Photo of Duncan Trussell by Morgan Murphy.

SXSW Is a Bum Deal for Performers

Austin Music + Nightlife
by Kate Sedgwick Jan 17, 2012
Comedian Duncan Trussell gets real about SXSW.

One look at the SXSW webpage is enough to make it clear there’s a lot of money changing hands throughout the festival. This late in the game, the cheapest you’ll get in for is $550, and that’s a Film Badge, so forget about Southby interactive, or any of the shows.

If you want a “Gold Badge,” an all access nine-day pass, the cheapest you’ll get it for now is $1,295 — and that price is only going up as the festival draws closer. True, you don’t have to have a badge to get into the shows, but if you don’t have one, you could stand in line for hours and get turned away at the last minute so the paying customers can get in.

Maybe these exorbitant rates are why the festival doesn’t really pay their artists. Their entry is worth more than $1,000, so maybe the rationale is that performers should just shut up and eat the cost themselves for the privilege of their golden tickets. Most of the people you see performing at SXSW aren’t getting paid.

Their transportation costs to Austin aren’t covered, and they might be able to pick some party leavings, but aside from that, their meals aren’t paid for either, never mind getting paid to perform. Places to stay are catch as catch can, too. With sponsors like Miller Lite, Pepsi, Doritos, and Chevrolet pouring money into the festival and ticket prices in the thousands, the reason artists aren’t paid is kind of a mystery.

Elizabeth Derczo, a publicist for the festival says, “Artists performing official SXSW showcases are given either $250 for bands, $100 for solo/duos or they can take the wristband package which gets each member of the band into all of our conference programming including panels, keynote address, one-on-one sessions, clinics, instrument and software workshops, trade shows, artist lounges and the music festival.”

It’s an either-or situation. Pay your own way, or get a fraction of your costs covered by the festival and wander around all weekend hoping there might be enough space in your colleague’s shows that you can slip in with other non-paying spectators.

Bands from other nations may pay thousands for transportation costs, visas, lodging and food, according to artist manager Peter White in a recent Guardian.UK article.

As the number of official bands and performers increases exponentially by the year, the chance of landing that elusive recording contract or getting the attention of a big promoter dwindles and the cost of attending starts to seem prohibitive.

I didn’t know about any of this until I saw a video posted by The Lavender Hour‘s Duncan Trussell (below). Though “comedy” isn’t featured at all on the SXSW webpage, comedians are apparently also invited to perform.

You can see more along these lines on Trussell’s YouTube page.

Sure Hitler is memed the fuck out, but this iteration is worth a look, not just because it’s funny, but also because it’s exposing a truth you don’t hear often enough about SXSW. People tend to drool over the bacchanal of music, art, and tech that is SXSW, but if you’re an artist, the bottom line is that you’re going to have to foot the bill.

I asked Duncan how SXSW stacks up compared to other festivals:

MN: What other festivals have you been to and what were the packages offered to you for those?

DT: I have been to The Vancouver Comedy Festival, and the Montreal Comedy Festival, and both offered compensation. Not a ton, mind you, but enough so that performing at the festival wasn’t a total loss.

MN: What is the deal they offered and how did they spin it?

DT: The deal is no airfare, no pay, and I could crash in the guest rooms of Austin comedians. I would receive a festival pass as payment. During an email exchange with one of the promoters he suggested that I could eat at some of the catered parties that were happening there. So I guess the deal is a pass to the festival, a guest room, and party ham.

MN: Do you know other performers who are excited to go? Do most people seem to think it’s a bad deal, too?

DT: I haven’t spoken with anyone who has been invited this year, but the sentiment among every comedian I have spoken with after the Hitler video has been that SXSW is not fairly compensating comedians, and that paying to go to Austin and perform in a tent is a horrible idea. I’m not sure if you saw them, but I also uploaded videos where I called a chef and a clown and offered them a similar deal and their response was an instant NO.

Trussell calls a chef and offers him the same deal:

MN: I’d be interested to hear any other thoughts you have on this. It seems like a real bum deal.

DT: It’s very simple — artists are the life blood of any festival or event selling tickets to people who want to see artists perform. This creates an obvious hierarchy of importance with the artists being at the very top of the pyramid.

If a festival becomes successful it is because of the artists that perform there. When a festival loses sight of this and places making money at the top of the pyramid then things begin to fall apart because the art gods become angry and hurl lightning bolts of shame down upon the promoters’ heads.

For SXSW one tiny lightning bolt was my Hitler video. Hopefully they will keep coming until the festival sees the light and gets its priorities straight.

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