Austin-based musicians call on SXSW to pay performers fair wage

Austin-based musicians spoke out at Wednesday night’s Austin Music Commission meeting. They called on commissioners to support a recommendation to push South by Southwest (SXSW) to pay their performers what they call a fair wage. 

Late Wednesday night, however, the Commission adjourned without taking a vote.

Earlier in the evening, numerous local musicians testified before the commissioners.

"We have a really good example of a boss taking advantage of workers," said Sadie Wolfe, a cellist with the band Batty Jr.

The recommendation, which passed unanimously at last Monday’s Austin Parks & Recreation Board meeting, would require SXSW contracts to guarantee fair pay for artists, and require SXSW to increase pay before the city waives park fees for the festival.

"This is very disparate as far as how much money they're making versus what they're paying to the musicians. And musicians really can barely afford to do it anymore," said Aaron Lack, president of the Austin Federation of Musicians.

At its 2023 festival, SXSW paid solo artists $100, and $250 for a band. Just days ago, SXSW announced it would be increasing that to $150 for a solo artist and $350 for a band in 2024.

RELATED: Austin Parks and Rec Board unanimously approve recommendation of pay raise for SXSW performers

"What they've proposed in the last week is really not adequate to fix that at all," said Lack.

"I think it’s laughable," said Phillip Balke, keyboardist for Soralia Beats.

Starting in 2024, the festival will also offer musicians the option, in lieu of pay, to receive an Artist Credential for the festival, which offers more access than the more basic Music Badge, which was offered to performers through 2023.

"I can't take that to my landlord. I can't take that to the grocery store," said Balke.

But SXSW argues the value of the festival goes far beyond dollars and cents.

"South by Southwest is career development," said Michele Flores, chief logistics officer for SXSW. "While others may be content that all that matters is the payment, we hear numerous stories every year about the connections that people make and real career development and future opportunities."

Alongside the recommendation from the Austin Parks & Recreation Board, the Austin Music Commission’s chair proposed a much different recommendation Wednesday night, calling for the city to continue contract negotiations with SXSW "in good faith," as well a supporting SXSW "by continuing to waive fees at Vic Mathias Shores."

"The live music capital of the world should be supporting fair pay for musicians," said Lack.

If that doesn’t happen, some musicians say they’ll bypass SXSW.

"I would encourage my friends and fellow musicians to not apply for the festival, which I've already seen happening," said Wolfe.

The Austin Music Commission will again take up the SXSW pay issue at its August meeting. Any recommendation passed by the Commission will then head to City Council for approval.

The Austin Federation of Musicians says it would prefer to negotiate directly with SXSW, as opposed to going through the city, but Lack claims SXSW has been unwilling to do that.

In a statement to FOX 7 Wednesday afternoon, James Minor, VP Music Festival for SXSW, said:

"Our purpose at SXSW is to help creative people achieve their goals. As an industry event, showcasing at SXSW provides indispensable networking, mentoring, and career development opportunities that are not a part of standard consumer-focused festivals. For 2024 we have substantially increased the value of our artist credential, which more than 90% of showcasing artists take advantage of. The credential now has the same access as a Music Badge (valued at $995 each), plus other artist-only benefits. Artists continue to make connections at our event that further their careers, and it is essential for us to continue to provide opportunities that make the most impact in supporting the thousands of musicians who come to Austin every March."