I’ve had a few bands contact me over the past few weeks asking for some tips on where to play at SXSW and what to bring etc, so I thought I’d write a brief guide on here, but everything you really need to know is in this article written by Geoff Martyn:

SXSW for Unsigned Bands : an Artist Speaks

This article was written by Geoff Martyn, then of Jupiter & Teardrop, and now of Roddy Hart and the Lonesome Fire, in June 2005, and is republished with Geoff’s kind permission.

1. Make sure you have enough money. From an unsigned band’s perspective, I’d say £5,000 *just* about covers it for a four piece. Do not underestimate the sheer amount of money you’re going to have to shell out. Arts Council grants aside, if you don’t have at least £5k in the pot before you go, think twice about going in the first place.

2. Have something to promote. You’ve heard the line ‘Be Business Ready for SXSW’, this is especially relevant for an unsigned band. The bare minimum you need is an EP, and much better if you have an album under your belt. Make it look professional – decent artwork and your name clearly on the front. It might look arty to have your name hidden under a haze of colour but make it simple. If you want to see the very worst in graphic design, just browse myspace for 5 minutes. Remember, it costs you an arm and a leg to get there, if you go with a handful of CDRs containing demo tracks and photocopied flyers you won’t even make a splash. There are literally thousands of bands doing the same thing.

3. Get as many extra gigs as you can. Get in as early as possible. Check out the forums on the SXSW site and research the venues, BBQs and record stores offering in-stores. Email people (be polite) and follow them up. Try and get as many venues to confirm as far in advance as possible. Get all the gigs on your flyers and on your website.

4. Stay accessible by email. Some of the gigs will have a very short window of opportunity. An email might be sent out to a list of bands. If you’re online most of the day and checking your email as regularly as possible, the chances are you’ll get the gig. If you take three days to reply to an email asking if you want a gig, you’re onto plums!!

5. Prepare something to make you stand out from the crowd in terms of flyers and promo material. Simply having a box of CDR white labels won’t get you very far. For SXSW2005 we bought DVD bags from an office supplies store and filled them with badges, stickers, flyers and a CD. It’s not much more expensive than putting a CD on a desk and people love things they can take away with them. We made up several hundred of these packs and had none left at the end of the week.

6. Network in the convention centre and don’t be afraid to go up and speak to people. If you’re spending lots of time watching bands then you’re probably not working hard enough. Try and get into the gigs most people want to get into and make sure you go up and speak to people. That’s why they’re there after all. If you see someone you recognise, go and introduce yourself. Hand out CDs and make sure people know when you’re playing. Most people have a list of gigs they want to attend, but everyone has extra time and your gig might be just what they’re looking for.

7. Travel Light. Airlines are notorious for applying excess baggage charges if you have too much gear. Spread your gear out between band members and take as little as possible. It might be nice to have a guitar and a backup guitar with you at home, but that extra guitar might end up costing you the best part of $100 for each leg of the journey you take.

8. Stencil the name of your band on your gear if you can. This serves two purposes. Firstly, once you get to the Airport at Austin and you have to pick up your gear from the outsized luggage conveyor-belt you’ll soon see that your Gibson case isn’t quite as unique as you once thought it was. Secondly, when you’re walking about Austin to do your gigs or just kicking about the convention centre you will advertise the name of your band. Make sure the name is nice and large and white on black or similar. You can’t beat free advertising!

9. Once you get your showcase allocated you’ll be assigned a stage manager. Make sure you keep in touch with them, give them the information they require when they ask for it, and see if you can get in touch with the other bands on the same bill. Your stage manager is there to help you, but can’t do this if you don’t help yourself. Plan as much as you can in advance and make sure you have all your times worked out. Allow as much time as possible to get to the venue and do not be late. The other bands might well be able to help you out in terms of amps etc and your stage manager should be able to help out by putting you in touch.

10. Try and work out what you want from SXSW before you go. It’s a great experience, but can be an empty, expensive one if you don’t have a goal in mind at the outset. Target the companies and individuals you think will be into your type of music. A scatter-gun approach will not work at SXSW. If there’s one thing I could pin point and underline to someone doing SXSW it would be to set your sights on what you want and go for it. If you pick up other good things on the way, so be it, but make sure you have a plan and a goal.

11. Working Visas. There are two ways to get into the US for SXSW – one is with a working Visa and the other is as a tourist. There are two schools of thought on which is the best way. We opted for the working Visa route and this is where a large chunk of your money will go. There are forms to fill, information to gather, phonecalls to be made and finally a trip to either London or Belfast for a face to face interview. You *will* need a US based immigration lawyer for this and there are a number available who do special rates for SXSW. It’s one of those tasks where you need to get on the ball as soon as you know you are going. Don’t leave it until mid January and make sure you dot every i and cross every t. The other option of course is to try and hop in as a tourist. Very rock and roll, quite illegal and not recommended. If you’ve already spent all your money on a hotel, flights, CDs, Flyers, Badgers, Stickers and T-Shirts, the last thing you need is to be heading straight back on the next flight because your story didn’t wash with immigration that you were here to see your Great Aunt in Austin and just happened to look like one of the Kings of Leon. Also, I’ve heard some real horror stories about how immigration treat you if you fall foul of them so go ahead if you think you have the luck of the Irish, but be warned.

That’s just 11 random points off the top of my head. Take with a large pinch of salt and a liberal helping of common sense.



Geoff Martyn
Jupiter and Teardrop

Originally published on Alec Downie‘s NEMIS website.



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Photo Credit: Jupiter and Teardrop at SXSW 2005