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!
Last Wednesday, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke and Sonicbids Founder and CEO Panos Panay to discuss how the application and selection process works. So many of us refresh our e-mail inboxes repeatedly from January to March waiting to get that coveted band showcase offer from SXSW. I hope that by sharing my conversation with these gents, this process is demystified.
Rather than conducting a formal, structured interview, Brent and Panos were generous enough to offer their time for an informal conversation. As such, the following is heavily edited and restructured. I’ve reorganized their statements into categories. I’ve preserved sequentiality wherever possible, but not completely.
Mike:What happens after a band submits an application on Sonicbids?
(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.
We try to make our determinations for the international acts first because they have to have more information before anybody else. If they don’t know something by the beginning of December, the likelihood that they are going to be able to come is very small. The ones that we torture the most, of course, are Austin bands, our friends and brothers. We know that they need a week’s notice, tops. Maybe a couple hours notice. We know they’re going to be able to make the gig. Obviously that is very strange. Quick everybody, make sure that all the Norwegian acts get listened to because if they don’t have their government applications in by next week they cant get state funding. (Editor’s Note: many other countries offer artist’s grants for things like traveling to perform at SXSW.) It’s a bizarre way to do it, but that is what we end up doing. As for domestic acts, we know that American rock bands are going to get in the van and drive. That’s what makes American rock bands good rock bands. So even if they’re in Boston and they’re only getting a month’s notice, they’re going to fucking get there. Maybe that’s a little mean spirited, but I know it’s going to happen! I never know how many of the Norwegian bands we have invited are going to make it.
THE GRADING CRITERIA
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.
We also get a lot of advice from friends and people we trust. If someone I trust calls me up or sends me an email and says, “I saw this band and this band rocks! You can’t really tell from their recordings right now. It’s really early on, but I’ve seen them and they’re really great,” then the process gets changed a bit.
Also, I’m not going to reject somebody just because I think they suck, especially if they have an audience. I’m willing to recognize that it’s not my deal but it’s clearly somebody’s deal and it would be disrespectful, egomaniacal, and bad business for me to deny that act.
We’re really looking for people that want to be artists. They don’t want to be musicians, they don’t want to be performers, they don’t want to be stars; they want to be artists. We want people for whom it’s save your life kind of creation; that intense a feeling. Then combine that intensity with a real focus on making a living, finding a way to be able to do it as much as they can, through whatever means necessary to continue. We’re looking at an overall package. I hate even to use the word package, but we’re looking to identify people aspiring to be great artists and busting their asses to do it. We respect those kinds of people and we want to feature them. That’s our ideal.
I have to meet economic expectations of venue owners too. The venue wants people in the door, so if I want to invite bands that are really cool that might not have an audience, I need to balance that with some people that do have an audience even if that is music that I don’t personally connect with.
MAKE YOUR APPLICATION/EPK STAND OUT
Of course, the music is far and away the most important element of the EPK.
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: I still have it in my yard.
Panos: You have the gimmickry. I experienced this first hand having been an agent and seeing bands spending tons of money sending press kits. I know artists that would spend $30-$40 per press kit, just to make it stand out. I always felt, so, what if you don’t have that money. How can you ultimately be on the same footing and let your voice come across rather than having the gimmickry speak for you.
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.
(Editor’s Note: Plug-ins give EPK viewers access to friend and play counts from sites like Myspace and Last.FM as well as relevant search results from the web, Twitter, and blogs).
Brent: We now have a lot more acts play, but for years it was about 10-12% of the acts had some major-label affiliation, about 40-50% had some sort of real indie affiliation – or they had real distribution at least – and the other half were either completely self-released or totally unsigned. Strangely, the numbers since day one have remained relatively consistent. We always aspire to having art more than anything else. The goal isn’t to get rich. It’s great that there’s money involved so we can continue doing what we do, but that’s it. We’ve always been indie.
Mike: Do you use, or have you considered using, representatives from different cities to get advice on local acts?
Brent: There are times that I’ve done it formally and times that I’ve done it informally. People will sometimes come to me and say, “Hey, can we do a night of San Francisco?” San Francisco obviously has a strong enough scene that can support something like that, so it can happen. There are some places that have proposed the idea to me, and I don’t want to disparage anywhere, but some city’s scenes don’t have enough to support such a thing and some do. If somebody wanted to do a night of Boston acts, and help work on it and help curate and make it work, I’d be totally open to that. That’s easy, in the grand scheme of things. If it makes sense for somebody, if there’s a reason to put them all under the same umbrella, if it means that everyone can share a common backline say and cut down expenses there…maybe charter a bus to get to Austin as opposed to having to all arrange individual air flights or all drive individual vans. If there’s a reason that makes sense for somebody, and helps cut down overall costs and helps on overall promotional effort, then sure.
Mike: How would someone make that happen?
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
Panos: Bono could afford to build a band and not give a damn who I am because there was a whole infrastructure out there that made it possible for their band to make a living broadcasting to the largest possible number of people. Today, the Internet is the first mass non-broadcast medium. It allows you to reach people on a one-on-one basis a lot more intimately than if you were broadcasting through a TV or radio. Today, the average artist has a substantially lesser chance of reaching a very, very, very broad audience the way a Springsteen or a U2 did, but on the other hand, if you are able to have 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5,000 meaningful fans, you can interact with them directly and build relationships that make a sustainable career. It’s the paradox of the internet: you can reach more people than ever before, but the need to have your own little group of super fans that you cultivate close relationships with is even more important than it was for a band 15-20 years ago, a band that had the major label system behind them.
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.
I think it’s almost a paradox because there are countless examples of artists who are misanthropes, but it will be interesting to see 10 years from now, in this environment, how people like that will flourish. Will they succeed in an environment where it’s hyper-competitive and the tools are accessible to everybody? There are so many oddballs out there that just being an oddball and having a weird video is not good enough anymore. Human contact has become even more important in an era where everyone has more access to everything and everyone.
Business is relationships, that’s all it is. One thing I tell bands a lot, and I meet a lot of bands is that almost no one follows up. Following up makes you stick out. It’s one thing an artist needs to understand. Learning how to cultivate relationships is just as important a quality as the music.
You don’t have to be über sales people, you can be the quirky inventor, but to build a business or to be an artist, I think you have to have one person on your team that is the gregarious, outgoing human being. Somebody has to do that. It can be your manager, your girlfriend, your drummer, it doesn’t really matter. Though nowadays, maybe it’s more important for the artist to develop those skills themselves, but if they absolutely can’t, they need to find somebody who can do it for them.
Brent: Panos nailed it, business is just relationships. It really helps to have one person in the band who likes people and the songwriter doesn’t have to be it.
Panos: I do draw a lot of parallels between running a business like Sonicbids and being in a band, and 8 years later I wish I could tell you that there’s a silver bullet other than working 12, 13, 14 hours a day and doing it over and over and over again. I say to people, “give me a human being with perseverance any day over the most talented person on the planet.” Sometimes the key is just sticking with it long enough. Sonicbids is successful because I stuck with it through the craziest days when I know that 99 out of 100 other people would have said screw this, I’m getting another job. It’s the same thing with a band. You learn about bands and you think these bands broke out overnight, but it was almost always seven years of really hard work. The bios don’t say that. It’s not really press-worthy because it’s not sexy to say, you just need to work your ass off.
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.