Rally draws attention to criticism of SXSW artist pay

Friday, March 17, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

Union organizers for musicians took their criticism of South by Southwest’s artist payment practices to the street on Thursday, gathering outside the Austin Convention Center to rally and draw attention to their demand for increased compensation for the hundreds of acts that perform during the festival each spring.

Organized by Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, the demonstration involved about two dozen participants holding “Fair Pay $X$W” signs and shouting call-and-response chants criticizing the festival over its payment terms for artists, who receive either a small stipend $250 total for bands; $100 for solo artists and duos or festival wristbands.

The union is pushing for artist pay to be increased to $750 plus festival wristbands, as well as elimination of application fees for acts seeking a performance slot during the music portion of the festival that draws visitors from all over the world. Also, the union wants SXSW to begin paying international artists, who face significant regulatory hurdles obtaining visas that cover musicians performing in the U.S.

“South by Southwest makes its money off of the backs of musicians like all of us here who have not gotten a raise in 10 years,” union organizer Joey DeFrancesco said while addressing passersby through a megaphone. “It’s an outrageous payment, and any other festival in the country would be laughed at for offering something like that. It’s absolutely absurd that this festival continues to pay so little after so many years.”

The goal of the rally was to deliver a petition with 2,500 musician signatures to festival organizers inside the convention center, though no SXSW representatives were present to engage with the group.

Festival organizers have offered little response to the recent criticisms over artist pay, although they’ve said they plan to review their policies after the event ends on Saturday.

In a statement to the Austin Monitor, a SXSW spokesperson said, “SXSW is honored to host over 1,400 showcasing acts every March. We are committed to creating professional opportunities by bringing emerging artists together with media, the global music industry, and influential audiences. We appreciate the feedback from the UMAW and will be doing our policy review after the event.”

City Council Member Zo Qadri, whose district includes downtown Austin where the festival is focused, used the megaphone during the rally to show his support for increasing artist pay.

“This is a labor of love for the folks here in the music community. It’s so very important to know that your voice is being heard, and the folks at (SXSW) are hearing it,” he said. ”I love what (SXSW) does for this city, and when you love something you expect it to be better and do better …. It’s very important for there to be fair pay from South by Southwest.”

Qadri was also on hand earlier this week for a showcase at Hole in the Wall organized by the union, which made artist pay its focus for the night.

After the rally, Qadri said an expected meeting with SXSW leaders prior to the festival was pushed back due to obligations related to recovery from the February ice storm. He said he hopes to hold the meeting in April to discuss artist payments and other areas of concern for the city.

“There’s a lot of things I want to touch on with (SXSW) as it relates to public safety, or the strife and struggle of the music community, and my hope is to get both parties into a room to have dialogue,” he said. “Whether it’s the $750 that the union is demanding or it’s another number, I want to be part of a process that creates dialogue so both groups are able to get to a fair and equitable number.”

He also said that “it’s important to not make false promises and find out what is feasible but it’s way overdue because artists are making $250 or a wristband instead of the $750 that, in my opinion, is fair.”

Some artists playing SXSW showcases are seeing a bump in pay thanks to the city opting to fund official events that are free and open to the public, including the Auditorium Shores performances and the four nights of showcases at the Sheraton Austin Hotel at the Capitol. Using $30,000 from the budget from the Music and Entertainment Division, the city is paying $200 per hour per musician,  a figure that was recently increased as part of a push to improve artist compensation.

Erica Shamaly, manager of the music office, said the partnership began last year with the city paying Auditorium Shores acts the then-standard $150 per hour. She said the expansion this year is a way to support local music organizations holding showcase events, rather than the music office holding its own showcase as it had in years past.

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This article First appeared in austinmonitor

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