Every spring, thousands of music industry executives and artists descend into the sleepy Texan metropolis of Austin to trade business cards, eat Mexican food, and get wasted. Getting hammered at SXSW is a music industry tradition that pre-dates both Nirvana and Napster.
Agencies and labels have been hosting parties across the city for decades, inviting clients and employees to partake in unlimited booze and barbecue in an effort to connect people and build their brands. The festival has become increasingly tech-heavy over the years, with a whole Interactive component that encompasses everything from social media, to tour branding, to music production and more. The panels have gotten increasingly eclectic. For example, this year Bruce Springsteen, Shawn Fanning, and the Insane Clown Posse all gave seminars.
The trick to doing SXSW right, then, is to take advantage of all of the free opportunities. Without spending any money, one can see amazing performances, attend talks and network with incredible people in the tech and music sectors. As a showcasing artist, I was given a blue wristband that got me into most events, but knowing how to budget my time was crucial. A friend's synthpunk duo, Math the Band, sent me an Excel document of all of the free food and drink events, which I made sure to register for. Besides knowing where the hook ups are, another SXSW tradition is collecting wrists bands for the right parties. One or two bracelets? It's probably your first year. 20? You've been at it for a while.
Veteran SXSW artists also learn where to find the most reliable wifi, how to take backstreets to avoid the bacchanalian 6th Street after midnight, and how to most effectively promote and advertise their showcases. In the constant hunt for cell-phone connection service, smartphone batteries drain quickly, so texting your contacts directly is the best way to get people to come see your set. Don't expect them to be checking your Facebook events. The other secret to SXSW is to realise that it is impossible to do or see everything. Much like a child at Disneyland, making smart, quick decisions and rolling with the right people can make all the difference.
Flights and accommodation for SXSW can get expensive if you wait too long to make reservations, so I booked my flight and hotel early (and did so for free with my American Express miles). Before I landed, I posted on Facebook that I needed a ride from the airport. I got 60 responses from great fans and friends, and a band called D&D Sluggers from North Carolina offered to pick me up that night. They had a Prius full of gear and we all piled in, checking out events on the first night. I met up with my blogger friend Jen Friel (talknerdytomelover.com) who had just seen Jay-Z from the front row. She was buzzing from everything she had done and caught me up on how the Interactive week went.
I got back to the hotel at 4am and woke up the next day to get my artist pass. I met up with my Canadian indie rapper homies in the Backburner crew and we headed to the convention center. While registering, and I noted this year's typical SXSW hipster band and/or industry insider attire: messenger bag, Ray-Ban sunglasses, high top sneakers, tank top or flannel shirt, jeans, pass, iPhone and an excited by often overwhelmed look.
I headlined one of the indie rap nights on Wednesday. After our set, I ran into my friends Matt Schlict and Mazy Kazerooni from Tracks.by, an up and coming social media aggregator that was recently featured in Forbes. They helped launch the widely popular live video site, Ustream, and later became famous in the hip-hop community for managing Lil Wayne and Diddy's social media.
We went to eat at the famous Austin after-hours spot, the Magonlia Café, where we ran into a group of revellers outside. "Where have you guys been hanging out?" they asked my tour manager, DJ. "We were just at Malaia," he responded. "Did you see MC Lars?" they asked. "He's right here!" DJ responded. It was very random and funny. We had a late-night breakfast and Matt tand Mazy shared hilarious stories about skating with Wayne and helping Justin Bieber troubleshoot his Ustream network through iChat.
Besides getting to see Snoop Dogg, Timbaland, Mystikal and Nas all perform, I met up with my friend and Yelawolf protégé, Rittz. "MC Lars is in this motherf-----place!" he called out from the stage. The highlight of the week, though, was watching Eminem trade verses with 50 Cent at the Shady 2.0 party.
Rumours had been flying back and forth about whether Eminem was going to make it. The word was that, if he felt like it that morning, he would be on a plane and join his roster on stage that afternoon...so no one knew for sure. We had an aerial view of the stage. As 50 Cent was playing songs from his landmark album Get Rich or Die Trying, Eminem walked out onto the riser and began his verse on Patiently Waiting. He had made it! Eminem's stage presence was incredible, to see a legend like that in a such a small club was a huge thrill. He has transcendental microphone energy and getting to see him up close I had a hip-hop fan aneurysm.
In short, one can have an incredible experience at SXSW without spending much, if any, money. The biggest expense I encountered was the tip I gave the bike taxi coming home on the last night. Long live resourcefulness and the financial loopholes of the changing music industry! I'll be back next year, and I can't wait.