How A Talent Buyer Approaches SXSW
By: Sarah Pittman
THE APPEAL OF SXSW:Fans and industry professionals gather in at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin, Texas, for a showcase presented by Mass Appeal and Netflix, featuring performances by T.I., Dave East, Rapsody and more March 17, 2018.Despite all the big-name artists, speakers and sponsors expected at this year’s South by Southwest Music Festival (March 8-17), along with subsequent grousing and think-pieces debating the impact of the Austin event, artist discovery still remains at the heart and soul of every SXSW.
Just ask C3 Presents talent buyer Margaret Galton, an Austin local and one of the countless music industry professionals who attend the annual extravaganza and most often still leave entertained, inspired and perhaps with contact info for up-and-coming artists to book at future gigs.
“Oftentimes in this day and age there’s new bands popping up all the time, it’s hard to keep track of,” Galton said. “And South By, just because of the sheer quantity of the artists coming through, really gives you an opportunity to get exposure to some of these new artists.”
While the first edition of SXSW was launched in 1987 by a small group of folks (including Roland Swenson, the late Louis Meyers, Louis Black, and Nick Barbaro) in Austin with the idea of inviting the outside world to the city to bring exposure to the local creative and music communities, the festival offers attendees the chance to catch new, developing and established artists from across the globe and a range of genres.
Being based in the Texas state capitol, Galton is lucky to take advantage of the discovery experience without having to even leave the city.
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As a talent buyer with C3 Presents for the past nine years, Galton books Austin City Limits Music Festival with C3’s Amy Corbin and works on C3 concerts throughout Texas including rooms in Austin such as ACL Live at The Moody Theater, Paramount Theatre, and Bass Concert Hall. She’s also worked on accounts such as Auckland City Limits, Sydney City Limits, Austin Food and Wine and special events with clients such as Chipotle and Nickelodeon. Since 2013 Galton has done the booking at the famed Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, which is one of dozens of venues playing host to SXSW showcases.
“[SXSW is] great to work with and they have a very tough task of working with something like over 100 venues,” Galton said. “They do a great job of communicating [about] the acts or the clients they’re talking about bringing into the venue, just to make sure we’re in agreement with it being the right fit. We contract with them so they’re essentially renting the room. That being said, we’re all in the booking shows business so they want to make sure that we feel good about the bills that are coming together.”
James Minor, Head of SXSW Music Festival, explains that booking South By works in a few different ways, with showcases curated in collaboration with record labels, agencies, management and PR firms, media outlets, lifestyle brands and others.
“Sometimes it’s purely SXSW building showcases from invited artists,” Minor said. “In others, we work with partners to showcase acts who they are working with or represent in some form or fashion. For instance, we have a showcase happening this year with this really cool U.K.-based record label called Damnably. They’re bringing six of their bands to SXSW who are in various stages of their careers, all of which have a reason to be here. In any case, we work on a lineup and once we have one that makes sense, we start talking about which venue to place it in.
“As far as how it works with the different venues, we work closely with them to make placements which make sense in their particular rooms. Some venues have stronger opinions than others on what showcases they end up with.”
This year Stubb’s will feature performances from acts including Lizzo, Katzù Oso, Cuco, Car Seat Headrest, and King Princess.
Altogether SXSW will showcase 2,000-plus official performers, with artists hailing from more than 60 countries. (And then there’s all the non-sanctioned events.) Of course, music is just a portion of what the March 11-17 event has to offer, with festivals dedicated to interactive, film, comedy and gaming, as well as exhibitions, networking, awards and 25 tracks of SXSW Conference programming including cannabusiness, experiential storytelling, and sports. Speakers participating in this year’s keynotes and featured sessions include Endeavor chief marketing officer Bozoma Saint John, A$AP Rocky, Kathy Griffin, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, Presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren, author/screenwriter Neil Gaiman, and Brandi Carlile.
“I’m from Austin so in a capacity I’ve been going to the festival for as long as I can remember,” Galton said. “My first real time to go was probably in 2004, 2005 and I would call that like ‘South By Lite,’ that would be going to some of the free showcases. Since booking Stubb’s and [joining] C3 in 2010 is when I would say I got a little more aggressive in doing the festival right.”
She notes that SXSW has changed just as the music industry itself has changed over the years.
“I think what they’ve done with blending interactive, film and music couldn’t be more appropriate because all of those thing over time, with the internet and YouTube and Spotify and film scores and stuff like that, they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive anymore. I think that has been the biggest change that I’ve seen in being less separated and I think that’s a really good thing.”
Galton said her strategy for SXSW is to look through the schedule and if something catches her eye she’ll earmark it, put all of the options in her Outlook calendar and then will make a commitment to the can’t-miss items of the day, whether it’s a panel, showcase or meeting up with an agent, manager or band that’s in from out of town.
“In general, my approach is piecemeal – it’s know your actions, do the research in making the plans on what’s happening that day and then wing it,” Galton said. “And don’t get your heart too set on more than like one or two things a day because it’s too hard to bounce around and make sure you hit every panel and every showcase and every artist you want to see; you’ve got to prioritize.”
As to how Galton gets the most value out of SXSW as it pertains to booking Stubb’s or C3 events, it’s all about the live experience. “You could go see a band you’re listening to and maybe it’s very low key and when you’re just listening on Spotify or something it feels like great music to have on while you’re doing work or hanging out around the house. Then South By rolls around and you get an opportunity to see the band live and you realize their live show is really special because of the performance value of the artist.”
She noted that one example is psychedelic/soul trio Khruangbin, which played SXSW in 2016 and then snagged a spot at Austin City Limits later that year.
“I dig the music, I think it’s really cool. When I was listening to it, I can’t picture what it’s like live – is it mellow? What are the musicians doing up there? Then seeing them live, they are rocking out, it has some of the highest energy I’ve seen, which doesn’t always translate with an instrumental band. So I think that’s where South By can be very useful, just because so many bands are coming through you have the opportunity to get that exposure and see what they’re like live.
“Right now for example,” Galton continues, “we’re in the thick of booking ACL. It might be the difference of a band getting an offer or not if I see a band, or Amy, who I book the festival with, sees the band and is blown away. If we’ve never seen the act come through before and haven’t been able to gauge Austin’s reaction to the band, going to the [SXSW] show and seeing the energy in the audience really helps paint the picture of what it might be like in a festival setting.”
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