Many acts base release and promotional campaigns around the annual music conference in Austin.
Following South by Southwest’s announcement on Friday that the annual conference will not be held this year due to concerns over the coronavirus, artists and other members of the music industry say they’re losing critical professional opportunities and financial investments.
SXSW was scheduled to start next weekend and run March 13-22, but was canceled following a press conference where Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared a local disaster. This is the first time SXSW’s 34-year history that the entire event has been cancelled.
For emerging artists in particular, SXSW provides a significant platform for fan and industry exposure alongside networking opportunities with members of the music business whom they may not otherwise encounter. Many of the artists, managers and publicists with whom Billboard spoke say that their tours, album releases and marketing campaigns were designed around the conference, which last year drew close to 160,000 attendees.
“We picked March to put out our record because we were gonna go to SXSW,” says Sean Solomon, singer-guitarist for L.A. post-punk band Moaning, who were scheduled to play more than a dozen shows at the festival. “Every time we played past years, we were able to reach as many people as we would touring for a whole month, because you’re playing three or four shows a day.”
Solomon continues, “Had I known I wasn’t gonna be there I would’ve tried to get work in L.A. We still operate as an indie band, we’re not raking in a ton of money. We all have jobs. Now I don’t have anything lined up.”
Moaning know the value of the exposure SXSW can provide. The band landed its current deal with Sub Pop after label reps saw them play at SXSW three years ago.
“This event can impact a band’s growth immensely,” says Moaning’s manager Laurel Stearns. “The album was to be released the Friday of SXSW, and now that building block is wiped. A very important part of their campaign is no longer. This festival can change the course of a campaign domestically and internationally. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
The cancellation has sent artists and their teams scrambling to reroute tours and seek refunds on travel and lodging, with varying success. Others are being forced to eat the cost of expensive travel visas, road gear and record shipments. And for many, the cancellation means not getting paid for work days they were counting on, or could have worked elsewhere.
“I intentionally released my record in October, knowing that would give me six months to build intelligently to SXSW, which is exactly what happened,” says electronic artist and activist Madame Gandhi, whose group was booked for a dozen gigs, with more coming in. “This was the first time I was actually going to come out net positive, financially, after a SXSW experience, which felt like a personal graduation for me as a musician who’s been attending since 2011.
“I was really treating my SXSW shows as showcases to people whose opinion I value. We were going to have Bob Boilen of [NPR’s] Tiny Desk concerts as a guest at one of our shows. Additionally, on the creative side, I love going to SXSW because I always get exposed to new musicians and new producers to collaborate with.”
For many working behind the scenes in music, SXSW sets the tone for the year ahead in the industry, exposing them to new ideas and trends and providing a platform for real-life connection in an oftentimes fragmented business.
“SXSW is always a highlight of my year, whether it’s spreading the word about artists I’m working with or an opportunity to meet and connect with people I email on a regular basis,” says Kerry Harrison, a publicist with Listen Up who was planning to attend with three artists. “Canceling the festival affects a lot of opportunities for artists to share their story and show what they’re all about to a wide, influential audience… It’s disappointing that our clients won’t be given that opportunity this year. There are so many journalists at SXSW looking for fresh, new artists, so it will be interesting to see how media coverage adapts over the next couple weeks.”
Those missed opportunities hit particularly hard for greener acts playing their first SXSW, such as L.A. garage-punk band All My Friends Hate Me.
“We’re a new band, only one year old, so it was a pretty big look for us,” says singer-guitarist Bobby Banister. “We had been in talks with a lot of people coming out from radio and publishing. Everything we’ve been doing for the past two months was leading up to SXSW. We even had a radio campaign so that we could target people in Austin and get the word out even more.”
The band, who all have day jobs in the music industry, says they have been quick to find a silver lining by drawing on their network to plan a SXSW-style showcase in L.A. for all of the local acts scheduled to play the Austin festival.
“We’re already in talks with other contacts and agencies, and already sourcing emails with bands offered to play this festival and lift this dark cloud,” Banister says. “We’re gonna do a full push and campaign. We’ve already registered social handles and websites. We’re creating it as we speak and working around the clock till it’s locked in.”