Hey, Musicians: 10 Ways Not to Screw Up at South By Southwest (SXSW)

Five artists who made the most of the festival dispense some valuable advice for newcomers

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Sugar Tongue Slim performs during NPR Music Presents Live at the Parish on Mar. 15, 2012 in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest.

As the music component of the South By Southwest festival takes over Austin, many bands will be crossing their fingers in hopes of breaking out. Although big names like Green Day have the gigs that may earn headlines in the present, it’s the newcomers who can use this week to jump start their future careers. As large—and influential—audiences shuffle from venue to venue, it’s a chance for those unknown artists to get noticed.

But buzz doesn’t generate itself and SXSW isn’t an automatic ticket to fame.

So we asked some of the artists who were in that place at last year’s festival, all named by TIME’s 2012 SXSW coverage as either festival favorites, “best in class” acts or buzz-worthy bands, to look back on the year that was. All five of them—the rapper Sugar Tongue Slim, Tim Williams of Soft Swells, Joey Ryan of The Milk Carton Kids, Channy Leaneagh of Poliça and Bradley Hanan Carter of NO—say they felt like relatively new bands at SXSW. Since then, however, a lot has happened. The Milk Carton Kids have signed with a label and recorded an album due Mar. 26; Soft Swells has had their music in television commercials and have a new EP due in April; Poliça and Sugar Tongue Slim have both undertaken European tours; NO recorded an album and, Carter estimates, have played about 100 shows.

So listen up, bands. From those who know, here are ten steps to maximize your chances:

(MORETIME’s Complete Coverage of SXSW 2013)

1. Go for the right reasons. It may be too late for this year’s South By bands to use this advice, but just because Austin is home to one of the most buzz-generating music festivals doesn’t mean you have to go. In fact, if you don’t have any new material to promote, it can be a lot of time and money spent on not much return. “South By Southwest is a waste unless you have a new record to promote,” says Tim Williams. “It’s also super expensive if you don’t have a big label funding everything.” Williams’ Soft Swells won’t be making an appearance this year, and neither will Poliça or Sugar Tongue Slim.

2. Take the right team with you. “It helps to have good management or somebody who’s been through it before,” says Channy Leaneagh. “Our manager had also worked with Bon Iver and had been through this before. That’s a huge helping point, not only for getting you out there but also helping guide you.” Leaneagh says that a strong team that’s invested in the music works just as hard as the musicians do, and that it’s difficult for even a great band to do SXSW all alone and still get the right people to their shows.

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3. Or at least leave with the right team. “It takes a lot of people working really hard to move a band’s career forward,” agrees Joey Ryan—who says that there’s another side to the SXSW-support team link: the Milk Carton Kids managed to pick up new team members based on their successful appearance in Austin.

4. Quality is more important than quantity. The popular South By Southwest wisdom says that bands should cram as many shows as they can into the week, to get their music out to the greatest number of listeners. That common-sense attitude can work against a band, according to the Milk Carton Kids’ Ryan, who says that his main advice for other musicians would be to play fewer shows, scheduled as late in the week as possible. “Our philosophy has been that the emphasis on quantity and reach has sacrificed something of quality and scarcity and a certain element of presentation. Last year, we told everyone we had this one show; I’m sure some people couldn’t come and the people who advice playing a million shows would say ‘I told you so,’” he says. But there’s no point playing a show that’s not fantastic, and it’s just not physically possible to play several equally fantastic shows every day. “One really meaningful experience at a show can change somebody’s life. A bad experience at a show is worthless.” Poliça’s Leaneagh agrees, adding that bands should also take it easy as concert-goers: “If you burn yourself down by playing five shows and also seeing five bands, you can lose perspective.”

5. But don’t ignore what’s going on around you. Even though you’re there to promote yourself, don’t forget that SXSW is also an opportunity to see some shows yourself—and to network. You could be the next big thing, but some other guy might get that title instead, and it’ll be a good for you if you are already his or her respected friend and colleague. “Art and music is not a competition,” says Tim Williams. And you don’t have to stick within your own genre. “There’s so much culture going on at one time that if you go down there with a closed mind you’ll miss out,” says Sugar Tongue Slim. “You never know who’s that next person.”

6. Know what you’re selling. No, not just your new album, though that’s good too. You’re selling yourself to people who have never heard of you, so you need to be able to sum up your sound effectively, especially if you’re talking to members of the press. “I have an idea of what people want to know about who’s making the music,” says Leaneagh. Williams agrees: “It’s important to know who you are before you present yourself to a big festival.”

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7. Use the Internet to your advantage, Part 1. The audience at South By goes beyond the masses in Austin, and even those who make it to the festival may not be able to make it to your concerts. “It’s hard to get all those different people to see one show, so it makes sense to stream things,” says Sugar Tongue Slim, who was part of last year’s live-streamed NPR showcase, one of the festival’s biggest buzz-generators, along with a live-streamed 50 Cent gig. But even bands who aren’t on high-profile bills should make sure potential fans can listen live or after the fact.

8. Use the Internet to your advantage, Part 2. Social media is also crucial, says Bradley Hanan Carter of NO. “With a name like NO, it’s not the easiest to find us online,” he admits, “but we like the name.” (For the record, there are several bands called NO, but Carter’s is this one.) Still, the algorithms behind online searches mean that, the more buzz you get, the easier you are to find, so it’s important to get people searching for you to move your name up the list of search results. To that end, Carter advises using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr to reach fans with different online preferences. “You have different relationships with different people,” he says. “You just put out the music and let people find you.”

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9. Don’t stop working after South By ends. One thing everyone agrees on is that good word about a band is like a shark: if it stops moving, it dies. “Once you have a little bit of buzz, you keep working at it,” says Sugar Tongue Slim. “After I did South by Southwest, I probably wasn’t home for at least two months.” Channy Leaneagh agrees, pointing out that the best possible situation is for someone to read about your band, look you up and immediately find a nearby concert date to see you play in person. Which means, says Joey Ryan, that life after a great SXSW showing looks pretty much the same as life before: “We spent another year on the road in a van. It’s a little bit bigger of a van, playing a little bit nicer rooms with a little bit more people in them, but basically we just drive around the country with our two guitars and play music for people,” he says.

10. Remember that it’s only one festival. Don’t get discouraged if your week in Austin doesn’t go the way you’d hoped. “It would be a shame if someone made their whole career plan around one week,” says Tim Williams. “You could have the worst week of shows of your life at South By Southwest and still have an incredible career.” Plus, maybe it went better than you think it did. Bradley Hanan Carter recalls a NO gig at South By last year that, at the time, seemed like a total bust—but turned out to be a major boon. “It doesn’t matter if there’s six people or 600 people in the room,” he says. “Those six people could be really important.”

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