ASCAP and Austin: How the SXSW Was Won
By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief • March 19, 2021
ASCAP has long partnered with SXSW to promote, support and celebrate songwriters at one of the largest and most influential music events in the world.
Austin, Texas has long proclaimed itself the live music capital of the world. Few would argue with that declaration. Certainly, no performing songwriter, band or artist who has made the pilgrimage to the city’s annual South by Southwest music festival. Indeed, SXSW has been a rite of passage for countless numbers of music creators since its inception in March of 1987.
Originally inspired by New York City’s New Music Seminar, the first SXSW was intended to be a regional event with an expected 150 attendees. 700 eager souls showed up that year. And the festival has showed no signs of stopping (or growing) ever since. While the music festival became a hot spot for artists to get discovered and expand their audience, the conference expanded to include film and other media and eventually became a must-attend meeting of the minds for all creators, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians and leaders from around the world.
ASCAP has a long history of highlighting and supporting its members at SXSW in a variety of ways. Over the years, ASCAP has produced must-attend pop/rock, singer-songwriter and urban showcases, often exposing emerging songwriters to the wider industry for the very first time. Pop superstar Katy Perry appeared at ASCAP’s Quiet on the Set showcase in 2008 playing a solo acoustic set. One month later she would release her debut single, “I Kissed a Girl” and take off on a meteoric rise to success. Other artists who appeared on an ASCAP SXSW showcase early in their career include The Old 97’s, John Mayer, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Hillary Lindsey (ASCAP’s 2019 Global Impact Award honoree), The 1975, Patty Griffin, Rufus Wainwright, Fastball, ZZ Ward, Jessie Reyez, Tierra Whack, Matthew Koma, The Lone Bellow, Tori Kelly, The Presidents of the United States of America, American Idol finalist Crystal Bowersox, Gin Blossoms, future ASCAP Board member Michelle Lewis, Martin Sexton, Jonatha Brooke, Paolo Nutini, Placebo, Paramore, Plain White T’s, American Authors, Sara Bareilles, Tyler Lyle (of The Midnight) and many, many more.
ASCAP songwriters and composers have been featured keynote speakers throughout SXSW’s history, including Johnny Cash, Michelle Shocked, the Beastie Boys, Nick Lowe, Steve Earle, Robbie Robertson, Daniel Lanois, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Quincy Jones and many more.
ASCAP has also partnered with other industry organizations to create intimate events such as this ASCAP/BET show featuring T.I. and networking events, such as the popular ASCAP Boat Cruises on Lady Bird Lake. In recent years, to help foster the creation of new music, ASCAP has co-sponsored SXSW Songs, a song camp that brings together a diverse and international group of songwriters and producers to write and debut new music during the festival itself.
After years of explosive growth (some would say too much), SXSW Music Festival 2019 had returned to its roots as a genuine place for discovery, networking, education and community, even with attendance that year of approximately 159,258 attendees and 1,964 acts performing to over 100 official and unofficial music festival stages.
When the pandemic shut SXSW down literally days before the 2020 event, it hit the music creator community particularly hard, especially since songwriters, musicians and artists work so hard just to get to Austin to help get a leg up in the industry.
SXSW has done an incredible job this year in creating SXSW Online, a reimagining of their conferences and festivals. The digital experience is cutting edge and convenient for anyone seeking to take part in all SXSW has to offer. But, if anything, this past year has generated a greater hunger for live music like never before. When we can all gather again to the thrill of songwriters sharing their songs and connecting with kindred spirits from all over the world under a hot sun, we know where to go: head south, then west.