Musicians Demand Fair Compensation from SXSW at Convention Center Rally

Fair Pay at SXSW rally on March 16 (photo by John Anderson)

In 2022, South by Southwest generated $280.7 million in economic benefit to Austin.

The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW)’s press materials claim that the annual festival made $270,000 in artist application fees, but only paid showcasing artists out $32,000. Following publication of this article, a representative from SXSW disputed these numbers, writing “While SXSW does not disclose this information, these figures are not correct.”

Now in SXSW’s second post-virtual year, an active one for local unionizing efforts, the national organization is demanding fair pay for artists. Over 2,300 have signed onto UMAW’s demands for better compensation, which launched in early February.

UMAW’s letter takes aim at Penske Media, a 50% owner of SXSW. Penske Media Corp., which handles publishing operations for brands like Rolling Stone, Billboard, Variety, Vibe, and the Hollywood Reporter, acquired a 50% stake in the festival in 2021. The Chronicle’s publisher and owner, Nick Barbaro, is also a founding partner of SXSW.

The demands were delivered to SXSW yesterday, March 16, after a morning rally in front of the Austin Convention Center. District 9 Council Member Zohaib “Zo” Qadri spoke to a group of musicians and supporters gathered on East Cesar Chavez in rainy weather.

“[Playing SXSW] doesn’t put food on the table or pay rent,” Qadri told the crowd. “Musicians are what make this city special … if we’re losing our musicians we’re losing a part of ourselves. It starts with better pay.”

District 9 Council Member Zohaib “Zo” Qadri at Thursday’s rally (photo by John Anderson)

The Austin Federation of Musicians, local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians since 1907, offered support at the event. The union provides members with contracts for musical gigs as well as legal services. President Aaron Lack says low compensation for out-of-town artists has an effect on local ones too.

“It sort of flattens our labor market for the rest of the year, in our own local efforts to get fair pay, because we have so many thousands of musicians coming in and not being compensated,” Lack told crowds at the rally. “That makes it more difficult for us to negotiate our own pay.”

The festival currently offers either a wristband to attend the festival or $250 per band, $100 per solo artist. International artists are only offered the wristband. UMAW’s demands include raising compensation to $750 plus the wristband, waiving the application fee, and paying international artists as well; that last demand raises its own challenges, as artists would require a non-immigrant work visa to be compensated.

Alongside artists like the Mountain Goats, Boots Riley, and Zola Jesus, a number of Austin musicians have signed the open letter. Local supporters include Beth Chrisman, Indoor Creature, Katherine de Rosset, Knife in the Water, Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band, Sasha & the Valentines, T.J. Masters, and Transy Warhol, among others. Memphis indie rock group Blvck Hippie lent support to the effort, while also playing SXSW 2023 as an official artist.

“It’s like $280 to get from Memphis to here,” Blvck Hippie bandleader Josh Shaw told the Chronicle, referencing SXSW’s current $250 offer. “Usually we build a tour around South By, so we can actually make some money to try to pay for things like food.”

Shaw says for a band of four plus two crew members, “$250 split six ways barely even puts a dent into just eating, let alone having a place to stay. It feels very exploitative.”

SXSW does offer hotel deals to artists, which Shaw says are way out of the band’s price range. He said other festivals they’ve played, including Lincoln Calling in Nebraska, have offered free lodging and compensation in the range of $1,200-1,500. Blvck Hippie heads to Treefort Music Fest in Boise after this, which pays them $1,400.

“It’s a nice change of pace to play right after South By, where you kind of feel like they’re mad at you for being here,” said Shaw. Many artists at the March 16 rally said they had never played another festival requiring application fees. SXSW’s current fee to apply is $55, up from $40 in 2012, according to UMAW’s letter.

“They’ve already robbed this year’s artists of nearly $300,000 in application fees,” wrote UMAW organizer Joey La Neve DeFrancesco in a press release. (A representative of SXSW disputes this amount.) “They can afford to immediately increase our pay starting with this year’s festival.”

At the Fair Pay at SXSW showcase at Hole in the Wall March 14, UMAW paid each artist $750, though some were reluctant to take the gig, fearing retaliation. Blvck Hippie did play, “knowing that there’s a risk that maybe we won’t be asked back. But at this point, we don’t really care.” The show was co-sponsored by Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, Working Families Party, and Topshelf Records, and had the in-person support of Qadri and Congressman Greg Casar.

As reported by Chronicle contributor Julian Towers in our Tuesday SXSW recap, Austin punk act Pleasure Venom played the showcase. Onstage, singer Audrey Campbell said: “This next one’s called ‘Sucker.’ That’s what you are for playing South By for $250.”

When asked to comment on Union of Musicians and Allied Workers’ demands, a SXSW representative sent the following statement: “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.”

This story has been updated since publication to include SXSW’s comment, and its dispute of figures cited by Union of Musicians and Allied Workers.