AUSTIN, Texas - The Austin Parks & Recreation Board unanimously approved a recommendation to give a pay raise to performers at South by Southwest (SXSW). Many musicians say they are grossly underpaid by a festival that makes millions.
A group of local musicians with the United Musicians and Allied Workers union protested outside Austin City Hall ahead of that meeting, calling on the city to put pressure on SXSW to give performers a raise.
"$250 for a band which usually has four members or $100 for a solo act," said Sadie Wolfe, cellist for the band Batty Jr., describing the current rates of pay for performers at the festival.
"It's a drop in the bucket for what South by makes," said Zeke Jarmon, guitarist for Batty Jr.
The recommendation states: "SXSW is alleged to have an estimated revenue of $142.3 million". A representative for SXSW told FOX 7 Tuesday that the "reported numbers" are "not accurate", but refused to release any actual revenue figures saying: "SXSW does not disclose its revenues or costs".
On top of that, the city usually waives fees for the festival to use public parks.
"To only receive a tiny amount of compensation for all the work that goes into it while they bring home millions of dollars, yeah, it's insulting," said Phillip Balke, keyboardist for Soralia.
"I just don't like seeing my musician friends in their seventies having a couch surf," said Jarmon.
Several of these artists spoke out at Monday night’s Parks Board meeting, calling on the board to pass the recommendation. It urges city officials to require that SXSW contracts guarantee "fair pay" for artists, and pushes City Council to require SXSW to increase artists’ pay, before it waives fees at city parks.
"We know that this festival brings in income to the city. And so we should have a part in that. We should have a stake in what's going on," said Wolfe.
In a statement, James Minor, V.P. 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. It is essential for us to continue to provide opportunities that make the most impact in supporting the thousands of artists who come to Austin every March. We are grateful to the music community — from industry executives and production workers to the artists themselves — for creating such a unique atmosphere in Austin in March."
SXSW also directed us to their payment and credential policy for "showcasing artists."
"They're not prioritizing paying the artists because they don't have to," said Wolfe.
Musicians say beyond the park board’s vote Monday night, they hope to see more direct negotiations with SXSW for better pay, in order to stem what they call an exodus of artists from Austin.
"So many musicians are leaving town," said Wolfe. "And so we risk losing that part of our culture."
"Austin is the music city capital of the world. And if we want to keep it that way, we need to, as a city, do more for the people who do that work," said Balke.