Austin City Council Member on SXSW Artist Pay Issues – The Hollywood Reporter
Few SXSW badges were in sight as a crowd packed at Austin’s West campus mainstay Hole in the Wall Bar on March 14, a night after a car crashed into the venue. For this showcase, one of countless during the annual festival week, paying the eight artists billed was paramount.
“There’s a lot of money flying around here — and they’re not paying artists,” said Joey DeFrancesco, a Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) organizer who performs as La Neve, kicking off the event, dubbed “Fair Pay at SXSW “.
The event marked the latest demonstration for UMAW, the group of activists protesting Spotify’s artist royalties (“Justice at Spotify”), and highlighted antitrust concerns about Live Nation and Ticketmaster’s impact on the events industry. On February 7th, just over a month before the SXSW start date, UMAW published a petition with requests to the festival organizers. These included increasing the fee from “$250 to a minimum of $750 for all performers” and giving artists wristbands so they can attend events. (Currently, SXSW is asking artists to choose between $250 or a bracelet.)
For the Hole-in-the-Wall showcase, UMAW partnered with a local politician, Austin City Councilman Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, who represents District 9, where the venue is located. “SXSW has deep roots in Austin. It is a festival that brings together tens of thousands of people, both within the city and across the country and around the world,” said Qadri The Hollywood Reporter. “While we are seeing an increase in application costs, we have not seen the same increase in these musicians’ compensation. Right now it’s either $250 or a badge. All musicians charge $750. For a festival that generates so much money, whether it’s $750 or some other amount, I hope they get together with the union guys and get something that they do right.”
The council member said he has not contacted SXSW organizers about the UMAW artist compensation request but is looking for a solution. (A representative for the festival did not respond to a request for comment. It should be noted that Penske Media, the owner of THRinvested in SXSW in April 2021 as part of what it calls a long-term partnership.) In a statement released in February, an SXSW representative wrote that it “appreciates[s] the feedback from the UMAW and will then conduct our policy review,” concludes this year’s event.
Marshall Moran, a New York-based UMAW organizer who traveled to Austin, said the group has not heard from SXSW officials after their list was released. But for the “Fair Pay at SXSW” showcase, the group chose to pay $750 to artists on their bill that night, including band Ratboys, indie rockers Enumclaw, singer-songwriter Sabrina Song and more Artist.
When asked how UMAW settled on the $750 figure, both for its event and its request to SXSW, Moran noted that the time spent on stage for a typical band was taken into account. “We try to take into account the basic costs of traveling to SXSW,” said the UMAW organizer. “Honestly, a lot of what we look at is just break even.”
While for bands playing SXSW the name of the game was exposure, sentiment among artists has also turned to the reality of paying for the logistics of hauling gear, lodging and gas money. “It’s pretty clear to see that a group of four, five people splitting $750 already seems low,” noted UMAW organizer Moran. “But for the time you spend making music on stage, it’s at least a fair price. It’s a rate closer to a living wage. And it’s more in line with what artists value for what they bring to the festival.”
In 2022, around 1,504 artists performed official SXSW shows, which drew 134,537 visitors (online and in-person) to their six-day official music showcase, as the festival noted in its own annual report. UMAW’s next action to highlight artists’ salaries will move closer to the center of SXSW panel events as activists plan a march at the Austin Convention Center on March 16th.
Councilor Qadri added, “As much as SXSW is part of the fabric of this city, these are musicians who have been a part of this city since before SXSW. And when we wrong them and lose them, both as residents and as entertainers, we lose a piece of ourselves.”