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SXSW Thu Mar 20 2014
This was music industry veteran Martin Atkins' advice for bands at this year's South By Southwest music festival in Austin, TX: "You're fucked, nobody cares, everybody's doing it."
When you're in the thick of 6th Street in downtown, deep in the shit, you can see what he means. Live music blares from every bar and restaurant on the strip. Elsewhere in the city, houses, thrift shops, and churches turn into music venues.
People stumble between them like it's St. Patrick's Day -- which was celebrated on the Saturday of the festival, not that anyone noticed.
Finding yourself among this Great Migration of bands and music fans, you have two options: go with the flow or be swept away.
"It's kind of like riding the mechanical bull," mused Archie Powell of Archie Powell & the Exports. "The object is not to not fall off, it's to hold on as long as possible -- and if you're going to fall off, try to do it gracefully."
I caught up with Powell outside of the unfurnished apartment where he and the Exports were staying. Full disclosure: I'm roommates with the band so finding them wasn't difficult. I even joined them on the floor of the "fart coffin" of a room where they were staying for a couple nights.
If you ask Powell, no one really gets discovered at SXSW anymore.
"The South By legend and brand still loom very large, so a lot of people, especially if they haven't been here yet kind of feitishize it." he said. "They think it's the big ticket, when really it's a big party if anything."
Atkins, who has decades of experience as a drummer with Public Image Ltd, Pigface and others, is also working on a book full of tips for new bands. He thinks anyone trying to play a secret set under an overpass so their band can "get discovered" probably got some bad advice down the line.
"Bands helped by shitty managers, shitty labels, and shitty agents, are pursuing a goal that's unrealistic and rooted in the late '80s," Atkins said.
So, what to do? Limit your expectations, head down to Austin, start with a beermosa in the morning, and move on from there.
And there are opportunities to be found among the chaos. The bands I spoke to at SXSW seemed less expectant of a rocket-like rise to the top than the chance to play to a dozen people instead of a few wayward drunks at the bar the next time they go on tour. For some bands, that means cramming in a dozen shows over just a few days.
"These days I feel it's the long con for a lot of people," Powell said. "It can be ten years of grinding it out before anyone hears of you."
One of the biggest prizes of SXSW is being chosen for an official showcase. Archie Powell & the Exports played their first one this year, taking part in the Chicago Made show organized by the City.
In addition to being paid gigs, showcases give the bands access to perks like free food and booze, and wristbands allowing them to skip some of the fest's epic lines.
Still, the City's very presence emphasizes one factor that's undeniable for any band: there's an insane amount of competition there.
"It's not just band versus band anymore, it's city versus city, it's country versus country. You're competing with everyone." Atkins said.
This includes some of the largest acts in the country, too. Lady Gaga was one of the most-popular tickets of the festival. Coldplay and Imagine Dragons played a VIP show sponsored by iTunes. And at one point while searching for a bathroom I stumbled into a secret performance by Green Day (as the Foxboro Hot Tubs).
Despite it all, Powell and Atkins agree that SXSW is worth the trip.
"If you have the opportunity you should take it," Powell said. "Because when people come and see you that's how they really fall for you."