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Interview with UNA JOHNSTON, UK & Ireland manager of the SXSW festival - March 16, 2009

“The whole environment of SXSW is about artist development, establishing careers and reinventing careers.”

picture The celebrated South by Southwest festival – or SXSW - is upon us. Over 1,900 artists are said to be cramming into the streets of Austin, Texas this week for one of the major events on the music industry calendar.

However, far from a sea of canvas floating in a boggy field, this is a prized industry showcase festival and conference, renowned for firing unknowns into the limelight, pushing fringe bands into the big time, and giving old dogs one last bask in the sun. United by a fierce passion for music, a mêlée of industry insiders, bloggers, musicians, music journos and mad fans will be soaking up the shows, panel discussions, business meetings, parties and Texas sun, whilst keeping their ears peeled for this year’s Amy Winehouse or Vampire Weekend.

So if you want to showcase your skills at the SXSW jamboree then how can you get involved? HitQuarters spoke with UK & Ireland SXSW manager Una Johnston to get the lowdown.

This year we’ve already had that other major annual music industry showcase, Midem. What do you see as the key differences between the two events?

The historical background is different than ours and the focus is different. We are focused on the creative process.

My feeling is that Midem is more focused on the catalogue, the promotion of the record and the rights. Midem had to make a dramatic shift into the digital world, whereas we were always focused on the artist. So we are at the front end of the process. The whole environment of SXSW is more about artist development, establishing careers and reinventing careers. We are not just focused on new talent - a lot of older artist with long-standing careers come, play and talk as well.

If I were to choose between the two to try to promote my act, why would I opt for SXSW?

SXSW is a good way into the music industry. It's more for people who want to break their careers and showcase their talent.

Are you focused on certain styles of music?

No, we have all styles of music - even a lot of underground scene things, such as death metal, trash metal, hardcore or punk for example. There is a list of styles as long as your arm. There is even contemporary classical music.

So if I want to be part of SXSW, what do I have to do – how much would it cost me?

Bands apply online for showcases at SXSW, between August and October. It costs $35 to apply. The deadline for the submission for next year is end of October 2009. Bands are invited to perform between November and January. We have got about 2000 bands playing this year, and we had about 12,000 applications.

Those 2000 bands have to get themselves there. They have to pay for their flights. Bands that are playing on the same shows are sharing the costs of the backline. Obviously, if bands want any specific item that they cannot share, they have the pay for those themselves. We provide the staging and the lightning. The bands need working visas to play at SXSW.

So would you be able to just go to your local American embassy and say, we want to play at SXSW can we have a working visa?

That is not really the route to go. We work with agencies that we recommend to people to help them go through the process. For example Traffic Control, Tamizdat or Ron Zeelens. There are a handful of immigration advisers. Bands that try to do it themselves generally fail. You need help to do that and you have to pay for that help.

If you are from the European Union for example, is it illegal to just go on a tourist Visa?

All the immigration officers and points of entry know about SXSW. So if a band comes through with their guitars and say, "No, we are not playing. We are just bringing our guitars to jam on the street," they will be turned back. If you plan to have a long career travelling internationally, you've got to play it right from the start.

You need to have some media standing. You've got to have some releases and an international track record otherwise you won't get the visa. If you play on a public stage, in a public venue and the public can pay in, you need a working visa. That's the law.

Who chooses the bands that play at the festival?

We have a core team of people in Austin. Some people are specialists in certain areas, like Latin rock or hip-hop etc. Then we have staff and a list of international people - based in Europe mainly - who we bring on board to listen to applications. Brent Grulke is the creative director and there is a team of half a dozen people based in Austin who are taking the final decisions.

So is it like a jury system then?

Well, everybody rates individually. Everyone has their own views and expertise. Everything is evaluated by the person who is listening online. A lot of very good stuff is very easy and a lot of the really bad stuff is easy as well. A good chunk of stuff in the middle is negotiated and haggled over. Only the top 20% of bands make it through.

What do you think is important for a band to have if they apply?

SXSW is looking for originality, because there's so much stuff that sounds the same. We want something that stands out and it's important that there is an audience for it. There is very little chance for a blues band from Europe for example to get a gig at SXSW, because there are so many blues bands in Texas. It would be pretty unlikely to get a spot unless you do something really really innovative.

I think what SXSW is looking for is a band that has a voice and that are ready. Ready for the exposure that SXSW can bring. It's not like Groundhog Day where you can do it over and over again until you get it right. If you are making a first impression you have to make it right. That is something the band has to feel. They only get 40 minutes on stage. You have to be really really well rehearsed. You have to know exactly what you want to do. You have to show that you have an audience and that people are responding to what you do. Whether it's on your MySpace, the number of gigs you have done last year or the reviews that you are getting. SXSW is looking for bands that have momentum, where we can help to take them up another rung on the ladder.

Do record labels have their own slots for their own artists?

There are label nights and we are working together with labels that want to do showcases. We work a lot with the labels - major and independent, domestic and international. But each artist that wants to play SXSW has to go through our application system.

So a record contract is not necessary to get a gig at SXSW?

No, and especially the way things have changed - bands can put out their own material. They could be self-released. But for an international band it would not make sense to have no material released. I think it used to be that it was about 15% major labels, 50% independent labels and the balance unsigned bands - but I’m not 100% sure about the percentage here.

As a musician couldn’t I just cut out a lot of the red tape by just going along and playing on a street corner?

I don't think it's allowed, it’s a managed environment. Having said that, it may well happen. If there was someone singing with a guitar on the corner, I don't know how long he or she would last. However, if someone set up a PA it wouldn't take very long till they would be moved.

To get into the venues you need a ‘delegate’ badge - you get this if you registered as a music industry professional - or a wristband. ‘Delegates’ get in first, then if there is space left over ‘wristbands’ get in. And after that single tickets get in. As a delegate you also have access to the trade show, the panel programmes, the networking events and the parties that are on. Artists can participate at the panels and the events as well.

If I play with my band at the festival this year, can I get a show next year as well?

If your performance this year leads to a big impact in your career, so when you apply for next year you are on a completely different level and we can see we had an impact on this, yeah, then you have a better chance of coming back for a second time. But with 12,000 bands applying there is really only a very, very small percentage of bands that play two years in a row. It's a very, very minor number.

Who are the people that are attending the event?

It's not a consumer event - it's a trade event. Tickets for the public are only available if you live locally. There are conferences associated with the festival and there are a lot of showcases. We have about 90 stages. The people who are performing are performing to develop their career. They are not getting paid.

Do you know of any success stories that happened to artists through SXSW - where their appearance launched their career?

That happens all the time. Sometimes we hear about it and sometimes we don't. It's hard to say - SXSW can be an important link in the chain. When Amy Winehouse appeared at the festival in 2007, I think it had big impact on her international career. Her star was definitely rising.

I don't have a stock set of examples to share though. If we want to keep track of all the things that happen through SXSW, it would be a full-time job. We hear about things anecdotally. David Gray played SXSW and got an appearance on the David Letterman show after that.

If you come to SXSW, you have to have specific goals for coming there. It could be for example finding a manager in the US, getting a booking agent, getting some media coverage, getting a track in a film or getting booked on a festival tour or a support tour.

How can I investigate the artists that are playing at this year’s SXSW?

The full schedule of all the bands is on the website in the moment. You can search for bands there by type of music, by name, by country, by town or you can look at listings by day and add the gigs to your calendar. When you look at a band on the website, the page comes up for that band. You can find links to their websites or their MySpace pages. There is stuff you can download and listen to and there is a biography and a photo.

If you wish to publish this article, or parts of it, you are welcome to do so after having received an approval from us. Requirements are statement of origin and link to HitQuarters. To get an approval, please contact us

Interview by Jan Blumentrath

Next week: Lady Gaga producer Red One

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