Artist Stories: 3 Things I Learned At SXSW
Contributed by Rorie Kelly, an NYC-based indie rocker documenting her quest to go from part-time musician to full-time musician.
It has been a little over a week since I got back from the madness that is SXSW and I have just about recovered. All week people have been asking me how it was. I usually reply with some variation of "crazy/awesome/ridiculous" and add an estimate of how many bands I saw or tacos I ate. Most people just want to hear that I had a great time on what they see as my "vacation" and move on. But I know my fellow musicians understand that its way more than a vacation, and it takes way more than a taco count to measure success. So here is the real takeaway -- what I learned this year as one more ambitious musician trying to get heard at SXSW.
1. Quality, not quantity
I am an introvert and networking does not come naturally to me. I have made it a study, and here is a big thing I have learned: Exchanging cards with 100 people that you barely speak to is going to yield less results than spending a full day getting to know just a few people as human beings. A big reason I prefer the word "community" to "network" is because it is more human. I am more interested in helping out and talking to and hearing from other humans that I've gotten to know and like. Aren't you? So drop the act.
Trying to "brand" yourself to every person in the room with your ship-shape elevator pitch is exhausting and, in my experience, ineffective. For sure, you should get your thoughts together about how you want to introduce yourself to new people, but beyond that, just get ready to be real and make new friends. If you're completely at a loss, "find a friend by being a friend". Choose to compliment a random stranger. Ask someone you are standing in line with what what brings them here and what their goals are, and then listen with interest to the answers. Ask where others are playing or presenting and offer to go support them, and then do it. At the end of the day, kindness and communication count way more than that stack of glossy postcards you ordered from VistaPrints. People you meet this way are the ones you will remain connected with and be able to work with in the future.
2. Relax, take care of yourself, and have fun
I spent my whole first day at SXSW in full stress mode. Plans were up in the air with a friend I was supposed to pick up from the airport (at some nonspecified time) and a show we were supposed to do together. Another friend had introduced me to someone kind of important I was hoping to connect with, and I had forgotten to even email her before the conference. I had scheduled an interview, and a meeting with my publicist, and a visit to a friend's gig, all within way too short a timeframe, and I also had to get fliers printed up sometime. Everything took longer than I thought. The printer at Kinko's broke, and I spent 30 minutes waiting and another 20 minutes cutting up fliers before realizing I had made a crucial typo and had to do it all over again. I felt like a stressed-out failure the whole day.
When I got back to my hotel that night I wrote about it in my journal and seeing it all on paper gave me a wake up call. I had been looking forward to SXSW for weeks like an excited puppy, and now here I was making myself miserable. Yes, a few things went wrong that were beyond my control, but I had not spent all this money and cleared my schedule to come to Austin to be miserable and feel stupid. I resolved to put aside factors I could not control, practice the best self care I could, prioritize what was really important to me and not worry about the rest. The remainder of the trip was amazingly fulfilling—both from a "career goals" perspective and from a happiness perspective.
3. There is no easy equation to assess whether a big investment like a music conference is "worth it" and you just have to deal with that
You don't go to music conferences to make money -- you go to meet people, learn and expand your universe. So why is it that when I got back and people started asking "was it worth it?" the first thing I did was start a mental tally of how many CDs I sold or mailing list signups I got? Spoiler alert: any sales I made were a drop in the bucket compared to my airfare and hotel costs.
Conferences are a whirlwind. They're easy to get lost in. You have to define (ideally ahead of time) your own idea of what will make it feel "worth it" for you and then you have to do your best to hit those goals. Is it meeting a few other acts you like that you can gig swap with next time you're in their area? Learning some identifiable steps to get sync/licensing deals for your songs? Exchanging details with X number of new contacts to build your network? Just recharging yourself by hearing new music and getting inspired (that's really OK)? Whatever it is, it's important to make it realistic and check in with it regularly during your time. And it's OK to turn on a dime if it seems like your original plans won't work.
For me, my focus boiled down to a four word catch phrase I repeated often during the week: "Women, music, and tacos."
I wanted to meet and have meaningful conversations with as many women in the music industry as possible, hear a lot of music and share a lot of music... and eat all the legit tex-mex vegetarian tacos I could fit into my body. Most of the people I talked to agreed these were fabulous goals.
For me the pinnacle of SXSW was my Thursday night, when I managed to encapsulate all three goals in one fell swoop. I played a concert with two fellow ladies I hold in high esteem: Alex Winters and Mary Bue. Mary had booked the show and invited us both to play, deciding to make it an awesome ladies night concert. Our brilliant publicist (Stacey Sherman of RSP Entertainment) coined the hashtag "#ladybeasttrifecta" and got on the horn on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. At one point, we had more people tuned in online via the Meerkat app than there were physically inside the venue. We got to sing on each other's songs, and I got to talk shop and hang out with two awesome women going after exactly the same dreams I am. (And, once I was done singing for the night, I got to stuff my face gleefully with avocado tacos.) Our gig got written up in two blogs (Shades of Solveig and Guitar Girl Magazine) and I left Texas feeling incredibly fulfilled and happy with how things went.
Was it worth it? I still don't know how to answer that question... but I'm glad I went and personally pleased with what we (the ladybeast trifecta) accomplished.
What's your opinion on music conferences and festivals? Have you never been? Been to many and have a favorite? What makes it "worth it" to you? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments. :)