The South by Southwest music festival and conference is a whirlwind of hundreds of live concerts throughout the city of Austin, TX. As such, it’s a place where everything’s possible for musicians wishing to export their music. So, once again, to help its members maximize their impact in this chaotic environment, SOCAN participated in this year’s edition.
This music component lasted from March 15-20, 2016, and more than 100 SOCAN members were invited to perform, making the organization’s presence all the more crucial.
As an A&R Executive at SOCAN, Guillaume Moffet’s role is to make the most of the performing rights organization’s contacts to benefit its members – which is why he lined up meeting after meeting during the event. “It’s become obvious, in 2016, that the music business is all about contacts and relationships,” he says. “Especially with the quantity of music on offer from everywhere around the world. There’s a lot of business being done, and impromptu meetings over a cold beer going on, at SXSW. That all contributes to making things happen – maybe not next month, but six, or twelve months down the road.”
“You never know how things are going to go at SXSW,” says singer-songwriter Basia Bulat, who was back at the festival this year. “We all have expectations, but there is rarely any kind of immediate impact. But then, when you least expect it, you get a call to play in some other festival.”
SXSW is a particularly interesting showcase of Canadian artists, according to Rodney Murphy, manager of A&R for SOCAN. He reminds us that “it is the international festival with the most Canadian presence. Obviously, it ends up feeling like an immense competition. Our role is to present our members to the right people at the right time.”
That’s why, for an eleventh consecutive year, the traditional Canadian Blast BBQ attracted bookers, producers and music lovers from around the world – thanks to its high-flying and varied programming, assembled by the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) and sponsored by SOCAN. Among the artists who performed on that occasion were Montréal electro-pop duo Milk & Bone, Ontario rockers Arkells, Manitoba hip-hop group The Lytics and folk-rocker Terra Lightfoot, also from Ontario.
It was Lightfoot’s first-ever trip to SXSW and she also took part in three other showcases, chief among which was a memorable one at the must-attend Canada House, held at the popular haunt Friend’s, on the even more popular 6th Street. “We came down here hoping to find an agent for an eventual U.S. tour,” says the Hamilton-born singer. “SXSW is a must for any Canadian artist hoping to make it in the U.S.”
As for Milk & Bone, it was their second year in a row at the festival, and they, too, are motivated by making it south of the border. In a sure sign that things are looking up, they noticed a lot more enthusiasm for their sounds during the Canadian Blast BBQ and their other showcases, especially the infamous Poutine Party presented by M for Montréal.
Says Camille Poliquin of Milk & Bone, “We got a much warmer welcome compared to last year. We met a ton of people to try and sell our show internationally. The promoter of a festival we hope to play seems to have really liked us. We spoke with him and we just clicked. That’s the type of meeting you need to create and tighten bonds.”
In Milk & Bone’s case, being at SXSW allowed them, among other things, to put a face to the other parties in relationships that they’d been nurturing online for months. This opportunity is great for the duo’s support team, if only because it allows them to line up meetings with producers and bookers. “Being at SXSW allows you to make things happen because it is, above all, a rallying point,” says Guillaume Moffet.
Creating a Buzz
As it turns out, the festival can benefit all artists, not just emerging ones. “Artists generally come to SXSW to be discovered. Otherwise, they come to get exposure and create a buzz that will get their careers going,” says SOCAN Chief Membership & Business Development Officer, Michael McCarty. “It’s always a good idea to come and meet the industry’s movers and shakers.”
That’s exactly what Ontario roots-pop band The Strumbellas did while they were at SXSW — where they were presented with a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for their song “Spirits.” Already well supported by their Canadian label Six Shooter and the prestigious Glassnote Records in the U.S. (the label behind Mumford & Sons and Phoenix, among others), it was the sextet’s first time at the festival.
“It was a fabulous experience. We played to completely crazy crowds,” says the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Simon Ward, clearly exhausted after performing 12 times in 4 days. “We didn’t set specific goals in coming here. We just wanted to play here for its own sake. It is one of the biggest festivals in the world, so yeah, obviously, we made new fans and met important people.”
It’s with the same attitude that Arkells returned to Austin this year. Already well established in Canada – the three JUNO Awards they received in 2015 is proof of that – the band decided to extend their U.S. tour with a few shows in Austin, even though they aren’t looking to achieve anything specific. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to play in front of people from all around the world,” says lead singer and songwriter Max Kerman. “At SXSW, you never know what might one day change the course of your career. It might be a showcase in front of only 10 people!”
And in all cases, SOCAN plays a crucial role in helping its members make it internationally. Milk & Bone has been supported by the organization since day one. “They were the first to believe in our project,” says the duo’s Camille Poliquin, reminiscing on their stay at L.A.’s SOCAN House last year. “They’re people we can count on, who watch over our rights and who introduce us to the right people.”
The Unavoidable Decline of the Francophone Offer
Helping a band like Milk & Bone export itself is an obvious choice for Guillaume Moffet, because their potential to make it internationally is obvious. As a matter of fact, bookers attending SXSW are mostly looking for “export ready” acts. “Artists that stand out often have a team behind them,” says Moffet. “A team that can secure an American booker and PR person who, in turn, will do anything to get them out there. But if your music’s good and your team is incompetent, you will get nowhere.”
The language issue is also an unavoidable factor. Franco-Canadian bands didn’t get much exposure this year, contrary to the past, because of the void left by the defunct Planète Québec initiative. “It’s harder to get a return on investment with those artists,” says Moffet. “It makes more sense to concentrate our efforts on European music conventions, since the most important breakthroughs of Francophone artists are mainly in France.”
Having made quite an impression during the last CMJ Music Marathon, Chocolat was one of only two Francophone bands programmed at SXSW 2016. The Montréal-based band played several shows, and made quite an impression, thanks to their high-energy, American-influenced rock sound.
“It went really well,” says guitarist Emmanuel Éthier. “It even reconciled me with the idea of a showcase. I came here with other bands before, but it was all for naught.”
But above all else, all the musicians we talked to say they loved the experience because it allowed them to meet other high-calibre musicians. “It’s not just about business. It’s also about discovering a scene and feeling like you are part of it, if only for the duration of a festival,” says Chocolat keyboardist Christophe Lamarche.
In other words, there are as many reasons to come to SXSW as there are Canadian artists attending the festival year after year.
Still, 2016 was quite a memorable one for the Canadian delegation. “It’s a lot more interesting for Canadian artists here than it was five years ago,” says Moffet. “Right now, Canadian music has a good buzz going for it, especially because of the massive success of The Weeknd, Drake, Alessia Cara and Justin Bieber. For many people, it’s become cool to be Canadian. We need to take advantage of that while it lasts.”