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There were few SXSW badges in sight as a crowd filled in Austin’s West Campus mainstay Hole in the Wall bar on March 14, one night after a car collided into the venue. For this showcase, one of countless during the annual festival week, pay for the eight billed artists was top of mind.
“There’s a lot of money flying around this place — and they’re not paying artists,” said Joey DeFrancesco, an organizer with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) who performs as La Neve, in the kick off to the event, named “Fair Pay at SXSW.”
The event marked the latest demonstration for UMAW, the group of activists that have protested Spotify’s royalty rates for artists (“Justice at Spotify”) as well as highlighted antitrust concerns over Live Nation and Ticketmaster’s hold on the events industry. On Feb. 7, a little over a month before SXSW’s start date, UMAW published a petition of asks to festival organizers. Those included raising pay from “$250 to at least $750 for all performers,” as well as giving artists a wristband so that they can attend events. (Currently, SXSW asks artists to choose between $250 or a wristband.)
At the Hole in the Wall showcase, UMAW enlisted a local politician, Austin city council member Zohaib “Zo” Qadri — who represents District 9, where the venue is located — as a partner. “SXSW is ingrained into the fabric of what Austin is. It’s a festival that brings tens of thousands of people together, both within the city and throughout this country and throughout the world,” Qadri told The Hollywood Reporter. “While we’ve seen an increase in the cost of applications, we haven’t seen that same increase in what these musicians are compensated. Right now, it’s either $250 or a badge. All the musicians are asking for is $750. For a festival that generates so much money, whether it’s $750 or another number, my hope is that they can come together with the union folks and get something that’s doing right by them.”
The council member said he has not been in touch with SXSW about UMAW’s ask on artist pay, but is seeking a solution. A source close to SXSW organizers said that they hadn’t heard directly from UMAW or Qadri and its plan to review policy is still in place for after the festival. (To note, Penske Media, the owner of THR, invested in SXSW in April 2021 as part of what it called a long-term partnership.) In a February statement, a SXSW rep wrote that the festival “appreciate[s] the feedback from the UMAW” but would look at its policy once its events conclude for 2023.
Marshall Moran, a New York-based UMAW organizer who traveled to Austin, said that the group hasn’t yet heard from SXSW officials after it released its list. But, for the “Fair Pay at SXSW” showcase, the group settled on paying $750 to the artists on its bill that evening, including to the band Ratboys, indie rockers Enumclaw, singer-songwriter Sabrina Song and more artists.
As for how UMAW settled on the $750 figure, both for its event and for its ask to SXSW, Moran noted that what factored in was time spent for a typical band playing on stage. “We’re trying to account for the basic costs of getting to SXSW,” the UMAW organizer said. “Quite honestly, a lot of what we’re looking at is just the break even.”
While exposure has been the name of the game for bands playing SXSW, sentiment among artists has also turned to the realities of paying for the logistics of transporting gear, lodging and gas money. “It’s pretty clear to see that a band of four people, five people, splitting $750 seems already low,” UMAW organizer Moran noted. “But it is at least a fair rate for the time spent playing music on the stage. It’s a rate that’s more close to a living wage. And it more closely matches what artists are valued at for what they’re bringing in to the festival.”
In 2022, some 1,504 artists performed official SXSW shows, which tallied 134,537 (online and in-person) attendees to its six-day official music showcase, the festival noted in its own annual report. UMAW’s next action to highlight artist pay will be closer to the center of SXSW panel events, as activists are planning a demonstration at the Austin Convention Center on March 16.
Council member Qadri added: “As much as SXSW is part of the fabric of this city, it’s musicians that have been a part of this city since before SXSW. And if we’re doing wrong by them and losing them, both as residents and entertainers, we’re losing a piece of ourselves.”
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