A couple of days ago I wrote about the love/hate relationship musicians and Austinites have with SXSW, touching on the fact that while the conference has become more commercialized and grown in sponsorships and revenue, it’s still an expensive endeavor for the (unpaid) artists and being plucked out of obscurity and made famous is essentially a pipe dream. But despite this, artists still clamor to get accepted to a showcase.
From the artist’s perspective, the band Ex Cops has an excellent post on their Facebook page about what it’s like be put in a showcase sponsored by McDonald’s — a corporation worth billions — and…not get paid for it. Yep. Not get paid for playing in the McDonald’s showcase.
To be clear, artists typically are not paid for their appearances at SXSW. It’s considered an honor to be selected for a showcase and you’re paid in “exposure”. Artists who get a showcase at SXSW are usually given a 15 minute performance slot (but no sound check, which is kind of a big deal) and for this they have the option of receiving $250 if they’re a band, $100 if they’re a duo/solo, or they can get a wristband instead which lets them into various shows, showcases, workshops, etc. (but only after badge holders). Artists pay for their own transport, lodging and meals. So really, if you’re a musician, you’re doing it more or less for free. And oh yeah – you can’t book any other (paying) non-SXSW shows during the festival, for obvious reasons.
But none of this is hidden in the SXSW contract – this is how the festival is run. You show up and play to people who potentially have the resources to get you more shows, or a record contract, or better exposure, which is why badge holders are let in first, then wristband-wearers, and then the general public, if there’s any space left. So you are primed to be playing for industry people, and not the general music audience.
So, no, McDonald’s absolutely does not have to offer the artists in its showcase any more than they are contractually obligated to do (technically they pay money to SXSW for a showcase, and SXSW pays the artists). But Ex Cops’ open letter brings up the bigger issue of if they should. Because McDonald’s has the funds, should they offer artists anything that could at least make a dent in the costs musicians incur in playing the festival? I’ve heard it described that artists these days don’t play shows to sell albums — owning music is on its way out. Artists make albums in order to sell shows. So to ask artists to come and play for free, essentially, and promise them something intangible in turn…doesn’t sit well.
But honestly, what is most insulting is that McDonald’s didn’t defend this practice by saying, “We’re adhering to the standard SXSW contract”; instead they simply tell artists, “There isn’t a budget for an artist fee (unfortunately).” Which, COME ON. Last year, when Lady Gaga played at the Tostitos showcase, she didn’t do it for free. She did it for $2.5 million. It seems like a corporation like McDonald’s or any of the other sponsors could throw $500 or $600 towards an unknown band to compensate them in the most minimal way. But again, they don’t have to. And bands apply for SXSW with this knowledge and have the choice whether or not to play.
Apparently a spot in a showcase is still a big enough draw to get bands out here, because the festival grows every year. The SXSW compensation agreement is actual indicative of a much larger issue in the creative arts: music (like many activities in the arts) is one of these industries where “exposure” is considered a form of currency. We would never pay a programmer or doctor or mechanic in exposure but a musician? Yeah, it’s totally cool to ask them to do it for free because of the exposure, dude! But again, this is a well-known fact in the arts, so maybe if artists weren’t okay with doing something for free, they should start saying “no” or choose careers where people don’t ask them. And I say this as a writer who has both said “yes” to exposure payment in some cases and “go eff yourself” in other cases. In this case, it seems like a common ground could easily be found where artists are fairly compensated for their performances — both in exposure and perhaps in something else they can pay their rent in— while sponsors (and ALL sponsors, not just McDonald’s) still benefit from the marketing dollars spent in sponsorship and giving a platform to these bands. Without corporate sponsors, there would be no SXSW, but without willing artists, there wouldn’t be either.
I don’t think artists are still coming to SXSW in order to secure a record deal. But there may still be some intrinsic value in the networking and that SXSW notch in your belt.
Check out my SXSW primer here.
Follow Ex Cops‘ Facebook followups and drama here. An open letter to SXSW/McDonald’s is maybe the best publicity move they’ve made!
UPDATE 3/6/15: McDonald’s responded to a Gawker post on this subject, pretty much saying what I said they should say. Damn. I should’ve never left PR.