The collateral damage of SXSW

Withered Hand should be heading for SXSW. Instead, moronic US immigration officials in Vermont froze his visa and challenged the Edinburgh musician to prove that their qualified assertion he is “not of extraordinary ability” was an inaccurate one. One can only imagine they came to such a conclusion after believing ‘Withered Hand’ to be a thinly-disguised pseudonym for Abu Hamza.

After incessant campaigning from fans and well-wishers on Twitter, Facebook and even a formal petition with 750 signatures, at 3.30pm on Thursday, 10th March – a mere 41 hours before Dan Willson’s transatlantic flight leaves Edinburgh Airport – his visa approval finally came through. However, with Dan having to rush to London for an interview at the US Embassy, it’s still touch and go as to whether this nightmare will have a happy ending. (UPDATE 13/03/11: It did have a happy ending. He made it to America, with just his first gig in New York having to be cancelled)

Dan told The Pop Cop just how much of a financial hit he had to take to arrange the ill-fated expedition, which included not just the SXSW music event in Texas, but flights between his various scheduled shows in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Dan: “The whole trip, solo, was costing me roughly £3,000. That included me staying with a host family in Austin to save on accommodation. My visa application alone cost $2,300. You don’t really make any money at SXSW so that’s a lot of money to cover from gigs and merch sales. Throwing that money away and not getting to play SXSW and my other shows will set me back years.

“It’s particularly galling as I have jumped through every hoop asked of me, and at the right time. I spent hours on all this and was feeling pretty pleased at having managed to tie in dates in NYC, San Francisco and LA around SXSW.

“The only reason I thought about going to SXSW in the first instance was to meet my US label, the tour bookers who had expressed an interest in working with me and needed to see me play, and to support the US release of my debut album Good News on Absolutely Kosher on March 15.”

Sadly, he’s not the only musician to suffer visa troubles this week, with Dam Mantle also in the same boat.

Officially, there should be 15 Scottish acts in total at SXSW – Admiral Fallow, Dam Mantle, Errors, Jackmaster, Kid Canaveral, Rachel Sermanni, The Twilight Sad, Unicorn Kid, Withered Hand, Bronto Skylift, Edwyn Collins, Jon Fratelli, King Creosote, Popup and Twin Atlantic.

The first nine of those have been financially supported by Creative Scotland, while Bronto Skylift, Edwyn Collins, Jon Fratelli, King Creosote, Popup and Twin Atlantic have had to fend for themselves.

In addition, two London-based bands featuring Scots will be at SXSW – Veronica Falls, who include two former members of The Royal We in their line-up, and the Oracadian-fronted Erland And The Carnival.

Austin-based Peej Reid, who runs Dear Scotland, a culture website popular with expats, explains the two major steps in the SXSW process for Scottish acts.

Peej: “First of all they apply for SXSW in the autumn. They usually hear back in November/December. Once accepted, they then apply for Creative Scotland funding. There is nothing to stop a band who is officially accepted by SXSW but denied funding from making their own way to Austin, but it makes things tougher. So it is quite common for bands to announce that they have been accepted to SXSW, only to later drop off. SXSW always accept more bands than they can accommodate because they know everyone won’t make it.”

Half-a-dozen Scots acts came into just that bracket this year – Django Django, Steve Mason, Unkle Bob, The Xcerts, Flood Of Red and Woodenbox With A Fistful Of Fivers were all invited but elected not to go. The latter two had claims for financial support turned down by Creative Scotland, while Django Django, Steve Mason and The Xcerts weren’t eligible for funding as they are now based in England.

Julian Deane, The Xcerts’ manager, knows just how agonising a decision it is for fledgling British bands desperate to play before the music world’s movers and shakers at events such as SXSW, yet faced with the prospect of racking up astronomical debts if they do so.

Julian: “We’re extremely creative when it comes to finding ways of doing things we can’t necessarily afford but this time SXSW was a step too far, even though we were chosen.

“One of the big problems is the US visa, which to me is a huge scam. We paid the best part of £2,000 in visas to get a three-piece band to New York for CMJ in October 2010 to ‘work’ for two shows which they weren’t getting paid for. The logic being that people are ‘paying’ to see them play, so whether they are being paid or not is irrelevant.

“The funding on offer falls way short of the real costs of such a trip. You need additional backing from a well-funded label, a rich patron, a good credit card, nerves of steel and an understanding bank manager. I’ll leave you to guess what we have.

“We’ll do these speculative trips when we can, and I think in the long-term they pan out, but you can’t expect solid business propositions in the short or even medium-term. We’ll keep our heads down, work as hard and as creatively as we can, and wait for people to take notice. Obviously it comes with its own frustrations when drivel is flavour of the month, but year on year we are winning.”

As you’ll no doubt have gathered, deciding who does and does not get funding is far from an exact science, so here are a few pointers any future SXSW hopefuls should take heed of, with some words of wisdom from Creative Scotland development officer Stuart Thomas.

– Earning an invitation to SXSW is not enough to secure funding
Stuart: “SXSW has to be part of a larger plan for the act and must dovetail into their album and touring schedules. It should not be considered as a standalone event. Creative Scotland’s international showcasing fund criteria seek to examine this and their plans for the event. SXSW is such a competitive showcasing environment that bands need to be well placed to achieve successful outcomes.”

– Successful applicants will never get their entire costs paid for by Creative Scotland
Stuart: “We make our awards at a standard per head rate. This year it is £750 per band member, with an additional £750 available for the band’s management if they are based in Scotland. This is broadly in line with our general approach to supporting artists to showcase (where we would usually pay a maximum of 55% of the costs).

– Make friends with Scotland’s major promoters (or at least don’t get on the wrong side of them)
Stuart: “The funding decision is made by Creative Scotland, advised by our SXSW steering group which consists of staff from DF Concerts, PCL Presents and Vic Galloway.”

Further reading:
List of Scottish gigs at SXSW
BBC’s Scottish team at SXSW on Twitter
Detour Scotland at SXSW (they will also have a live link-up at Glasgow’s Bar Bloc on March 16)
Creative Scotland international showcasing fund

Withered Hand – Love In The Time Of Ecstasy

The Xcerts – Nightschool (live at King Tut’s)

One Response to “The collateral damage of SXSW”

  1. John D. Says:

    March 14th, 2011 at 09:06

    As usual Pop Cop this is very informative stuff. I am always suspicious of Creative Scotland’s involvement with funding trips to SXSW but this article has made things clearer. 2 surprising things:

    1. The involvement of PCL and DF in advising Creative Scotland. That simply doesnt seem right to me. If you can shift tickets for a Tuesday night gig in Tuts, and make money for a private company, you should have more of a chance to get public money to go to SXSW? That’s ropey.
    2. Bit surprised to see Woodenbox with a Fistful of Fivers not getting funding – they’re a pretty good band, and doesn’t one of their managers actually work for DF? Was this a case of the DF connection actually being a hindrance for a band?

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