Interview with BRENT GRULKE, creative director of the SXSW festival - Mar 15, 2010
“If you think by just coming here and performing something magical that it’s going to happen for you and you are going to be discovered … it's not impossible but it’s not a great plan.”
The annual SXSW festival is world renowned as a springboard for music careers, whether through getting influential media coverage, a record deal or finding management. But with over 1,700 acts performing this year alone, success is not simply a matter of turning up and waiting for the big impact.
In anticipation of the return of the world’s biggest music conference this week, HitQuarters talks to its long-time artistic director Brent Grulke to find out how to make SXSW work for you.
What does your role as creative director for SXSW involve?
Primarily taking care of the music festival. Everything from the bands that we select to the staff, and the venues we use.
How long have you been doing this job?
I was stage manager the very first year, so I have been doing something from the beginning. But I have been doing this job since 1994.
When you look back on how the festival has evolved over the years, what do you see as being different now?
The main thing that has changed is that it has become much larger. That seems a bit obvious, but we have many more people attending, many more artists performing, many more venues, more diversity of talents and more nations represented. In the last decade we’ve had a film festival and an interactive festival as well. We’ve expanded the whole SXSW experience.
Over that time has it also gained greater importance in terms of breaking bands?
Early on people used to break bands. At that time artists attended the event looking for label deals - obviously that is not as prominent anymore - and there were also a lot of people looking out for the talent that came.
Over time people have figured out how to use the event as a promotional vehicle for whatever project they are working on, whether it is a recording, they are about to launch a tour, a video game or a film. It’s also come to be as prominent as a place to showcase for perspective team members, like label people, agents, talent buyers.
For example, there are certain managers that bring bands to SXSW every year because they think this is the place to be to accomplish these things.
It has always been a media conference. Acts come to get media exposure in blogs, newspapers, radio and television. The media attention has grown a lot and become very international. Now people come and do interviews for hours and it’s face to face in one place at one time.
What about the other side, why is it so attractive for instance for record labels to come down?
If you are working in the music business, the film business or in digital media, at SXSW you find other people to form relationships with that will help your business.
In what way does it differ from other music festivals or other music industry events?
It’s a festival that is conducted to a business conference. It was designed from the beginning to be that. We are not promoters, we are not concert buyers … Artists can shop the music and the people that connect with them come and shop their wares. You can exchange creative ideas, meet creative partners like producers or other musicians to collaborate with.
What separates us from other music industry events is, that we have many more musicians here. We have over 1,700 acts performing. A lot of the other industry events are primarily for business people.
Every year there are success stories associated with SXSW but with, as you say, close to 2,000 acts performing presumably everyone can’t be expecting to be one of those lucky few. What are the realistic aims for most of the artists making the trip to Austin?
It's more a matter of determining what you goals are beforehand and targeting the people that you want to meet. If you think by just coming here and performing something magical that it’s going to happen for you and you are going to be discovered … it's not impossible but it’s not a great plan.
You should be open for the chance to meet people you don't know. The people who know how to make it work best for them have already identified the media people they need to be seen by - because, for example, they're touring in this particular market - so they target them beforehand. If they are looking to tour Europe, for instance, then they invite European talent buyers to see their show and set up meetings with them. If they are looking for a producer, they check which producers are coming to SXSW …
The acts that it works best for are typically the ones that have already identified what they hope to accomplish by being at SXSW.
What sort of thing can you do beforehand? Let’s say I am a hip-hop act looking for more exposure, where can I find and contact the people that I need?
The artists that are playing have access to the database so you can figure out who is coming beforehand. If I'm looking for a label, I can look specifically. I know what labels are potentially interested in the kind of music that I'm making so I identify who those people are beforehand, establish contact with them and see if I can get them to come see my show, meet with me and talk with me about my plans.
Other then your online database is there any other opportunities to help facilitate meeting up with the right people?
That is limited to the imagination of the artist and the people that work with the artists. People do traditional things like buying advertising, printing flyers, writing blogs and those kinds of things. They make videos or tracks and post them or send them to us to post on the website.
There are, of course, many different strategies used during the event that are only limited by the creativity of the people.
Do you have any good past examples of this?
There was this Japanese band last year that were dressed all in blue walking down the street playing their instruments and handing out flyers. You couldn't miss them - they were everywhere. Nobody had heard of the beforehand but everybody soon became aware of them because of their distinctive look and the fact that they were approaching everyone.
People throw parties all the time. They say, “Buy some food and some beer and come and party with us!” And often it's just a matter of calling people and telling them we play at SXSW, we got a performance at this time, would you like to meet us?
What other possibilities are there to prepare myself in the best way?
I think it's a good idea to talk to other artists and other people that have had some success there before. Figure out what worked for them and what didn't.
Also make sure that you know what you actually want to accomplish. For example, “I am a European act that wants to find an American booking agent.” Do some research and find out who has been dealing with the kind of music that you do, get hold of them, and invite them. Don't make you goals too broad, make your goals very clear.
If you accept a band for the festival do they get only one showcase or is it possible to get other shows and how would you try to get them?
In most cases acts only get one performance. You can ask for more and sometimes there are opportunities. Some bands perform parties and people do in-stores or try to hook up with radio and television while they're here. Sometimes acts make SXSW part of a world tour and book shows around, before and after the festival and just come through Austin.
How would I go about securing other performance opportunities, such as parties and in-stores etc?
That's the kind of effort people need to put in themselves and find out by asking other people, talking to people that made it work before. Where else would it make sense for me to perform? Where do I find these contacts?
In the vast majority of cases we ask bands that have already had some success in their home territory, which means they have a manager or professionals around them that know how to find those things. Acts that are so early in their career that they are not going to know how to find out about the record stores in Austin, for instance, are probably too underdeveloped to come out here and it make sense for them.
So what should an act have ready in place first in order to properly realise the potential of SXSW?
The perfect situation is when acts have already established themselves in their home territory and in their surrounding territories and now want to establish a presence in the US. If they European, for example, then they have a manager, a European booking agent and a European label, and then say, “We want to find a US label that picks up our catalogue and a US booking agent.’ They target these people beforehand - they set up interviews while they're here, network with people. Ideally they invite them to come to the show and they have more meetings after wards.
There are bands playing SXSW such as XX, Neon Indian, Midlake, for instance, that are already widely acclaimed. What have they got to gain from performing at the festival?
Once you establish a certain profile, you need to maintain it. Again, it's always a matter of an overall good strategy. These acts are mainly looking to pick up festival dates so they want festival buyers. They want to maintain and increase their media exposure. And they want to go and see other music, too.
How do you filter the bands that get on, what venue they play, when they play? What are the selection criteria?
The music needs to suit the room. Obviously the venue has to be right for the potential audience. Ordinarily we want to make it stylistically consistent and have the bigger acts towards the end of the evening hoping that they will be drawing people earlier so people can see the rest of the talents.
Would you say there are some prime times and prime venues?
I don't know if there are prime times but I know there are venues that are considered more desirable. For us it's important that it's suitable for the act.
Are the stages divided by the genre? Like there is a blues stage, a classical or pop stage?
The process of selecting the bands for the festival takes place over a few months. Which bands are going to be informed first? Is there any order?
We inform the acts from outside the US first. They have the greatest time expense in order to be able to make plans to come. Then we invite the national acts. The Austin acts end up being called in last because these are the acts that need the least preparation time. They might still need a hotel here or to set up a tour around their appearance.
Do you notify acts that are not getting picked?
Yes we notify everyone and we invite up to the start of the festival. Because things change and we have a very long list of acts where we think that it would make sense to have them if we have room. At the last minute some acts drop out so we try to replace them with an act that is similar to them.
For example, we do nights with Japanese acts, so if a Japanese act drops out then we try to get another to replace them. Then there are acts that have already bought the plane tickets and say, “We are going to be there! If a spot opens up let us know.” So we are able to pick from them.
How do you select the bands in the first place?
It’s a big team here dealing with the selection. As for any music fan it’s about, “Do we like the music?” Then we are working for acts that are dedicated to their career or in a position that it makes sense for them. In most cases they need to have some kind of professional establishment.
Everyone has to submit their applications through Sonicbids website. How does the actual procedure work - is there a person for every country listening to the bands from that territory?
We've a team of listeners all over the world that can access that. They make notes and grade the acts for us. Everybody gets to listen to it at least twice and then internally we are going to review all of these notes and send out invitations based on that.
And obviously we do know people all over the world in the industry that will tell us, “These are the acts that you should know about.”
So are the first people that listen to the candidates actually from the territory where the bands are from?
No. Everyone just pushes a button and the next band comes up, and if you don’t feel like you are qualified you can skip it. For certain genres we have specialists.
Then we do break things up internally by territories, we have a person that is overseeing all the bands from the UK for example, for Norway or Japan and so on.
Do you always hear about success stories of bands that have been to the festival?
It depends how you define success - I know at least three people that got married because of SXSW.[laughs]
What makes SXSW successful for you then?
That other people find it useful, then I’m pleased.
How important do you think are the panels for the bands?
I think that’s very important. On the one hand you are looking for the content, learning things that you find useful but equally important is meeting the people that are speaking on these panels. Introduce yourself and extend your professional group of contacts and friends - I think that can be very valuable.
Do you have any tips for artists to watch out for this year? Is there anything you are excited about?
In terms of specific acts, no. I always suggest, “Go to the website and listen to some bands that you never heard of before. Discover something new. Be curious and hunt around for something that you didn't know about before.”
Interview by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: Interview with Tinchy Stryder, Cheryl Cole producer/songwriter Fraser T Smith
Read On ...
* SXSW manager Una Johnston on how to get involved in the festival