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SXSW Is Worth It (If You Know How To Work It)

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Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.
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I just got back from SXSW and true to SX form, I’m in need of some serious recovery. 

This was my 8th year in a row at the festival (save for the two years during the pandemic that it didn’t happen) and, as always, it was a blast. An exhausting blast. But a blast no less. And it flew by too fast. 

Over the course of the 5 days I was there, I discovered some incredible artists whom I had never heard of before but absolutely blew me away. First, Otoboke Beaver. A 4-piece, all women Japanese punk band. They played the ACL Live Moody Theater and for a band that would be best suited for a gritty basement with a mosh pit, they captivated all 1,000 or so festival hoppers staring in disbelief at the cognitive dissonance of these rockers in full length, colorful secretary dresses high kicking, screaming and thrashing. It was a sight to behold, no doubt. 

Otoboke Beaver at SXSW

Following that show, with a few friends we picked up along the way (true to SX form), we hit a few other excellent sets like the neo-soul singer Madison McFerrin playing the Central Presbyterian Church (whom I had just interviewed hours prior at the Roland House for a live episode of the New Music Business podcast). 

Ari Herstand and Madison McFerrin

 

And she’s got to win the award for the best free swag item. They handed out fans with her press image on them to every attendee. 

Madison McFerrin Church fan at SXSW

After a quick stop for some late night BBQ we headed back to the Moody Theater and caught Remi Wolf’s off-the-wall performance. Her brand of soul kitsch is unlike anyone out right now. The floor to ceiling LED screens behind her had a loop of pre-recorded clips of Remi in outlandish outfits on a greenscreen of clashing neon colors. It was fabulous. And she lifted this room to even higher heights. 

Remi Wolf performing at SXSW

I gave a speech at the convention center to a packed house about How To Release an Album in 2023 and then spent about an hour and a half at the convention center bookstore signing books and meeting people. It was so wonderful to connect with so many in the Ari’s Take community and hear how the work we put out has been helpful. If you were there and said hi, thank you! It’s truly impactful and reminds me why I do all of this! 

Ari Herstand on the red carpet at SXSW

Ari Herstand giving a speech at SXSW

I was doubling as Annabel Lee’s merch/tour manager for the week and sprinted across town to all 4 of their shows to sling the merch and capture some footage. Their first set was booked mere hours before they took the stage. They were asked to fill in for a band who had dropped out, and true to SX form, we had no idea what this show would entail. As they were setting up on the patio of a bar on Rainey, there were just a handful of people in the audience. I thought this was gonna be rough. But by the end of their set, the patio was so packed with people pumping their fists and dancing that you would have thought they were life-long, die hard fans (they are now!). Such a beautiful SX moment to witness. Literally bringing people in off the street with their music. 

Friday night was the official Ari’s Take showcase. I’d never run an official showcase at SXSW before and boy was it a learning process. And a shit ton of work. 

Let me give you a little insight into how official SXSW showcases work. 

So, as an artist, you can of course submit through the front door. If you get selected, they’ll put you on a stage they think is best suited for what your potential draw is and place in the industry at the moment. Some venues are great (like Mohawk or Empire) and some are shithole bars converted into a venue for the week. 

SXSW’s official policy is that every artist is offered the same deal: either get an Artist Wristband (which gives you access to all shows, panels, keynotes and every official SX music event – valued at around $600) or get paid $100 cash (for a solo artist) or $250 (for a band). The vast majority of artists select the wristband to make the most of the experience there. 

However, many of the showcases are “presented by” brands who end up paying the bands their fee directly.

Every band of note (with agency representation) for the most part follows this route. When you look at the SXSW schedule and you see “Presented by Doritos” or whatever, you know those bands are making some gooooood coin. 

Not to mention the thousands of “unofficial” shows happening all over Austin during SXSW week. Most of these unofficial showcases don’t pay anything (and you don’t get SXSW credentials) – but you do get an opportunity for discovery and the ability to get people out to your show who will be in Austin this week. And you can sell merch and oftentimes make tips. Some unofficial showcases are great – like what Annabel Lee did at Guero’s on South Congress on their massive backyard patio with a hundred or so people hanging out, drinking, eating tacos, chilling and watching the show. They killed it in merch and tips at this showcase. 

The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) has been making noise this year raising awareness about the low-pay that artists make directly from the festival. And while most of their causes are noble, this one in particular unfortunately didn’t reveal the full story. Many of the artists at the festival are getting paid far above the standard SXSW deal – it’s just not directly from the festival. We can debate this model all day, but what I’ll say about it is, I find SXSW to be an incredibly fruitful experience. Because so many people in the industry have descended upon downtown Austin for the week, you have a better shot at getting some of them to your shows then you may be able to in their hometown! It’s also ripe for discovery. I always walk away with a couple new favorites who I didn’t know before the festival. And on the business side, it’s a great place to take quick meetings, make connections, exchange cards and then follow up the next week. 

Ari's Take SXSW Street Team
Apryll Aileen & Ruthie Craft putting up posters. Photo by Ben Edwards

And it’s a hell of a good time. 

Not everything needs to be solely about the money. You should factor happiness and enjoyment into every decision you make for your music career.  

I always go out of pocket a bit to get me and my team (and bands I work with / play in) down in Austin during this week because I know we’ll have a great time and will walk away inspired with new opportunities we wouldn’t have gotten had we not been there. 

Maxton Hunter, Mikey Evans and Ari Herstand on scooters
Maxton Hunter, Mikey Evans and Ari Herstand scooting around SXSW

So, back to the Ari’s Take showcase. We had a stellar lineup of artists from all walks of life. And yes, all of them got paid their fee directly from us (the presenters). 

I negotiated with these artists’ booking agents their fees and signed contracts like I was the talent buyer of a club or bringing them to my private event. It’s this weird hybrid thing where I don’t work for SXSW, but I, as a Presenter, can book whatever acts I want for this official festival. And they’ll get included in all SXSW billing, get official Artist Wristbands and get paid handsomely for their set (from the presenters – not SXSW). 

Our showcase was at a bar on Rainey Street that had a sizeable back patio that SXSW production team converted into a legit venue for the festival – complete with a large stage, tent for the band and the majority of the audience (in case it rained), a pro PA system and some LED lights (enough for a wash, but nothing fancy). Our venue’s capacity was 500 and at the night’s peak we were close to that.

We as the presenter had to provide backline which I rented from a local backline company. 

When the sound guy arrived at our stage about 90 minutes before the first band was to take the stage, he noticed that about half the system had been stolen the night before! 

The speakers were stacked on subs and two of the top speakers were just missing. As were some mics, DI boxes, cables and the lights controller. Fortunately, our stage manager Mari Akita (who was an absolute rockstar – working directly for SXSW) got on the radio with SX production and within 30 minutes they brought by most of the missing gear we needed. 

Mikey (Spice) Evans on the Ari’s Take team (who’s a great percussionist and was the tour manager for his band The Fritz for about a decade) was doubling as the artist’s advance contact, stagehand, A2 and band wrangler and Maxton Hunter also on the Ari’s Take team (who’s a great drummer and singer/songwriter) doubled as drum tech, A2, stagehand and vibe master. 

Things went wrong, as they do, but everyone (for the most part) ran with the punches like pros. The sustain pedal that came with the keyboard didn’t work at all. The majority of Victoria Canal’s set is keys, but she had to pull a quick audible and relearn those songs on guitar, on the spot instead. She did it masterfully and she captivated the entire crowd with her voice, songs and presence. A true professional. 

+Victoria Canal on Releasing Music During Covid and Staying Inspired (New Music Business podcast)

Victoria Canal performing at SXSW
Victoria Canal, Lucy Clearwater performing at SXSW

The Rare Occasions, fresh off their New Music Business appearance, brought the energy with their patented brand of fresh indie rock – and couldn’t have been kinder or more helpful. Annabel Lee and her band absolutely destroyed, leaving a pint of blood and sweat on that stage. I haven’t seen a crowd get that energized for any show at the festival. 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by ANNABEL LEE (@yourannabellee)

+What Happens After a Band Gets Signed (then Dropped) From TikTok

The night started with an energetic performance from the Nashville based, rising pop artist, Abigail Osborn and continued with a tender acoustic performance from the YouTuber Megan Davies. 

Closing the night was the psychedelic pop rocker Zella Day – who mere hours prior to this performance sang at Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch party – bringing great energy with her all around, featuring many songs off of her excellent new album “Sunday in Heaven.” 

That’s this thing with SXSW. Many artists play multiple shows a day! Some can handle it and thrive, and some can’t and falter. 

Unfortunately, one of the bands (who will go unnamed) didn’t carry themselves very professionally at our showcase and were rude to our extremely friendly staff of sweet volunteers, stage managers and other bands. I regret booking them and next time I run a showcase I will make sure that everyone on the bill is kind, respectful, grateful and excited to contribute to the collective night of great energy. Kindness goes a long way – no matter what level you’re at. 

All in all, I had a great time at SXSW. I lost my voice by the last day from yelling over all the music, but kept my hearing (never forget your earplugs!). 

The final night I randomly stumbled upon what is shaping up to be my favorite discovery of SXSW this year, the retro soul outfit from San Diego – Thee Sacred Souls. They elevated the packed outdoor stage at Empire with their beautiful energy, sultry, smooth, buttery vocals and deep grooves. 

Walking back from their show, still beaming, I bought a handful of weed off someone (he literally put a few nugs in my palm) while crossing a crosswalk (SX!), and then enjoyed some late night hot dogs from a street vendor. The end of the night got a bit fuzzy, but that’s the point right? 

sopranos

What. A. Ride. 

See you next year!  

Ari at SX

AT at SX

About The Author

Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

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