This week, thousands of artists and music industry professionals, many from Nashville, are flocking to Austin for the 27th annual SXSW Music Festival and Conference. In 2012, the renowned multimedia entertainment event brought more than 300,000 people to the Texas capital and $190 million into the local economy, making it the single most profitable hospitality industry event for the city of Austin. After nearly three decades, SXSW has consistently grown each year, now spanning a two-week period with distinct music, film and interactive media components.
But here in Nashville, as we watch the mass exodus of music industry executives and bands, filmmakers and digital whizzes to Austin, the question inevitably rises: Why doesn’t Nashville have a comparable event? One that fuses live music of all genres, film screenings, interactive opportunities, educational panels and networking events?
We certainly have the industry, and with the impending completion of the Music City Center, we should have the necessary logistics to handle the influx of people that such an event would require. In addition to huge music festivals like CMA Fest, Bonnaroo and the ever-growing Live on the Green, we also have a variety of genre-specific music conferences — Americana Music Festival, IEBA, NSAI’s Tin Pan South and the Barbershop Harmony Society convention, to name just a few — that draw industry folks and fans to the city year after year.
With these events stretched out across the calendar, the argument could be made that since they bring a consistent amount of fans, tourists and revenue to the city throughout the year, the focus should be placed on growing existing events rather than launching a new one. Would creating a larger, more comprehensive conference and festival cannibalize these individual ones?
Austin may be known as the Live Music Capital of the World, but we are Music City. Why don’t we have something like SXSW here in Nashville? And should we?
In 1986, both Nashville and Austin had distinct groups of industry professionals conceptualizing a local music festival for their respective markets. In Austin, this was spearheaded by staffers at alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle. In Nashville, the charge was led by the Nashville Entertainment Association.
The NEA, a not-for-profit composed of volunteers with a mission to grow awareness of the rock, pop and urban music scene in Nashville, held their first Music Extravaganza in January 1986. The Music Extravaganza showcased 11 rock bands to 29 A&R representatives and other music industry professionals from New York, Los Angeles and Nashville itself, and drew an overall audience of more than 1,000 attendees.
Steve West, who worked with Cat’s Records and managed local band The Movement, worked with the NEA to launch the inaugural Extravaganza to help Nashville bands and their managers get in front of the right eyes and ears in the industry. “We weren’t just trying to make it a festival, we wanted to showcase Nashville’s best talent to get these bands signed,” West explained. “That was our goal, to get more rock signed out of Nashville. And it worked — there was a high percentage of bands being signed at that time.”
Over in Austin, it took another year to get a plan together. In 1987, the Chronicle staffers held the first “South by Southwest” — a play on the classic Hitchcock title North by Northwest — with the help of a local booking agent. They expected 150 attendees, but drew more than 700. Each subsequent year, the festival experienced substantial growth.
Back in Nashville, the initial Extravaganza consisted solely of showcases featuring local bands, but grew to include an educational component under the eye of attorney Jim Zumwalt by the early ’90s. “Zumwalt and that group expanded it dramatically,” West recalled. “That was the closest we got to something like SXSW. We had panels during the day and then shows at night. The big version, it seemed like it only went two or three more years, and then interest was lost on it.”
West, who owns Go West Presents now, explained that several factors led to the end of the Extravaganza in the mid-’90s: More A&R reps were regularly visiting and working in Nashville; the event had grown past it’s original local focus; and the NEA was strapped for resources. “We were running it as volunteers; it wasn’t a paid organization like SXSW,” West said. “And with all the publishing and record labels here in town, you weren’t necessarily needing a festival to get a chance to talk to them or hear their opinion. You could actually connect with them locally.”
This may have been the case in Nashville, but in Austin, SXSW was rapidly expanding to include acts from all over the country and eventually the world. In 1994, the conference added a film and multimedia portion, providing an early forum to explore alternate forms of media that would soon flood the market. In 1999, the multimedia portion was renamed SXSW Interactive, as it is still known. Last year, the SXSW Interactive conference — which runs the week before the music and film conferences — spurred the largest increases in attendance to the overall event.
While the growth of the interactive portion of the event is outpacing the music side, thousands of attendees from record labels, publishing houses, management firms, booking agencies and — of course — musicians still consider SXSW an essential stop each year.
Since 1986, Nashville has seen the rise and fall of many music events and series, but there is no shortage of successful long-running conferences and festivals within our city limits. What sets us apart from SXSW is that each of these events serves a distinct genre or area of the industry and a unique audience.
While Bonnaroo and CMA Music Fest don’t include an educational component with panels and workshops for industry professionals, their draw for music fans has had a huge economic impact on Tennessee and, particularly in the case of Bonnaroo, broadened the outside perception of Nashville.
When the locally headquartered nonprofit Americana Music Association held their first conference in 2002, it was a small event of mainly industry attendees rather than fans. “I think there were fewer than 250 people at the first one; it was very grassroots,” explained Jed Hilly, executive director of the AMA. Like SXSW, the event grew to showcase more live music and industry panels. According to Hilly, the reason the AMA survived the recession and all the problems that have beset the music industry is due to their revamped mission to serve the Americana genre by bringing fans to the music, rather than bringing the music to the industry.
“In 2007, we changed the name of the event from the Americana Music Conference to the Americana Music Festival and Conference,” Hilly said, explaining that the organization expanded the length of the festival and the number of showcasing bands and artists. Accordingly, attendance grew every year except during the recession, when it flatlined. In 2012, the event drew more than 18,000 people and more than 100 showcasing acts.
“When we opened the door in 2007 to the concept that it was a music festival, we effectively welcomed the general public who loves this kind of music,” Hilly said. The move was also strategic. “In 2007, we were an industry organization. And anyone with half a brain can see what’s been happening to the industry over the past decade: It’s been shrinking. Being a small organization without a ton of bureaucracy, we were able to make the shift because we didn’t have the constraints of a larger music company.
“It just made sense in the climate of the declining music industry, to open our doors to become more of an advocate of the artist who drives the business than the business to sell the artist.” Hilly explained that the organization’s move to market to fans of the Americana genre rather than cater to the whims of the industry may have saved the nonprofit from closing its doors during the down economy. “Had we not engaged the music-loving fan from 2007 to 2009, I don’t know if this organization would have survived the recession. A lot of not-for-profits went under. It was the passion of the fans and the members of the Americana community that willed our organization to survive.”
And, ironically, this move fostered growth within the industry sector as well as the AMA’s fanbase. “What’s awesome is that we’re seeing our music business participation increase significantly,” said Hilly, who added that festival and conference registrations have increased 40 percent over the past five years. Despite consistent post-recession growth, Hilly recognizes that the audience and growth potential for the organization is not an apples-to-apples comparison to SXSW’s behemoth, multi-genre event.
“The structure of our festival and conference is virtually identical to the structure of SXSW,” he remarked. “SXSW is what it is, and it’s massive and corporate-dominated. Where we are different is that we intentionally are a small niche marketplace with Americana-loving folks. It is not our intention to be SXSW, but we were certainly inspired by the structure of the organization and the greatness of the event. But our scale and our goals are different.”
Not all smaller niche-market events have experienced the AMA’s thoughtful, steady growth. On the flip side of the coin lies SoundLand, formerly known as Next Big Nashville, which was poised to be one of the biggest live music and industry events of late 2012. But it never happened.
Jason Moon Wilkins may be best known in town as the man who launched Next Big Nashville, later known as SoundLand, but his experience in music conferences and festivals extends back to the early ’90s. In addition to sitting on boards and committees for Tin Pan South and Summer Lights, he helped out with NEA’s Extravaganza in the early ’90s.
When Wilkins launched Next Big Nashville in 2006, it was a festival with 33 showcasing acts. He added the conference element in 2007 with the addition of panels and networking opportunities, and in 2010 combined resources with local industry nonprofit Leadership Music’s annual Digital Summit, bringing a tech-focused interactive component to his event. In 2011, he rebranded as SoundLand, opening
festival slots to bands outside of Nashville and big name acts like Foster the People and M. Ward. For 2012, Wilkins had even bigger plans.
“Our plan last year was out on the thermal site, the lawn at Riverfront Park, and was originally slated as a two-day event,” Wilkins explained. “Then it got bumped down to one, and then obviously we had to cancel. We also had showcases lined up at Mercy, Cannery and High Watt, and we were going to have those as a component of the event, but the shift and our primary focus was to build this big outdoor event. We would still have some conference elements, but they would be smaller.”
Wilkins said the move to decrease the conference side of SoundLand was because of the same issue Hilly noted: the ever-shrinking music industry. “Your total audience of potential people has shrunk considerably since 2007, and that’s why we started moving away from that as a model,” he said. “It’s important to have as a component since [the industry] is in our backyard, but after a while, you can’t force something that’s not going to happen.”
For the larger outdoor event, Wilkins’ 2012 lineup included headliners My Morning Jacket, Young the Giant and Divine Fits among popular local acts like Nikki Lane and PUJOL, with tickets starting at a reasonable $45. So what went wrong?
“I’ve been involved in so many events over the years, so if there is a question as to why it hasn’t succeeded, I think I may have the answer,” Wilkins said. “But that’s what’s weird — the more I’ve learned, the more I
realize what a multilayered beast it is.”
Wilkins said one of the biggest contributing factors to the demise of SoundLand was an oversaturated concert calendar in the weeks surrounding the event, which was supposed to occur the first weekend in October 2012. Within a 10-day window of SoundLand, a sampling of competing shows — and radius clauses — included Gotye, the Shins, David Byrne and St. Vincent, and Grimes. Also, potential SoundLand ticket buyers had options with new events like With Your Friends Fest and Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Music & Food Festival.
“All of those things together hurt everybody,” Wilkins said. “None of the events sold out or did as well as anyone hoped that they would. This is strictly my opinion, but we hit a ceiling in the marketplace. There’s only so many dollars to go around, so maybe one of our fans only had $45 to spend, and they spent it on the Gotye show.”
The reality of the current state of Nashville’s live concert market is a huge factor, according to Wilkins. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that as much as we are proud of ourselves and think of ourselves as a big-time city, we have far more in common with Indianapolis than we do with Atlanta or Chicago,” he said. “There probably needs to be a few less things in the calendar to make sure that the ones that are there are impactful. I’d certainly rather see things like the Americana event — because they’ve done such a good job — get bigger than other events coming around.”
Wilkins also believes the growth of large music festivals like Bonnaroo or Coachella has hurt attendance at industry conferences nationwide. “There’s a lot of business that gets done at [major music festivals] because all the agents, managers labels, publishers and media are going to be there,” he remarked. If entertainment industry professionals are going to attend a conference, the choice is obvious. “If you can only go to one thing, you’re going to SXSW,” he said.
In addition to a shrinking industry, a crowded calendar and the proliferation of festivals as factors that led to SoundLand’s 2012 cancellation, Wilkins points the finger back at Nashville itself. “I hate to use the word ‘apathy’ when it comes to this, and I don’t want to sound bitter, but I am shocked at how little buy we got from our very own music industry,” he said, noting that the 2010 event in conjunction with Leadership Music was profitable, yet not to the extent he expected. “If the people in your own backyard are not supportive of what you do, that hurts you a lot, credibility wise.”
With the continued growth of smaller niche events like Americana and the seemingly untouchable, massive live music events like Bonnaroo or CMA Fest, does Nashville even need an all encompassing, multi-genre festival and conference? Combining existing events would be futile; some operate as nonprofits while others do not, and each organization serves a distinct mission, genre or community. But does creating a new event from the ground up make sense?
“The reality is that Nashville — as it calls itself Music City — surely has everything within the music business,” Hilly said. “We employ something like three times the number of music industry-related folks compared to New York or Los Angeles. But to be truthful, I think to ask the question, ‘Why doesn’t Nashville have SXSW?’ almost sounds like there’s a chip on somebody’s shoulder. Nashville doesn’t need a SXSW. Nashville, year round, has all of those components. It may not have a $100 million-direct-impact festival over the course of a couple of weeks, but I really feel like we have amazing events, and we don’t need to be aspiring to have a SXSW.”
Wilkins isn’t sure a new multi-genre conference and festival could grow from the ground up in the digital age, noting that “slow growth is not the modern way,” and that Austin had — and still has — several advantages over Nashville. “There are some crucial key components as to why SXSW exists in Austin and literally nowhere else in the world,” he said.
Wilkins notes that SXSW was able to experience organic growth partly due to the initial and ongoing relationship between the event and the Chronicle, providing free marketing opportunities. “[SXSW] was started by the alternative weekly there back before the Web was a huge presence, so they had a bully pulpit to promote their event throughout the year,” he explained. “And with advertising, they did not have to buy. Events usually have a media partnership like that, where the alternative weekly is an invested partner in the event. That didn’t happen here. If you start your event off with zero marketing costs, that’s a big deal.”
Additionally, the layout of the city of Austin is conducive for large crowds to easily walk between venues. On Sixth Avenue, the heart of the SXSW music festival, attendees can walk or take a short cab ride to most participating venues and the Austin Convention Center.
“One of the challenges that we face is that our best venues are spread throughout town,” Wilkins said. “We don’t have a city that’s conducive to walking in general. That hurts these types of events, because they’re based around low production costs at existing venues and the ability for people to flow around those venues.” And while downtown Nashville has a high concentration of venues within walking distance, they’re not ideal hosts to outside events. “We did some stuff with the honky-tonks a couple of years ago, but there’s no incentive for them to be involved in any event, because they’re going to make money every night of the week.”
While Wilkins, who is currently working with Red Bull’s Sound Select artist development program, states that he doesn’t believe launching a SXSW-level event in Nashville may not be feasible — or even possible — the reality is, it’s not likely to happen anywhere. Alternately, he believes a multi-genre event that doesn’t attempt to mirror SXSW in stature and ambition could be possible if certain hurdles could be cleared. “We’ve got some ideas, but I want to make sure that we make sure we don’t repeat mistakes,” he admits.
“Facilities have always been a problem,” Wilkins said. “Our current convention center sucks, and everyone knows that. So when the new one opens, it will be a new day.” Wilkins said new venues and businesses would need to grow around — and within walking distance — of the Music City Center. “If I could wave a magic wand tomorrow and put the Exit/In, Mercy Lounge and everything within walking distance, I would, because I think it would benefit all of them, and it would benefit our city. But that’s not going to happen.
“I don’t think anyone else is going to have another SXSW, really,” Wilkins said. “There may be something else that grows and becomes something really cool in our town, but I don’t think it’s going to mirror that type of event. I really think that was a confluence of unique timing, unique opportunities and a unique city. We are years away from ever having that kind of confluence happening in our backyard.”
Even one of Nashville’s loudest cheerleaders, Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, places priority on nurturing what’s already here before creating a Nashville version of SXSW. “Our first responsibility should be to grow and strengthen the existing events,” Spyridon said. “They’re spread out throughout the year, and have shown that they have significant legs and can be of great value. Having said that, if we have the right venue — and I think that’s as much of a challenge for us — yes, we should look at maybe an ultimate multi-genre national showcase.”
But in addition to the various obstacles, there is one underlying factor that is the elephant in the room preventing a convergence of genres into one massive festival and conference. And it’s an elephant that most bands touring through Nashville have experienced to some extent. If, as Wilkins stated, the music industry here is guilty of a certain level of apathy, the music fans are, too.
“The people who chirped from the sidelines, who never actually stepped up,” Wilkins said, placing some blame on to the people who grumble from the peanut galleries and comment sections on websites, but don’t actually purchase tickets to area music events. “Jed or me or the guys at Tin Pan can go through their logs and see if that person bought any tickets to any of our events. Buy a ticket, support what’s out there, or shut the hell up.”
• 2013 marks the 27th year
• SXSW 2012 injected $190.3 million into the Austin economy
• In 2012, registrants increased 15% over 2011
• Record-breaking attendance, with 147,000 overall conference and festival attendees; SXSW Interactive was the single largest contributor to increases in attendance in 2012, with a 250% gain over 2011
• SXSW is the single most profitable hospitality event for the city of Austin
• Nearly 11,000 individual hotel registrations totaling 50,000+ room nights (2012)
• Nine days of industry conferences, four-day trade show, four-day music gear expo, six-night music festival, nine-day film festival (2012)
• 2,200 artists on more than 100 stages (2012)
• 425 film screenings in 11 theaters (2012)