The Hot Seat: Brent Grulke

Published in The Music Network


Texans like to boast that they do everything bigger. In the case of the South By Southwest music festival, its pointless trying to argue. Currently entering its 23rd edition, the annual music event in the state capital Austin hosts 1,800 acts on more than 80 stages and is visited by a whopping 20,000 industry registrants. Brent Grulke is the creative director of SXSW. For the past 15 years, he’s played ringmaster to what has become America’s premier showcasing event, a 10-day show which has ushered into the U.S. mainstream an ever-growing list of acts, from Scottish art-rockers Franz Ferdinand to Welsh songstress Duffy and America’s own Norah Jones. Lars Brandle caught up with Grulke, who will deliver a keynote speech during this week’s August 20-22 AMBC conference at Sydney’s Acer Arena.


Australian bands had big presence at SXSW this year. Are they finding a voice in the U.S.?

The Australians always find a voice in the U.S., and they have for a long time. It’s because the Australians speak the same language, and they tend to be entrepreneurial and hard-working. Generations of Australians have had a particular affinity with this place. I don’t think that voice will diminish.


Is SXSW becoming too big? And how can a band rise above all the noise?

The upside of the largeness is that there are more people here, and potentially more people a band might wish to know. That’s the question, is more people really a bad thing? The real difficulty for a band is rising above the noise. Let’s face it, that competition exists in the worldwide marketplace regardless, you just might be more conscious of it at an event like SXSW. Be creative and find a way to engage those people – they’ve always been the weapons for an artist.


Everyone talks about the live business being the music industry’s cash cow. Can live keep growing?

It feels very likely to me, particularly because there is no substitute for that (live experience). Human beings respond to music. It’s more or less hardwired into who we are genetically. As certain as I am about anything, I can say for sure there will always be an audience for live music.


Europeans have begun to question whether there are too many festivals on the calendar. Has the American festivals market become oversaturated?

It hasn’t really been the case in the U.S. We’ve actually seen a growth in festivals. Whether there are too many or too few is something consumers will end up answering. The market does answer that quite efficiently.


Aside from selling merch and CDs, what other money-making strings are there to a live performer’s bow?

Artists should ask more for their wares than they do. They tend to be reluctant to put a price-tag on what they offer. They need to be more thoughtful about the value of what they do, and they might surprise themselves. They might actually allow themselves the opportunity to continue doing what they do, which is really the goal of all artists. I’ve seen increasing numbers of acts doing live recordings of that evening’s shows, and selling them right then and there. That’s a relatively inexpensive thing, and people like that kind of memento. It costs next to nothing to produce once the initial cost of the hardware recorder is paid for. That all comes down to an artist and their creativity. Some artists are able to sell access to certain features of Web sites to get exclusive content. Others are able to create added-value in the overall concert experience by selling specific things involving connecting the punters with the artists, like cruises or house gigs, and (selling) time with the artist in some sort of fashion. All those things should be considered, but there’s never a one-size fits all. It depends upon the kind of artist and what kind of comfort level they have, and it would have to be something they would enjoy.


So far, concert Webcasting has tried and failed. Do you think it will ever find a sustainable niche?

There are very smart people I respect who will create a model that will have revenue attached to it, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t find the experience very gratifying myself. That’s partly my age, but the sound and visuals are crappy.


What trends are you spotting on the boards for next year’s event?

It’s a bit too early to tell. But it looks like we will have a greater number of nations represented in SXSW then ever before. I take great pleasure in that.