and camping gear. It was March 2011. My sister/bandmate spent the cramped, hot ride to Austin’s SXSW incanting, "Bestow the riches!" That later became, "Bestow the tour van!" and, "Bestow me a sandwich!"
The first—the one about the riches—is a concise version of the feeling some musicians have about the festival: You are going to arrive—like, arrive arrive—and then someone's going to hand over the keys to the fame-mobile. Bestow the rawketship!
Instead, you roll back the door to your minivan after 13.5 solid hours of driving. It cost way too much in gas to get there, and you have eaten Funyuns until your tongue is all tore up from the salt. Band members and a terrible smell are released from your weird Toyota egg. And you are given a wristband.
Every artist you see on stage will be wearing this wristband—the mega big ones and the little nobodies like yourself. That egalitarian wristband was comforting to me. Tunde from TV on the Radio was wearing one.
You'll spend three days in the muggy heat watching fantastic music. Really, the nice thing about SXSW is that the bands are good, tight and innovative to some degree. Everyone's at the top of their game, and it's fun to watch, even if you don't like that particular sport.
Advice bit 1: Everyone should practice a lot and be so super on-time it's like breathing. Practice doesn't mean "scales." And "on time" doesn't mean "at the same time" or even "in time." It means "right where you're supposed to be."
There are conferences and mentorship sessions. My sister and I agreed to be mentored because an A & R rep from Columbia was free as we were walking by, and there was no wait. I chugged my free energy drink / booze mixture and we sat down. This guy said, essentially: You're doing everything right. Just do it more.
And you already know what "it" is—social networking, touring and YouTube—making yourself a big deal. There's a self-eating loop here. You think you're a big deal, so then other people do, and you actually become a "small- to medium-sized deal."
Word from a somewhat famous musician I know is that record labels don't make you famous. You don't get "signed" and then, suddenly, everyone in the world knows your name, your mate becomes more attractive, your pizza/drug delivery orders show up on time and your life has meaning. Instead, record labels might be able to help make you a slightly bigger deal than you are. So the question becomes: If you've already done all that work, what's the point of signing anything? Why not just keep doing what you're doing?
Advice bit 2: Get on Facebook, Twitter and MySpace (check out HootSuite, which will let you post to all that shit at once). Create a “splash page" touting your accomplishments, which should include touring, reviews, radio play, etc. If you don't know how to do this stuff, do what I did and just do it anyway.
We arrived at SXSW, and we played a show that was not unlike other amazing shows we've already played. It was amazing. But it wasn't extra amazing.
Climbing the band ladder (as if anything so linear exists) unfortunately means more marketing. Maybe you just want to be a musician and not an advertisement for yourself. These are decisions to be made.
Here's the thing that's been brewing within me for a while—"marketing" should really just be more art. Music journos delete rows of emails every day from this or that promo house trying to pitch a band. Band reps should know better than to send out a subject hedder such as "FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Some bullshit band is releasing some bullshit album!!!"
Actually, I might read that exact release.
DIY touring bands and local bands send out awesome press kits with stickers and handwritten notes that are 50 times better. I love a band photo in which the people in the picture are totally not self-conscious and maybe even a little funny-looking. It's about having a strong perspective.
There are plenty of jerks out there (like me) who think they, for some reason, need to be amplified and on stage. But what is it about you that's just ... you? Bestow the you! That's what you should be "marketing." Some artists have honed this idea so finely that each musical project they're in is an amplified version of some small aspect of their prismatic personality.
Maybe we need to say, "Fuck the splash page, already." Maybe we can make better art than that.
Advice bit 3: The real thing Albuquerque bands need (except Brokencyde, who has this on lock) is freaking YouTube channels full of whatever. All of your recorded work should probably be on YouTube somehow. You should have fan vids of live shows or "pro-shot" videos, and even 30-second clips of your bandmates doing something dumb or weird or fantastic.
• Cooking bomb-shaped pancakes with the bassist.
• Bird-whispering with the drummer and his menacing avian pet that looks like it could rip off your damn face.
• The art of drag eyebrows with your guitarist.
• Ice-blocking like a pro with the lead singer.
Basically, people are looking to meet other people, such as your bandmates. Someone told us performers that it's our job to be entertaining, but we are so saturated with entertainment that everything's cliché. We can avoid clichés by doing what we want and not what we think we are supposed to do.
There's this concept floating around the improv world that goes something like: As soon as you have an idea, it's bad. That's almost true of the rest of this business we call show, too. Stop thinking about what you're supposed to be like. Dig into your subconscious and into where you live. Especially if you live in weird-ass New Mexico. Freaking nobody is from New Mexico (except for us), so there's tons of originality to be found right here.
So, in sum, I would like to ignore most of the advice given to me, and then write that up as advice for other people. Big freaking surprise.
The deadline for SXSW 2012 is Friday, Nov. 4. You can find all the details at sxsw.com/music.
If you even want to apply. Maybe you just want to make yourself more like yourself, which is really what I’m advocating here. That and YouTube presence.