This time each spring, a large percentage of the Colorado indie music community travels south to Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference. This year, nine Colorado-based acts earned a coveted slot in the official festival, while dozens more will perform at unaffiliated shows around Austin -- all vying for the attention of tens of thousands of music industry people. Colorado Public Radio’s David Fender is in Austin this week to cover events and brings us this preview.
The following is a transcript of David's report:
James Minor is the general manager of the South by Southwest Music Conference and it’s a big job.
James Minor: "I’m sitting here looking at thousands and thousands of artists names, but to have a grasp of the whole thing. That’s pretty impossible. "
Luckily he has a team of booking agents that help him handle all the scheduling. The team is a secret group of SXSW staffers and outside helpers that rate more than 10,000 submissions -- and they listen to every one of them to select about 2200 bands. The submissions come from various record labels and booking agencies, as well as an open online application and audition site. They don’t have any particular quotas to fill in terms of genres or geography. But they do have two main criteria that every band has to meet:
James Minor: "First of all, there has to be great music, that’s the first thing we’re looking for. Secondly, we like to see that artists are touring or playing regularly outside of their region. That they’re releasing new music. Where being at SXSW will help them out. They’re somewhat known or on the cusp of it."
One of the Colorado bands that fits that description is Churchill. Last fall, they were on the first list of announced selectees and the first group from Colorado to be picked to play at this year’s festival. After 3 years of building their career from their home base of Denver, the band has recently started to catch national attention with their single “Change.”
The song was featured in a TV show soundtrack in November and has been picked up by radio stations across the country. The band has been going flat out.
Tim Bruns, Joe Richmond, and Tyler Rima: “I think we counted three total days where we don’t have anything, where we have days off. Three days? Four? three/four days in that amount of time. That’s like 120, no 180 days and of that we’ll take about four or five to ourselves. "
As part of that busy schedule, they were recently in Los Angeles recording a new album when they got a last minute call to appear on the Jimmy Kimmel Show on ABC. But even with all the exposure they currently have, Rima says SXSW is still very important for their career:
Tyler Rima: "Because we just got way more exposure going into this thing.. People who maybe haven’t heard of us now have and maybe will even more come to the shows. So if anything I think it’s more important that we do our best and make a good impression on these people who just heard of us. "
The other eight Colorado acts that will be playing official shows are wide ranging musically - heavy metal, hip-hop, electronica and pop groups are among them. And it’s not just about performing. The festival includes daytime seminars on all sorts of topics like how to draw up contracts or calculate music royalties. There’s even a session on to how to have fights with your band mates without breaking up the group.
Singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov will perform at 2 official showcases. He will be promoting songs from a new album he plans to release this summer - the first one in 4 years, but for the most part, he plans to leave the business and marketing matters to his staff and focus on catching sets by as many other artists as he can:
Gregory Alan Isakov: I think with these festivals I just try to have the best time I can and really focus on the performance. It’s one of those things that some great things can happen, nothing can happen but you want to make sure you have a good time
As South by Southwest has grown over the last 27 years, some controversy has developed about the festival growing too big and featuring more and more bands that don’t need the breaks and exposure that the unsigned bands do. For example: Depeche Mode, John Fogerty, and Prince are all performing this year. In addition the event has become so popular that even with pricey access badges that cost hundreds of dollars, it’s nearly impossible to get into many of the venues to see the shows.
So, as big as the conference is by itself, a whole host of parties and showcases that aren’t affiliated with South by Southwest have sprung up around Austin to coincide with the official event. This is where all those other Colorado bands will play.
Nate Cook is the lead singer of the Boulder band, The Yawpers.The group is in Austin for the second year in a row playing only these non-official events:
Nate Cook: I know a lot of bands have kind of a negative feel about it. But we had the most amazing, amazing experience there You’re just high the entire time just from all the people and the music and everywhere you turn there’s some awesome thing you’ve never heard before.
The Yawpers are playing in two of the ten Colorado-themed Showcases that are scheduled this week and designed to spotlight the state’s music scene0. While several Colorado bands have broken through to national attention in recent years, including The Lumineers, The Fray and Tennis, the state is still relatively obscure to most national observers. That’s starting to change. This year, Colorado organizations like, SpokesBUZZ, Reverb, and the Greater Than Collective are teaming up to see if they can give Colorado music more visibility.
Dani Grant: South By is very loud. There’s a thousand cities, states, countries, organization groups all down there trying to get attention, so the theory of if we united together and share our resources and try to promote each other, we’ll reach more people and do it with a story that’s very intriguing.
One thing is clear - it costs a lot of money to go to Austin. Sponsors spend thousands of dollars on those Colorado-themed stages and parties to rent venues and sound equipment and promote the events. There’s no money left over to pay the bands that play the parties. And they’ve easily spent ove a thousand dollars just on gas, food and lodging, not to mention the cost of free CDs or download cards they’ll hand out. But most say that’s not the point - it’s a conference and a marketing trip. If bands are lucky and catch their break, the real payoff will come later through the contacts they make.
[Photo: CPR/David Fender]