No one defies the stereotype of the slacker rock band more than the cohort of emerging acts that book preposterous numbers of shows during the SXSW Music Festival and Conference in Austin every March. As routes to promotion and exposure get ever more confusing in the digital music age, more and more bands are using the annual industry extravaganza to take a shotgun approach to marketing—scheduling up to a dozen concerts over four days at the event's official and unofficial showcases and parties.
It's grueling, chaotic, and borderline insane—but the artists who do it have decided that the more eyeballs they get, the greater the potential for a new fan or valuable business partner. It's a decision that every growing business needs to make about balancing health, sanity, and core mission with exposure.
Fast Company talked to two of these ambitious rising acts—Detroit's Protomartyr and San Antonio's Wild Party—who played 11 and 12 shows at SXSW, respectively, about the preparation, motivation, and self-preservation needed to handle an intense marathon project, even if your business doesn't involve hauling a drum kit.
Rising post-punk stars Protomartyr made the trip to SXSW in 2013, but played only four shows. "It was about seeing the lay of the land to see what we could do," says guitarist Greg Ahee. "Last year it was like 'this is going to be a fun vacation.' This year we said 'it's not going to be fun, let's just do it, and if we have fun, it's just kind of collateral.'" With 2,000 bands, hundreds of venues, and countless events, SXSW can be nearly impossible to navigate efficiently, and paralyzing for first-timers. Protomartyr found that by familiarizing themselves with the festival's intricacies without the pressure of work, they were far more prepared to get serious the next time around. Likewise, indie power-pop quartet Wild Party played SXSW in 2012, and played only one show—but "it was a disaster," says vocalist Lincoln Kreifels. "It left a really bad taste in our mouths." What it did, though, was make the band acutely aware of what not to do and whom not to trust, and they were much more selective about venues and hosts. If you can simulate a project's experience and do drills, or even observe a colleague or mentor push through a launch, you'll be able to anticipate challenges and solutions.
Before heading to Austin, Protomartyr stepped up their practice time from once a week to two or three times a week, so that everything would be more comfortable and ingrained when the pace started to take its toll. They also paid close attention to their physical needs, both before and during the event, which came with a host of hard-partying temptations. "We got a lot of sleep," says Ahee. "I tried to eat healthy, not drink as much. I think it does make a difference. You have to have the mentality of just get through it, try to give every show your all, but take it easy when you're not playing. So far it has worked. Then we're not going to play another show for three weeks." Wild Party did a less restful pre-tour to warm up for four non-stop days (and worried less about cutting back on the drinking), but they did make sure each show was a doable, bite-sized piece with downtime on either side. "Our sets at SXSW were short, only five or six songs, so that made it more manageable," says drummer Ethan Kaufmann.
Intense, fast turnaround projects, or the mad sprint to the end of a larger project, can breed confusion and missed details. If possible, designate one member of your team to have fewer hands-on responsibilities and more reasoned oversight, especially if there is a significant, less task-friendly creative element involved. "Our lawyer is basically taking us by the hand and making sure we're where we're supposed to be," says Kaufmann. "He's a dad-like character that's really taken care of us," adds Kreifels. "We're Wild Party, so we have to live up to that name."
Protomartyr didn't consciously decide in advance to perform 11 shows in four days, but enough good offers came that they decided to make it work. "We started booking shows three months ago, and asked early to be on some shows we really wanted like the WFMU showcase," says Ahee. "A couple of the other big shows we played, like Brooklyn Vegan, didn't ask us until a week before. We had already booked a pretty solid schedule and didn't plan on anything else, but sometimes offers are good and you just don’t want to turn them down." He says, however, that the band turned down a lot more shows than they accepted, and they're just finally in a career position where the good offers were enough to push them to their limit.
Most importantly, Protomartyr realizes that each opportunity and the hard work required have value but in no way guarantee instant results. "We don't really have big expectations. We're more excited to play with our friends than have this break us or anything," says Ahee. "Anything that happens, happens."
Wild Party agrees. "The only definite benefit so far [of doing so many shows] is that we got an interview with Fast Company," says Kaufmann. "We just wanted to get in front of as many people as possible," adds Kreifels. "All of the shows have been really packed, we've met a lot of people—that has to be a benefit, right?"