Inside the 100-Hour Hell Week of a SXSW Programmer
A behind-the-scenes look at the logistics behind booking 2,000 bands playing on 100 stages in six days. Damn.
Starcrawler photo by Travis Ball/Getty Images for SXSW
It's 1.15AM on Wednesday night of South by Southwest at Seven Grand, a downtown whiskey bar with taxidermied deer on the walls. Music industry professionals cross their arms, while garage rockers fill the pit. A young band called Starcrawler sprints through two-minute punk songs as their 18-year-old singer Arrow de Wilde howls like and moves like a Iggy Pop, if someone had stabbed him in the gut. She leans back into a tortured yoga bend, then vaults towards the crowd spitting fake blood all over their jean-jackets.
“Do you know much about this band?” asked Stacey Wilhelm, a music programmer who has worked for SXSW for 11 years. She begins to lay out their backstory, they've been together for two years, Arrow's mother is a famous photographer, they just released a record on Rough Trade, and...
“I'm sorry,” says Wilhelm, she runs to a friend and gives them a hug as if they just got back from war. Turns out he's part of their Beggars Group family, a conglomerate of labels that includes Rough Trade, 4AD, Matador, XL, and Young Turks.
To really understand SXSW, known as “South by” to those who’ve lived through one, you have to look behind the scenes. In the midst of a 100+ hour week, Wilhelm and a second programmer, Casper Mills, agreed to let me tag along as they bounced from venue to venue, putting out logistical fires and giving bear hugs to touring agents, label heads, and publishing execs, essentially all the people who usher bands into the public eye (and onto Spotify playlists).
SXSW is not a festival, at least not exactly. Founded in 1987, “the event” as its referred to by staff, is a ten-day conference where the music, tech, and film industries descends on Austin to drink Lone Star and eat breakfast tacos. Then, so the myth goes they’ll invest in a company, buy rights to a film, or sign a band to a publishing deal. Most in the industry have platinum badges, the highest level of access. These retail for $1650 (~£1,175; naturally, many are comped). Locals can buy a music wristband for $189, but they get secondary access after badge holders. All those purchases add up, according to SXSW’s official economic impact report the 2017 event drew 421,900 attendees and brought $348.6 million [~£248 million] into the local economy. The list of performing artists won’t fit on a poster, no matter how small the font: this year there were 2000.
“With commercial festivals, bookers come out of the gate with a budget and then plug people in,” says James Minor, head of SXSW music, who happened to be at the Starcrawler show, far out of blood-spit range. “For us, we receive thousands and thousands of applications and weed through them to figure out who would actually benefit from coming to South by Southwest.”
If you’ve attended South By in the last five years, this description probably clashes with your experience. From roughly 2010 to 2016 it became a Spring Break for music fans where they could see Snoop Dogg perform inside a five-story Doritos machine simply by handing over your email address. Hundreds of unofficial parties piggy-backing on talent absorbed all of downtown and East Austin. It became a musical choose-your-own-adventure, every empty parking lot, food truck, or clothing shop becomes a venue, which is a logistical nightmare.
“When there’s no fences, it’s hard to keep in the cattle,” says Wilhelm.
Brands still invest heavily and awkwardly. Diet Coke’s “House of Because” wins most awkward activation of 2018, thanks to horrendous slogans everywhere and samples of new flavours that literally no one wanted (we’re looking at you, twisted mango). But the past two years, the headliners went missing. There's still a buffet of new bands, but acts like Starcrawler aren't playing two shows a day for the kids: their target audience, however crass this may seem, is the music industry. Jaded local bands may scoff at the myth of landing a record deal at South by, but there’s likely no higher concentration of music professionals anywhere else in the world.
“A band who no one knows doesn’t really get signed at South By,” says Mills, who began his career at SXSW interning during college abroad from his native England. “But maybe they’ve been talking with a label and this is the first time they’ve seen them live, and they get to see how they react in different environments. And there’s a lot of sync people looking for artists for movies and film. And a lot of festival and booking agents.”
Getting in front of all those ears takes its toll. DIY-spirited bands want to follow in the footsteps of workhorses like The Black Lips, Thee Oh Sees, or Grimes, who’ve had years where they’ve played over a dozen shows... But push yourself too far and you’re asking for trouble. A week of sleep deprivation, day drinking, and gear-lifting is a recipe for a meltdown, which doesn’t bode well for your European touring potential.
Starcrawler are pushing it. Seven Grand is their second show of the day, with many more to go, and 17-year-old guitarist Henri looks dazed. The breakneck speed of the tunes and flailing stage show is already taking its toll. Plus, they just got back from Tokyo. He’s still on Japan time, he says like the coolest teenager of all time.
Still, he’s not as tired as Wilhelm. She’s not performing any music, but she’s awake later than the musicians, keeping an ear on her radio until 3 AM. Then she’s back at the convention centre for an 8:30 call time the next morning. For six days in a row.
By the time Starcrawler hits the stage, she's been on her feet for at least 6 hours, bouncing between the many venues she's managing that night. She carries two cell phones like a musical drug dealer, one a work-only burner. Her diet consists primarily of probiotics, Emergen-C, and late-night roast beef sandwiches eaten in the staff hotel suite (all active employees stay in downtown hotel rooms to minimise commute).
“Last night I got a little sleep, I think four and a half hours. That’s a good sleep,” says Stacey.
These jigsawed showcases, running with only a 10-minute changeover between bands, don't happen by a sprinkling of rock and roll pixie dust. A team of seven programmers work year-round to make it happen, plus 200 other full-time employees, plus 4000 volunteers. During the event, the staff sees everything thanks to a command centre with a wall of TVs playing live video feeds outside the venues. It lets them know to send additional staff should a venue become too hectic, update the scheduling app when a venue is at capacity, and disperse their team of off-duty police in the case of an emergency. They’ve even got a meteorologist on call in case of inclement weather. But there are still last-minute surprises.
At 7PM on Friday night in the alley between Barracuda and The Main (formerly Emo’s), Mills sits on an electric URB-E scooter that looks like the ungodly offspring of Wall-E and a workout bench. To his left, Barracuda hosts a pit party, where bands don’t set up on the stage, they play with their gear on the ground. It’s dream bill of 12 post-punk and garage bands including IDLES, METZ, Ringo Deathstarr, and, of course, Starcrawler, whose manager arrives direct from the emergency room. During an in-store performance, Arrow pretended to fall, then actually fell and then hit her head. The doctor said there was no concussion, so the show goes on.
To his right, The Main hosts an EDM trap party presented by Monterrey DJ duo Boombox Cartel on the outside stage and a UK grime showcase inside. Boombox Cartel have just confirmed their special guest: DJ Carnage, an EDM DJ who sold out a venue four times the size the night before (Stubb’s). Everyone is visibly pumped, but there’s work to be done.
“If Carnage walks down 6th Street, it’ll cause a fucking riot,” says Mills.
He’s on the radio trying to find two Suburbans to transport Carnage to the venue, how to fulfill his rider while following alcohol commission rules, then he’s coordinating with the social media team on an announcement, then he’s navigating a misunderstanding with the Cartel about streaming rights, then he’s slapping hands with the grime promoter who brought international superstar Kano to the same 200-capacity room in 2017. A few feet away, trending UK rapper Izzie Gibbs freestyles for a film crew and an older Texas gentleman staffing the venue remarks that he doesn’t know anything about rap, but that he knows that’s not easy.
These are just two of the dozen shows that Mills manages that night. He’s the bottom of the funnel, the guy they call when a problem can’t be solved by a stage manager, production team, or doorman. Most importantly, he’s the one emailing for months with the presenters of the showcase, the face of the conference to the rest of the industry. So when any type of shit hits the fan, the presenters ignore the rest of the funnel and go straight to him.
Yet somehow, he keeps email inbox in the single digits (Wilhelm’s is at 13). Both bookers’ eyes drift regularly in conversation, distracted by their earpieces, but they still have the bandwidth to geek out about whatever band is playing. They act like ducks, calm above the surface but frantically kicking their legs underwater. Granted, they mysteriously didn’t answer my texts the night of the bomb threat that shut down the Roots Super Jam, but otherwise they seem capable of putting out any fire with a little creative DIY problem solving (and the logistical might of a multi-million dollar company).
When I check back in with Stacey, she’s making a mile hike from Hotel Vegas, where Nine Mile Records and Touring hosts a showcase of Americana and indie rock. We meet on Red River and she asks me to stand on her left side because of constant radio chatter in her right ear. Then we walk past Cheer Up Charlies, where AdHoc presents the new project of Monotonix guitarist Yonatan Gat, complete with backing from a choir (Eastern Medicine Singers) and drum viking (Thor Harris). They’re set up on the ground, throwing a a pit party of their own. You can see the stage from Red River Street, it’s full of fans looking down on the action.
Wilhelm apologises again and stops listening to me, absorbed by her earpiece. One of the biggest battles of the event is capacity requirements. This could be a serious problem should a fire marshall walk by.
“Just like with venues, there’s capacity permits for how many people can be on a stage,” she says. “We need to make sure that doesn’t become an issue... but they have a short set, so hopefully no one will notice.” She runs into a production manager on the street, alerting him to the issue, then takes a requisite moment to geek out about Monotonix.
Next we walk another half mile west to the InterContinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel where a tiny bar hosts the Sounds from Italy showcase. Peronis and prosecco flow, heat lamps warm up surprisingly decent Neapolitan pizza. For five years she’s been traveling to Italy attending regional festivals and it’s culminated with a partnership with Italy’s official Music Export Office. There’s at least wedding’s worth of Italians in attendance.
“The local communities, there’s expats everywhere, they definitely come out,” says Stacey.
When the South by booking team isn’t putting out fires, they’re shaking hands. Both seem equally important. Stacey sees the Italians presenting the show, they kiss cheeks twice. They’ve emailed for a year, and it’s both a professional and personal necessity to spend 20 minutes catching up (while her earpiece buzzes with logistical chatter). On stage, Italian blues songwriter Violetta Zironi strums out country tunes that sound like they could’ve been written in the Hill Country instead of the hills of Tuscany.
Another example of industry manoeuvring (and impressive musicianship) is the second year of the Jazz Re:Freshed Outernational showcase featuring six hotshot UK ensembles. Blue Lab Beats headlines (they also played London mayor Sadiq Khan’s SXSW Interactive keynote), but the highlight are UK phenoms Ezra Collective, who sound like BadBadNotGood if they only played smoke-filled basements. The previous night they special guested on Stones Throw's showcase.
“I’m so tired, but this is so dope,” says one of the UK promoters. Wilhelm concurs, “That’s like our unofficial motto!”
Just hearing the tunes is dope enough, but knowing what’s going on behind the scenes is almost exhaustingly cool. Tonight, BBC Radio tastemaker Gilles Peterson watches on from a corner of the room (they're on his label’s recent We Out Here jazz comp). Also in the audience are a team of Brazilian promoters who Jazz Re:Freshed teamed with for a series of Sao Paulo shows, extending the reach of underground UK jazz into new continents. And according to Mills, Nike sent down two scouts specifically to see this Ezra Collective, so don’t be surprised if you hear them soon in a commercial for running shoes. The trumpet player rips into a familiar melody and Casper perks up.
“That's Fela Kuti!” says Mills. “It's 'Expensive Shit!'”
Logistically Mills and Wilhelm are beasts, but more importantly they’re very high-level music listeners. Not only are they encyclopaedias of history and new talent, but they have an intimate knowledge of label structures, management teams, touring circuits, and career trajectories. The studiousness runs counter to Spotify algorithmic discovery and exemplifies the true taste-making value of the event. This insider curation is why SXSW is such a bounty for music lovers.
In that spirit, it makes sense that this year’s event didn’t feature a five-story Doritos vending machine or a Superbowl halftime show-level headliner. The smaller scale has weeded out the amateurs, and many showcases are so niche that you don’t need a festival credentials if you get there early and are willing to wait in line. Ask any veterans and they’ll tell you SXSW 2018 felt smaller, more manageable, less chaotic.
The tradeoff is that now more than ever, South by is very hard for a civilian to navigate. Enjoying the festival requires open ears and some serious study of the schedule. Not many Austinites or non-professional musical tourists have knowledge of the underground UK jazz scene, but the bookers have built a framework such that anyone with open ears can bounce between venues for a handpicked selection of the best songs no one else has ever heard. Thanks to their hard work, “the event” has finally made it back to its roots: discovery.
As for Starcrawler, I wasn’t able to catch their pit show. Earlier in the evening the door woman promised she’d sneak me past the line, but despite my platinum badge and a bribe of a Mandarin orange, she couldn’t risk breaking fire code. A friend inside reported that Arrow’s horror-show stage presence was terrifying, but admitted that the kids had something special.
The SXSW staff agreed. A back-bending photo of Arrow made the cover of SXSWorld Magazine, a publication printed halfway through the fest that makes it into the bag of every registrant. And as a cherry on top, Starcrawler was awarded this year’s Grulke Prize for Developing U.S. Act, an award previously won by artists like Leon Bridges, Future Islands, and Haim. Proof that at SXSW, sometimes all that fake blood, sweat, and tears really pays off.
Correction: SXSW badges actually cost $1650 for platinum level. Music wristbands cost $189.
Dan Gentile is a writer and reporter based in Austin. He's on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.