Countdown to SXSW 2016: Money is the problem¹

Patriotic and chauvinistic appeals for funding are ongoing. Courtesy ASK Promotions
Patriotic and chauvinistic appeals for funding are ongoing. Courtesy ASK Promotions

The countdown is on in earnest for the acts going to the annual SXSW Music Conference in Austin, Texas, and the shrinking timeline has exposed the dire economic predicament for all the bands. The three bands participating on the ASK Promotions-sponsored Trinbago Showcase on the evening of 19 March at Buffalo Billiards in the main 6th Street area of downtown Austin, have yet to raise their required funding to go. At the media conference at COTT offices hosted by ASK, the bands—5 Miles to Midnight, Sidekick Envy and King Inzy & DopeskisDaBand—admitted that they have only raised less than 30% of the required money needed to fund their travel and participation despite a two month lead time.

In 2016, ASK Promotions noted that state support for the artists was not forthcoming as it was in 2015 when it debuted the Trinibago SXSW Showcase, and as such acts that were invited to perform would have to fund their own participation. The bands and entourages ranging from five to nine people inclusive of sound tech and marketing specialists have budgets above the $100,000 mark, and that figure has already proved to be a burden as one band previously announced, Jointpop, has opted out of this ASK-facilitated venture. Reggae singer I-Sasha is now included in the contingent, and he is travelling with one other person.

These six-figure amounts include travel and accommodation, SXSW fees, media and marketing facilitation, technical support, and underwriting the cost of the headliners, soca queen Destra Garcia and Trinidad-born Eurodance hitmaker Haddaway. ASK Promotion CEO Stephen Howard, at the news conference, said that “the recession is preventing public funding” from the various ministries his company has approached—Culture, Trade and Tourism—and that private sector support was not forthcoming. Comparisons were made with other country delegations to SXSW which have state funding support and structures, with the resulting benefits to the economies and careers of those participants. “We need to invest,” was his assertion for the public and private sector.

Members of the contingent for SXSW in Austin, Texas, next month with ASK Promotions CEO Stephen Howard, fourth from left, and ASK chief operating officer Charlene Belfon, right. PHOTO: Cass Stuart. Courtesy T&T Guardian
Members of the contingent for SXSW in Austin, Texas, next month with ASK Promotions CEO Stephen Howard, fourth from left, and ASK chief operating officer Charlene Belfon, right. PHOTO: Cass Stuart. Courtesy T&T Guardian

Three bands indicated that they were registered with the Artists Registry at the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts allowing for tax deductible investment benefits for companies. It was noted that one telecom company that has a major event sponsorship portfolio “does not provide funding for international events.” That reticence by the private sector to invest provided a case study of the refined business model that local acts have to utilise. The potential to raise funds quickly was shown with the anecdote of Los Alumnos De San Juan’s successful aggressive campaign to raise over $100,000 for a trip to the ASK-facilitated WOMEX showcase in 2015 that utilised traditional media and direct appeals to the public. The reported benefits of their experience are still forthcoming.

SIDEBAR: How to get there and is it worth it?

The process for going to the SXSW Trinbago Showcase stage included a local audition at the AMMBCON Expo in August 2015 where six acts were chosen by SXSW Music Fest Programmer / Venues, Todd Puckhaber to receive a “coupon” that allowed them to register in the SXSW database: 5 Miles to Midnight, Sidekick Envy, King Inzy & DopeskisDaBand, Jointpop, Orange Sky and Derron Ellies. Once registered, Puckhaber then later selected four acts to receive an “invitation to perform”, the desired paper.
At this point, eventually, Orange Sky and Ellies opted out of the ASK/SXSW team. Jointpop ultimately had not met its financial obligations to ASK, and as such I-Sasha was given an invitation to join Destra and Haddaway at the six-act, six-hour showcase in Austin for potential career benefits.

The 2015 SXSW Trinbago stage led to a couple positives: Los Alumnos de San Juan were invited to WOMEX in October 2015, which has led to bookings at five festivals in Canada and Europe still being finalised. The Codrington Pan Family also have a pending recording and teaching collaboration with Emily Lemmerman of Barracuda Steel Drums of Austin, Texas.

Howard re-iterated that the SXSW 4-day trip inclusive of the Trinbago Showcase provides ample opportunities for acts to interact with music industry “movers and shakers” in North America. “Acts have to take advantage of connections. The music industry is changing, and one needs to be there to be relevant. Networking is essential.” He noted that his company has sourced music journalist Patricia Meschino, a veteran who writes for Billboard, Rolling Stone and other major publications focusing on Caribbean music, to act as publicist for the T&T contingent. ASK has also done the pre-event legwork of networking with booking agents and label executives via the SXSW online social network available to registered users that “locates the right people for our music” to ensure that they turn up to the Showcase.

ASK COO Charlene Belfon, in a one-on-one interview admitted that the initial contingent was reduced from 44 people to 28 as a couple acts opted out. The financial burden remains the same however as bottom-line costs are unchanged. The company is still in active negotiation with private and parastatal agencies to funding support. When asked about the possibility that the bands being unable to go because they were not able to raise the $100,000 plus figures, she admitted they “have not planned that worst-case scenario as yet, but the option of having a smaller show utilising US-based talent” was offered but not confirmed as yet.

Stephen Howard is confident in the possibilities that can accrue from participation at SXSW. He is also aware of local attitudes towards funding and sponsorship for the music business from both artists and potential sponsors. “Acts have work to do, and that includes marketing preparation and fund-raising. It’s not cheap to showcase internationally,” said Howard. “If acts can’t raise their funds, ASK will decide what to do,” he added cryptically. Successful artist and headliner Destra Garcia also noted her difficulties negotiating with the competitive event sponsorship sector for her Carnival 2016 show that was cancelled.

Checks online by the T&T Guardian notes that many independent and unsigned acts in the US and overseas are using crowd-funding methods as one method to underwrite costs associated with being at SXSW. Targets range from TT$20,000 to $40,000. International showcases clearly are risky and expensive. With less than a month to go before the planned trip to Austin, the continued desire of all acts to go is tangible, and the harsh reality of their current shortcomings has not jaded that desire as yet.

  1. 20160222A version of this article appears in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspapers published as, “Destination: Texas?”

© 2016, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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