Brent Grulke, Creative Director of SXSW music died at the young age of 52. I have had mixed feelings about SXSW for a long time, but it’s undeniably the case that it has become the defining showcase festival for young bands. It will be interesting to see if/how it changes. Brent was a huge music fan first, and understood a lot about making a festival that featured bands with momentum, bands from outside the US (often their first US appearances), and bands that would come to lead the indie movement. There were a lot of articles about his death, but I think this brief one captures his contribution well with some personal flair: http://blogs.dallasobserver.com/dc9/2012/08/on_the_death_of_sxsws_brent_gr.php
I had the chance to sit down with him in 2009 for Boston Band Crush and do an interview to find out what it takes to be selected to perform at SXSW.
(As BBC is no longer available, here is the interview)
Friday is the very last day to apply (via Sonicbids) to showcase at SXSW 2010. SXSW 2009 was one of the big things that really got Boston Band Crush rolling with written interviews before the bands headed down to Austin and video interviews while they were at the festival. Now, we’ve got even bigger plans for covering SXSW 2010 and we’re off to a big start!
(Editor’s Note: The Sonicbids submission system allows artists to send their EPK, electronic press kit, to a booker/promoter who is offering a gig opportunity. The Sonicbids EPK can contain a bio, photos, press clips, audio, video, tour dates, and other relevant information.)
Brent: We’ve got a group of about 80 people around the world, most of whom I’ve known for a long time, many of them former journalists or former musicians, who can access the EPKs. We have a web-driven interface where they can enter remarks and grades. We have at least two people do that for every single act. Then, acts that look most promising and acts that have wildly disparate ratings get reviewed at least once more.
Last year we had just shy of 10,000 applications and I anticipate that we’re going to receive about the same number this year. We had about 1,800 acts perform last year. We always issue more invitations than that because obviously there are a number of acts that have applied, but cant make it.
Brent: Everyone involved in the grading is a music lover, first and foremost. So, if any individual, whether it’s me or one of the people that I work with, loves a band, that’s all there is to it. There doesn’t have to be any greater justification. That very personal response informs a good part of the decision making. However, that criterion alone doesn’t really do anyone any favors. We want artists that are as committed to what they do as we are to what we are doing.
MAKE YOUR APPLICATION/EPK STAND OUT
I can also tell a lot by the attention to detail that people put into their EPKs. Artists reveal their art in a lot of nuanced ways, sometimes in ways that they’re aware of, and sometimes in ways that they’re not so aware of. I frankly love EPKs because I used to have a box full of physical product. Now I can have people all over the world judge. Your love and care for the EPK reveals something about you. How you decide to present yourself in words and photos reveals a lot about who you are as an artist. No, it doesn’t work the same way as actually seeing a live performance, it’s a different thing, but it still gives me a lot of very valuable information.
Panos: We were talking earlier about video and how important a live video is. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that is super polished. A video shot with your iPhone that shows how awesome you are on stage and the crowd reacting goes a lot further than the super polished video that you spent 5, 6, or 10 grand making; a video that makes you look like an MTV or VH1 act, that’s not what he’s looking for.
I’ve always had this idealistic feeling that everyone should be on the same footing and ultimately, we should all start with the same tools. It should be a band’s passion, energy, and commitment that come across rather than the toilet they send you through the mail. The funny thing is no one remembers this band’s name, but everyone remembers the toilet!
Brent: You see through bullshit really fast anyways. An artist’s self-written bio better be clever. The smart bands know that the writing itself should be clever. Cool, you said something about yourself by writing something clever, which may or not have anything to do with the band, but rather just the fact that you have to have a bio. I don’t give a shit what bands are saying about themselves. I do care what other people say. For example, what you say about an act on your blog; there’s an opinion worth noting. I absolutely have to put disproportionate weight on what other people say about acts. Seeing that implies that they are serious about it. They’ve at least figured out a way to get someone else to pay attention to them.
Panos: One of the features that Brent actually helped us launch on Sonicbids was plug-ins. It helps create a duality between what a band says about themselves and what the blogosphere and general web says about the band.
Mike: Do you use, or have you considered using, representatives from different cities to get advice on local acts?
Brent: When people come up with ideas like that, we say send us a proposal, tell us how you’re going to promote, tell us what your objectives are, tell us what’s in it for us. Why should we do this? It’s that simple. At times people say, because these bands kick ass, and that’ll get them there. That might be a good enough of a reason (laughs). It really might. Again, you go by your gut instinct and if you trust peoples passions, that might be enough.
WHAT SHOULD BANDS EXPECT TO GET FROM PLAYING A SXSW SHOWCASE?
Brent: Because people believe in SXSW, the myth of coming to SXSW and getting discovered has spread. That almost never happens. When people use it as a tool and say, “Hey I want to be seen and I need a booking agent. I’m going to call everybody I know that’s a booking agent and get them to go to my show. I’m going to get a whole bunch of booking agents and after the show I’m going to go grab everyone and thank them for coming and follow up with them. One of them is going to then be booking my band.” That happens all the time. That’s a realistic expectation. That’s how people can use SXSW.
Panos: You have 1800 bands play at SXSW each year and if you ask one of those bands how their showcase went, they often say that it was cool, but they didn’t get anything out of it. I always ask if they promoted it and how they chose to use it.
GENERAL BAND ADVICE
I probably travel more today than ten years ago. I think conventional wisdom would have you think the Internet was going to change all that. Paradoxically, because access is so much more available to everybody, the very fact that the field is a lot more democratic and merit based, means that the need to create relationships is even more accentuated. Everyone has the same footing, so the person who is going to stick out is somebody who knows how to develop and cultivate personal relationships.
Brent: There’s no mystique to it: work really hard, try to take care of yourself, and be nice to people. It’s just what your mom told you, but the problem is, that makes for the most boring article in the world.
Brent Grulke has been the Creative Director of South By Southwest, the largest music industry event in North America, since 1994. Brent oversees the band booking process for the conference. Before SXSW, Brent was the music editor of the Austin Chronicle, a live sound and recording engineer, a tour manager and an independent record label manager.
Panos Panay is the Founder & CEO of Sonicbids, a web site that helps bands get gigs and promoters book the right bands. He blogs regularly at Panos’s Brew: http://panosbrew.sonicbids.com/ – See his article offering “7 Tips to Get You Noticed by SXSW” at: http://panosbrew.sonicbids.com/7-tips-to-get-you-noticed-by-sxsw/
Michael Epstein is one of three founding music writers for Boston Band Crush and he performs regularly with Boston-based bands The Motion Sick and Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling.