State funding ups the ante for Colorado bands at SXSW

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<p>Musicians perform live on Sixth Street in Austin during the South By Southwest music festival in 2013.</p>
Photo: SXSW band performs in Sixth Street 3-2
Musicians perform on Austin's Sixth Street during the South By Southwest music festival in 2013.

For the first time, Colorado will use public funds to push the state's presence at the South By Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas.

Around 40 Colorado bands will travel to Austin to play live during the annual festival, which takes place March 11-16.

Three cultural entities – Colorado Creative Industries (CCI), the Colorado Tourism Office (CTO) and Denver Arts & Venues – have collectively contributed $20,000 to the 2014 Colorado Music Party, a two-day event starting Thursday, March 13 that will feature performances by 30 acts with connections to the state.

“If we’re looking at positioning Colorado to be competitive nationally and internationally, then we need to go to where those industry leaders are convening to be able to tell the Colorado story to attract more attention,” Margaret Hunt, director of CCI, says.

Founded in 1987 as a small festival drawing 700 people, SXSW has since grown to become one of the biggest industry gatherings in the country.

The 10-day conference reported 313,200 attendees in 2013, up 10,500 from the previous year. Although SXSW built its reputation around music, the interactive conference, SXSWi, has become the biggest draw with 30,621 participants in 2013. The music portion tallied 25,119 registrants and sets by 2,278 acts. The film conference registered 16,297.

Fringe events draw crowds

Even more significant is the myriad of visitors who flock to the destination spot for unaffiliated, public events that don’t require a badge or wristband to enter.

Hundreds of additional acts from around the world perform unofficial sets in Austin that coincide with the festival. The Colorado Music Party is one of those events indirectly tied to SXSW that is vying to capture the attention of several hundred thousand people.

This year, some big players in Colorado music are collaborating to organize a two-day showcase in Austin at a 500-person capacity venue called the 512 on Sixth Street.

Front Range collaboration

Eighteen partners from the Front Range, including Colorado Public Radio's OpenAir and the Denver Post's Reverb website, are curating the lineup for the Colorado Music Party, which is also backed by additional support from other sponsors.

“This allows us to maximize time and efforts down there,” Dani Grant, the president of Spokesbuzz, a nonprofit organization promoting Fort Collins music that organized its first party at SXSW in 2010, says. “In the end, we’ll all share the fruit of that labor, and I think it’s going to be astounding what we’re able to do together.”

As more Colorado representatives started investing in their own individual events each year, Grant saw potential for them to unite.

Spokesbuzz reached out to different businesses and organizations and suggested combining resources to focus on a larger campaign promoting the Colorado music scene this year.

The 2014 Colorado Music Party is operating with an overall budget of more than $51,000, nearly 40 percent of which came from CCI, CTO and Denver Arts & Venues to help market two showcases and host a private party for industry insiders to meet the Colorado partners and musicians.

“We weren’t anticipating that kind of support,” Grant says. “It lends a ton of credibility to what we’re doing and elevates the whole showcase.”

Publically funded showcases rare

These publically funded showcases aren’t common. Instead, most SXSW events are sponsored by private entities like corporations, record labels and media outlets.

However, a few other cities and states have been organizing events to push their local talent at the festival in recent years.

Oklahoma’s public presence at SXSW dates back to 2009 and has since evolved into a five-day affair with two official music showcases. State and city entities have invested around $45,000 this year on top of private funds in the showcase, according to the Oklahoma Film and Music Office.

Chicago is mounting a showcase with $20,000 in public funds this year, according to the city tourism organization, Choose Chicago. This year's official SXSW event is the first backed in part by the city.

Publically funded showcase boosters and critics

Despite their growing popularity, some people are skeptical about the advantages of publicly funded showcases.

Chicago Tribune music critic and "Sound Opinions" radio talk show cohost Greg Kot, who first attended SXSW in 1990 and returns annually, says attendees are unlikely to stay at one venue for long. Kot believes crowds are typically more drawn to individual sets by bigger names with established followings.

“You’re going to be one voice of millions,” Kot says. “It’s a long shot frankly that you’re going to get the bang for the buck that you would hope because there’s so much competition at SXSW.”

This year marks the seventh at SXSW for Christen Greene of Seattle’s Onto Entertainment. Greene manages the Lumineers and was with the high-profile Colorado band for its successful appearance at 2012’s festival.

Greene says Colorado’s reputation is rising within the music industry, making the publicly funded showcase a good opportunity for the state to further establish itself as a music hub.

“Colorado has a lot of managers, some agents, incredible promoters and incredible venues that everybody in the industry at varying levels can agree upon,” Greene says. “There are some real tastemakers there.”

A challenge and opportunity for bands

While SXSW presents bands with a huge opportunity to reach new eyes and ears, it also poses challenges for participating musicians, particularly financially.

Photo: Ark Life performs at Leon 3-2
Ark Life performs live at the Leon Gallery in Denver. The Colorado band will travel to Austin to perform at least seven sets during South By Southwest in 2014.

The Colorado band Ark Life expects to play at least seven sets in Austin during the festival, including one at the Colorado Music Party. The band is on standby for an official showcase and, like most unsigned acts, just hopes to break even at SXSW.

Yet despite the cost and uncertainty, many bands view the heightened presence of Colorado at this year's festival as a plus.

Ark Life frontman Jesse Elliott, who has attended the festival six times, says contributing to Colorado’s collaborative approach makes his band's presence at SXSW more meaningful this year.

“Our general pride in the Colorado scene had a lot to do with it," Elliott says. “There’s a greater momentum here than I’ve ever felt in any place that I’ve lived.”