Artists Guide to SXSW

What do you need to know to plan a successful SXSW trip? When the band Waylayers returned from a triumphant series of shows at SXSW, Fuse TV said they “dominated SXSW with their incendiary performances”, listing their show as the 5th Greatest Moment of SXSW 2014, just behind Lady Gaga’s now infamous set! This helped to propel their single ‘Medicine’ to the top of the iTunes US Electronic Chart and into the hearts of new fans, and major labels across America. School of Music Business founder and Waylayers’ manager Matt Errington, from Merrington Music Management, has written a brilliant insider’s guide to SXSW for UK artists.



It takes a lot of work to be lucky

As a manager, I’ve never really enjoyed touring. I’ve always found the pre-departure work stressful, and the on-the-road time hugely isolating. However, there is no more fundamental aspect of what we do; touring is king. Cover as much ground as possible, and reach as many people as you can. Let’s be honest, without live shows, life is merely a string of dates by which bills need to be paid.

For one of my artists this year, SXSW was added to their touring schedule for the first time. The experience of taking Waylayers to Austin, Texas for SXSW proved a hugely memorable and professionally invaluable experience. Sadly, for many bands, SXSW will not provide everything they crave, and they will leave disappointed – and it’s not always solely down to luck, it’s about the huge amounts of hard work, prior, during and immediately after the festival - from the band themselves, their management and the entire team.

It takes a lot of work to be lucky.

Deals are done backstage

You can meet more people (press, labels, publishers, music supervisors, artists, pluggers, presenters…) in two weeks at SXSW than you can in a year from your London office, and I’ve always believed that more deals are done backstage at a show, than by telephone. Once you have applied to SXSW (via Sonicbids) and been accepted, you’ve jumped the first hurdle, and now you need to get to work!

When opportunity and preparation meet, you should be leaving America with some real achievements and hopefully, this brief guide may be able to help in reaching some of those.

Waylayers at SXSW

US Visas

The cost of SXSW and the visa application process is often prohibitive to British bands making their way across the Atlantic. A lot of work needs to be done by relevant bodies to make the process as easy for British bands performing and touring in the US, as it currently is for US bands to operate in the UK.

The general rule is that if you are performing at just the Official SXSW Showcase, and have no other unofficial shows or parties booked, then you can enter the US on the Visa Waiver Program – saving a huge amount of time, stress and thousands of pounds of legal costs. You will go through immigration, explaining you are there for SXSW, are performing just the official showcase, not receiving payment or selling merchandise… and with a little charm and a good wind behind you, they will grant entry. If you are planning to perform at any other shows, even as part of SXSW, that are not the Official Showcase, then you must obtain a work visa and go through the rather lengthy and costly process in doing so.

Raising Money

Start raising money for the trip as soon as you receive confirmation you have been accepted. I would average about £6000 for a band of four to cover all bases. Don’t rely on bodies like PRS for funding – in my experience their selection process can be incredibly arduous and their choices of who gets funding bizarre and extremely limited in scope – something else PRS need to address urgently, in my personal opinion.


Try to organize as much backline as you can to be provided by the venues – and triple check what is provided before you leave! Most venues will provide a bass amp, guitar amp and basic drum kit… so you will need to travel with everything else. Remember to bring power adaptors! Should you need to hire equipment during the festival then be careful. There are some companies that will charge hugely inflated prices for everything from a drum stick to a PA and will often not take calls during the festival at all. The only company I can fully endorse are Soundcheck Austin who we were able to hire equipment from easily, cheaply and on the day we needed it.


Most transatlantic carriers are helpful in allowing bands to take their guitars, stands and so forth for little or no extra cost – but check with your airline. I’d also suggest looking at flight options. A direct flight from London to Austin was nearly £1200 per person, whereas a flight from London to Austin via Philadelphia was less than half that cost – though you do then have to spend some time in Philadelphia. I’ve said many hugely insulting things about that city, and I meant every one. It’s a rough place. Even their political system is a contact sport.

Public transport / Cars

Public Transport – forget it. Hire a car! It’s cheap and it’s simple. A band hiring a vehicle in the UK for touring purposes is a bureaucratic nightmare, requiring both parts of a driving license, your passport, a deposit, a reference, insurance and a lock of your mothers’ hair. In the US, it’s cheap, quick and you can drop and collect the vehicle at any time of the day or night from the airport. The cost for a large car is around £25 per day. There are two big taxi firms in Austin, and neither seem to operate very well, and you can wait for hours during SXSW for one. If you are relying on them to get to shows then you’re going to be running into a lot of cancellations. Calling a cab in Texas is like calling a Rabbi in Iraq.

Accommodation and food

Book accommodation well in advance – months in advance if possible. If your budget is looking tight, SXSW operate a free home-stay option for artists. People host artists for free, and in exchange SXSW give them free passes to the full festival programme. This can save a band a colossal amount of money and can be a great way to get insider guides on the best places to eat, drink and visit during your stay.

You can also live relatively cheaply whilst in Austin. Many parties will have free drinks, and free food is plentiful, with every brand imaginable desperately looking to gain traction with the SXSW elite.


Bands should be rehearsing weeks in advance of SXSW. They should be confident that the shows they deliver to their Austin audiences are the pinnacle of what they can do creatively. For the two weeks of SXSW you could be performing in front of the head of any major label without pre-warning or acknowledgement. Press will not necessarily let you know if they are coming to see you – but a good review from national press, TV or radio could make a huge difference to you once you’ve returned and you’re starting to follow up with new contacts you’ve made. The music industry like reassurance – they like to know that someone else of influence loved the set, often before they confirm their own feelings! Seemingly, no-one likes to be the first to break rank. Think about the set, the length, its pace, the structure of the performance, the choreography, the staging, the lighting… no detail is too small to escape attention.

Elevator pitch and PR

It’s not only your show you should be thinking about. A lot of business will take place in bars, at events and even on the street through casual encounters. I would go as far as to recommend preparing what you are going to say when people ask ‘what kind of music do you play’ etc. Think of a quick 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ to describe and sell your band, and to intrigue them enough to attend a show.

Have business cards created with the details of your band’s management, agents and lawyer on them – and include the time and place of your official SXSW showcase, so as many can be given out as possible in advance of the performance! If you can afford to, enlist a US based PR agency for a month before and during your time in Texas. Think about how your release schedule can work in sync with your SXSW schedule – can you put out a US single a few weeks before you depart? This kind of US focus, centred around the SXSW fortnight, can make a pivotal difference to who attends your official show and the results you reap.

Meeting people - better to die of exhaustion than failure

Better to die of exhaustion, than failure. Throw yourself into the experience and attend shows, parties, talks, events – meet as many people as you can. Getting to know people that can ultimately change your career for the better, is more than just passing them a business card and hoping for the best. Develop professional relationships as much as possible, as once you’ve met someone face to face, the email they receive when you return to London is going to be of a much higher priority to them, than it was two weeks earlier from a faceless chancer. And don’t forget that follow-up email or call – nurture relationships, rather than letting them die in Austin when you’ve left.

Performing and bookings

Perform as many shows as you can do without jeopardizing the standard of any – and of course whilst staying within the confines of your visa restrictions should you have any! Stay behind after your set, and meet people that came to see you, rather than rushing away to the next party, or worse still, back to your hotel.

If you don’t have a US agent when you apply for SXSW try to get one as a matter of urgency. They may be able to secure more shows, both official and unofficial and other events. Mix it up… we did a few shows, an official SXSW showcase and even an acoustic set for Sofar Sounds Austin in a mansion in the Texan hills. Leave with an experience rather than just a completed itinerary.

Waylayers at Sofar Sounds Austin by Joanna Jurgens

Bars and venues

Sixth Street, Red River Street and Rainey Street seem to be the focal points of the music showcases. Sixth Street is notoriously ‘hit and miss’. There are some horrendous bars and venues on this street. It’s like Camden with added NRA rallies - the kind of bars that local bands pass a hat around, and the hat comes back with a severed head. There are exceptions of course; Maggie May’s is a joyous venue. Rainey Street is the epicentre of the cool, and much more suitable to Official Showcases.

Enjoy it!

Enjoy it! SXSW is the culmination of everything great about the music business. For a few weeks in March, Austin becomes a mecca for the creative and a refuge for the ambitious – embrace it.

Here are some highlights and tips from Waylayers themselves.

Harry - Waylayers Singer

  1. Personal Highlight of SXSW 2014
    Playing our Official Showcase at Icenhauer’s on Rainey Street.
  2. Piece of advice for bands playing SXSW next year
    Singers - take care of your voice! The weather and long travel is notorious for messing with foreigners’ voices. Lots of hot water (on its own) is what’s best.

Joe - Waylayers Guitarist

  1. Personal Highlight of SXSW 2014
    Personal highlight of mine was seeing Capital Cities at the iTunes Festival. Thanks to Jay from iTunes US for the invite!
  2. Piece of advice for bands playing SXSW next year
    Practise your turnaround time, SXSW is manic. You’re only going to get 10 minutes at most, so the quicker you turnaround, the more time you’ll have to gather your thoughts before your show.

Dave - Waylayers Bassist

  1. Personal Highlight of SXSW 2014
    Unexpectedly catching Gardens and Villa at The Swan Dive on Red River Street.
  2. Piece of advice for bands playing SXSW next year
    Grab as much free stuff as you can. And don’t leave it till the morning of your show to make sure your equipment works on US power.