Caramelo Haze performs at the DAWA Unity Concert on March 14th (Photo by Jana Birchum)
The city of Austin has partially intervened in the discussion regarding artist compensation for South by Southwest showcases. Last week, the city instituted payments at a standard rate of $200 an hour per musician for performers who perform the expanded list of official events at the 2023 festival, which are free and open to the public.
The city first sponsored an exhibition at SXSW held by Spaceflight Records last year at Auditorium Shores, previously the standard price was $150 as of 2016.
The policy, which applies only to city-sponsored performances, expanded this year to include five showcases as part of the festival’s community program.
The news broke when payment notices were sent to Austin artists playing DAWA’s Unity Concert Tuesday on Stubb’s and KUTX Show The interruptions‘ Showcase Wednesday in the Sheraton Backyard. Arriving this week, local organizations EQ Austin, the Austin Music Foundation and the Latin Music Coalition wrap up programming in the Sheraton’s backyard Thursday through Saturday.
Overall, the city’s Department of Music and Entertainment has a budget commitment of $30,000 to pay Austin artists who play at showcases that are free and open to the public.
“Here’s what [we think] it should be happening there which is a fair compensation for the society to see and the artists benefit from it. – Erica Shamali, Music and Entertainment Department Manager
Music and Entertainment Division Manager Erika Shamali said the city’s role in funding local musicians performing at SXSW began in conversations with James Minor, the festival’s vice president of music. Instead of the music office continuing to hold its own showcase each year, Shamali said he sees direct payments for other free events as a more productive use of the city’s dollars and resources.
“We used to book a showcase ourselves and pay the artists that way, and we did that for a few years, but it’s a lot of work during that time [of year] and there are already a lot of amazing nonprofits and community organizations promoting it,” Shamali said. “I was wondering why are we competing? We’d rather take what funding we have and give it to the community.”
Grupo Fantasma bassist Greg Gonzalez, recently appointed as program manager in the music office, handles the logistics of coordinating payments to musicians and working with showcase organizers. SXSW is the start of a solid schedule of city-funded community concerts featuring Austin musicians this year, with Shamaly reviving the pre-pandemic bus concerts at 500 West 2nd Street in May. Later in the year, the music office will host shows at Brush Square and the historic Old Bakery and Emporium building on Congress Avenue.
All of these gigs will feature the standard $200 per hour per musician.
SXSW has come under scrutiny recently over its payment practices, with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers demanding last month that the festival raise its longtime showcase artist pay to $750. On Thursday morning, that union and representatives of the American Federation of Musicians held a rally outside the Austin Convention Center. Shamali said the city’s role in funding free SXSW showcases spotlighting Austin musicians has been underway long before recent attention to the festival’s compensation terms for performing artists.
“Our role is to demonstrate what we would like to see happen,” Shamali said. “There are many businesses that have their own ideas about what fair pay is, and so do we. After all is said and done, $200 an hour to a musician is still nothing when you look at the practice, the loading, the charging, and all the costs involved in simply playing any show anywhere.
“Here’s what [we think] it should be happening there which is a fair compensation for the society to see and the artists benefit from it.
Alex Vallejo, EQ Austin co-founder and board member, praised the city’s decision to fund the already booked showcases at the Sheraton, which allow audiences to experience local music without the cost of a festival badge or wristband.
“It was a surprise as we had already booked the shows. When that news came, it was obvious that the artists and everyone involved were impressed that this existed as an opportunity,” he said. “I’m sure it feels great for the musicians too, because it’s a little extra cash for them at a time when most of them are playing for free or for a pittance.” It’s something musicians deserve.”