The landscape of the South by Southwest Conference & Music Festival has been ever changing over the last few years.
First, we saw the Interactive portion becoming more prevalent as its paid attendance numbers surpassed those of Music in 2010.
The music industry thought “no big deal”—everyone flocks to Austin to discover new music at free parties anyway. But then, many of the largest events, such as the Fader Fort, became SXSW Official in 2012, granting badge-holders priority access while keeping blog faves Danny Brown, Zola Jesus, and Kendrick Lamar as headliners.
2013, however, ushered in the year of Prince, Justin Timberlake, Dave Grohl, Depeche Mode, Diddy, Usher, LL Cool J, Green Day, Snoop Dogg, and numerous other world-renowned musicians taking the stage at free parties, official events, and invite-only exclusives before SXSW Music even kicked off. And thus begins the decline of SXSW’s original value proposition for indie artists.
What once was a promotional haven for indie bands has now become a “huge corporate gang-bang,” according to Zachary Cole Smith, front man of DIIV, regarding this year’s heavily branded shows such as Spotify Live, Nikon’s Warner Lounge, and the unmistakable 56-foot tall Doritos vending machine stage. Such corporate-sponsored events seem antithetical to ideals held firmly by the tattooed masses that descend on Austin every year. The message is often construed that the brands are more important than the bands.
Even worse, the festival has resorted to packing as many shows as humanly possible into the schedule, especially those that are curated by blogs or provide access through brand affiliation. In between countless sets for little to no money, it’s no surprise then that buzzy bands, like Foxygen, have to cancel sets for exhaustion and other health concerns.
And despite the millions of dollars poured into the events, official and unofficial, more often than not, artists don’t get paid. As incredible as many of these shows were, the promotional value and opportunity for exposure to existing and new fans for indie artists at SXSW is now severely diluted.
Indie musicians can combat this problem by taking to their preferred social media platform to build audience through an amplified digital strategy. In running a music startup, it has become readily apparent, though, that indie bands, artists, and even labels are overwhelmed by digital. The saturation of services like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Vine, can make choosing where to focus tricky.
But, data is becoming a staple for artists and the music industry at large, creating measureable opportunities to better monetise and drive audience growth.
YouTube, for instance, provides geographic data and even watch-time viewing habits, allowing artists to learn what their audience actually likes. One of the most fascinating parts of working behind the scenes on “Harlem Shake,” was watching the audience expand across the globe through the data collected on YouTube.
And, if the line for Baauer’s 2 AM performance outside of the LuckyMe showcase on Friday night in Austin was any indication, engaging with fans digitally absolutely helps build an audience off the platform as well.We’ll need to see a lot more “Harlem Shake”- like strategies to make SXSW worth it for the next generation of indie bands in 2014.
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