South by Southwest started as a small indie festival in 1987, but in 29 years it’s grown to become a keynote event of the music industry. That means it’s also increasingly crowded with performances, and the chances of getting a big break seem slimmer every year. Nevertheless, many Dallas musicians have figured out how to make it work for them.
Last year independent Dallas rapper Pat Ron made his SXSW debut as an official artist thanks to The Smokers Club, who offered him a spot at their House of Van’s showcase. Pat Ron had attended SXSW as a spectator in the past, and he says he began asking himself, “OK, who do I need to be with or who do I need to associate with to really be on some showcases and display my talent?”
A year later he hooked up with The Smokers Club and soon he’ll be releasing an album, This Time Last Year, in collaboration with the brand. “SXSW is one of the best experiences in the world as an artist, especially as an underground artist to have a platform to showcase your ability around such high caliber people. It’s one of the biggest networking opportunities to be able to be backstage with bigger artists, DJs and all kinds of people,” he says, adding that he learned valuable social skills through his interactions with artists such as Denzel Curry, Joey Badass and A$AP Rocky.
Festival coordinator Brian Hobbs offers some advice on how less established artists heading to SXSW to play unofficial showcases can make a leap similar to Pat Ron’s. “You need to focus on creating relationships while you’re down there,” he says. “Don’t just come down and party the whole time.”
Hobbs has worked for the festival for five years and specializes in booking hip-hop performers. He stresses the importance of looking out for publicists, bloggers, booking agents and record label A&Rs while out at showcases. “Having good music and being cool goes a long way in making an impression on someone and that first impression is worth a lot,” Hobbs says.
Performing at SXSW might introduce your music to new people, but Hobbs thinks the potential relationships are more important and you need to do your homework about who can benefit you the most before you go. The last thing you want is to be standing next to a heavy-hitting A&R and not even know it. In recent years he’s seen that homework pay off for Dallas artists such The Outfit, TX; Blue, the Misfit; Sam Lao; G.U.N.; Fat Boogie; and Go Yayo, all of whom have since been invited to SXSW as official artists.
One of Dallas’ major behind-the-scenes players in hip-hop, Mason “Bric” LaDue, is also an official SXSW showcase presenter, and he has similar advice. He networked hard his first few years at the festival, and the groundwork he laid means that when he returns now he can just focus on maintaining those relationships.
“Everyone goes to the cool parties and does all the fun stuff but they don’t realize they’re walking right past three check writers, two A&Rs and investors, because they’re too loaded by 3 p.m. and don’t know who to look for,” LaDue says. “It’s as simple as going to hotel lobbies or paying attention at the bar. Don’t be in your friend’s apartment who goes to UT getting high all day waiting to go party at night. Hit the streets.”
LaDue adds that SXSW does everyone a service by listing all official badge holders and attendees on the website with pictures so you can notice them when you’re out. And unlike most settings, this is the time to approach these people as they’re only attending the festival to assess talent and explore new acts.
Another access point for Dallasites at the festival is SXSW Takeover, which has delivered some of the festival’s biggest moments in its eight years, such as performances by J. Cole, 50 Cent and Eminem. Local Anton Schlesinger is creative director and he has used his position to bring in Dallas talent whenever possible.
Blue, the Misfit has performed; last year Deejay Mike B ran visuals during the performances; and flyers for past events have been illustrated by Dallas artists Arturo Torres and Lenworth “Joonbug” McIntosh.
“Being from Dallas, I always want to see Dallas artists shine. It’s not my role to be booking artists but I try to do what I can, be it an artist or visual artist,” he says. “Wherever I can I try to bring Dallas into the equation, but the opportunities SXSW provides can’t be seen as a one-time thing, though. You have to have this on your mind 365 days a year.”
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The potential payoffs for SXSW are huge, so it’s no wonder so many from the Dallas music scene make their way to Austin every year despite the poor odds.
Two of the major success stories of the last couple of years are Leon Bridges and Post Malone. In 2015, Bridges went to SXSW with a ton of buzz and a brand-new major label recording contract but with very few shows under his belt, and industry executives were eager to see what the retro R&B singer was all about. Following his SXSW performances, he was awarded the coveted Grulke Prize, given to the best developing act at the festival.
In the same year, rapper Post Malone performed a dozen showcases at SXSW off the strength of one viral song, “White Iverson.” The buzz the former Grapevine resident generated during that trip has since led to collaborations with Kanye West, a tour with Justin Bieber and a debut album charting at number six on the Billboard 200. And for country singer and Arlington native Maren Morris, 2016’s SXSW formed the beginning of her breakout year.
But Schlesinger, who has a decade of experience working the festival, emphasizes that to have any chance at reaping these rewards requires a lot of effort. “It’s not for the fainthearted. There’s lots of long lines, it’s chaotic, you have to be willing to be on your feet all day and you gotta have a lot of stamina and it’s exhausting. But if you want to hustle and network and you’re ready to do that, you should be there.”