In front of an unusually rowdy audience for 2 a.m., Denver band the Photo Atlas played its first South By Southwest music festival in 2005. People were crowd-surfing, jumping on stage and throwing beers, said Photo Atlas singer Alan Andrews.
But somewhere in the masses of that after-hours show was a representative from Stolen Transmission Records, who caught the band’s set and eventually landed them a record deal.
It’s the dream for every band that makes the trek to Austin, Texas, for the five-day SXSW Music Festival and industry convention — a destination for labels, bands, fans, brands and everything in between. The festival, which wraps on Sunday, is where Denver’s the Lumineers had a big breakout in 2012; Another local band, Churchill, is hoping to do the same thing this week at the largest music festival in the country.
Unfortunately the success that the Lumineers and the Photo Atlas saw isn’t always the case. In fact, a fairy-tale ending to SXSW happens only to a tiny percentage of bands — a handful out of the thousands that flock to the Texas capital every year.
The festival has grown significantly since its humble origins in 1987. With 2,286 bands playing official showcases at the festival in 2012 — compared to 177 bands in 1987 — SXSW has become a microcosm of the industry as a whole, one where bands can easily get lost in the noise. Adding to the mania: the thousands of bands that make the trip unofficially, playing day parties and non-sanctioned shows.
"People think that they’re going to go down and play in front of a bunch of industry people, and we just got really lucky," Andrews said. "I haven’t really heard of that happening to anyone else." Leaving the festival with a record deal is the best-case scenario, the lucky lottery ticket that every band is trying to find. But realistically, a successful SXSW is a lot less flashy.
"There can only be a handful of super-success stories each year," said Denver manager Bart Dahl of Red Light Management, who has worked with Cake, Dinosaur Jr. and took Secret Machines to SXSW. "If everyone went down there to hit home runs — it’s just impossible."
Even for the lucky few, those benefits aren’t always immediate or clear, and they are often the result of networking before and during the festival.
SXSW organizers get between 9,000 and 10,000 applications from bands looking to play an official showcase — a number that was whittled down to about 2,200 acts this year, according to SXSW Music general manager James Minor. And even when those bands make it on the official showcase, success is hardly guaranteed. "As far as the weird, random occurrences where a band will come here and get signed, it’s a bit of a myth that it happens all the time," Minor said.
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