In Case You’re Thinking Of A Last-Minute Application, Here’s How Bands Get Picked For SXSW

Lucas Jensen | November 6, 2008 11:00 am

Hey bands! Tomorrow is the deadline for applying to SXSW, the annual Austin-based conflagration of music, hype, Tex-Mex, and free Sparks*! I actually love SXSW, although it can seem a little overwhelming if you take it all too seriously and care about getting into things like The Levi’s/FADER Big Blogger Breakfast. (Of course, if you care about stuff like that, you’re probably a jerk.) Me, I take it all like a leaf on the wind, blowing from free beer to free beer while seeing plenty of great stuff. SXSW’s palette of bands is much, much larger than any other festival out there, CMJ included, and the selection process must be a total nightmare. Right before CMJ 2008, I interviewed Matt McDonald about the ins and outs of selecting bands. Today, I talked to Darin Klein, Senior Music Festival Programmer at SXSW, about the selection process and how bands should help themselves get accepted**. Protips after the jump!

First off, how many bands apply each year and how many get accepted? For SXSW ’08, we had close to 11,000 applications. We invited approximately 2300 acts, and ultimately over 1500 bands showcased at the festival. This year we anticipate a larger number of applications to perform.

What’s the application cost for each band? $25 is the early application rate. $35 is the late application rate. Applying late does not increase or decrease a band’s chances of receiving an invitation.

What kind of criteria are taken into account? Music quality? Press kit? Past SXSW experience? Perceived draw? SXSW has a committee of people who listen to and grade recordings according to originality, technical ability, songwriting skills, career establishment, and overall artistry. Every recording is graded at least twice, then those with the highest scores are reviewed again and invitations are extended. Ultimately, we want the what we consider to be the “best” in all genres of music. What is considered “good music” is of course extremely subjective, so our booking staff has frequent, heated debates about which bands should be invited.

If perceived draw is a factor, how do you calculate that? I’d say that “perceived draw” is based on career establishment, which is a factor that we consider. The music industry that comes to SXSW showcases want to see bands that are already or strive to be professional artists, so we are reading bands’ press, evaluating radio play, and reviewing touring schedules to attempt to gauge the level of interest in an act and help us book them in an appropriate size venue.

Do y’all lean towards rock or indie rock over other genres, or do you try to spread it around to other genres? Is rock represented more typically because more rock artists apply? We attempt to showcase all genres of music and invite artists from all over the world.

Do sponsors have any say in who gets accepted? No.

How much preference is given to a band’s label? Are label showcases given first priority? What if you absolutely hate a band that’s on a respected label’s showcase? Just keep it quiet? All bands, whether they have a label or not, are considered equally. We have built many long-standing relationships with lots of labels, but ultimately it comes down to the bands and the music.

How much thought is given towards sound continuity, as far as bands that sound similar getting put on the same bill? Our ultimate goal is to build showcases that will have good crowds and be aesthetically appropriate for the venue. So we’ll book similar sounding bands on a showcase if we feel that it will accomplish those goals.

What about day parties? What’s the official SXSW stance on them and what do you do to bands that are playing too many of them? We need and want bands to get the attention of the music industry, media, and fans, and we want their official showcase to be successful, and have an audience, so we ask bands to help ensure the success of their showcase by not booking too many private party performances.

As SXSW has become bigger and bigger, how has the acceptance process been affected? The process is essentially the same, but we definitely have more music judges and showcase bookers now than ever.

What suggestions would you give to a prospective small-time band applying to SXSW or similar festival Practice! Keep writing songs, playing live and promoting your band.

I’ll try to follow up with Darin once the bands are announced because I’m sure there will be controversy. I knew a band who got rejected despite receiving a 7.9 in Pitchfork and write-ups in Paste and Alternative Press, among others! Meanwhile, a band (from, ahem, Austin) called Super Heavy Goat Ass played.

* at my first SXSW, one of my company’s parties had free Sparks. I didn’t know what it was, so my coworker, Jon, and I downed, like, four of them because they tasted like sweet tarts. Bad idea. I thought my skeleton was going to jump out of my eyeballs before I crashed out for a few hours of comatose sleep.

** I am working on four years of being rejected by SXSW. Buy me a beer some time, and I’ll tell you allllll about it.