For many college students, the words “spring break” call to mind sun-soaked beaches and the heady scent of Banana Boat sunscreen. Not so for promoters, executives and artists maneuvering the music industry. Instead, they picture Texas.
Each year Austin’s clubs, restaurants and bars attract up-and-coming bands, veterans and every artist in-between for ten days of nearly non-stop music.
The South By South West Festival (SXSW) has been dubbed the ‘spring break’ of the music industry, but for ten McNally Smith College of Music students it represents the culmination of a semester-long immersion in business marketing and tour management.
Since January, members of the “Special Topics: SXSW” course at the Minnesota music college — taught by instructor Scott LeGere — have communicated with area artists, planned details and managed press for the college’s first-ever student-run day party.
Additionally, students have learned about the history of SXSW, trends in the music industry and the costs/benefits of event planning.
The music, entertainment and media industries are dependent on innovation and connections, according to David Lewis, director of career services at McNally Smith College of Music.
“It’s all about having great ideas and bringing them to market, so we need to model that,” Lewis said. “This class does exactly that.”
The trip to SXSW gives students the opportunity to interact with industry professionals and learn beyond the bounds of a physical classroom, according to Lewis.
McNally Smith College of Music has a history of sending students on trips to gain career experience. For the past two summers, Lewis has taken a group of students to volunteer at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
Robert Frost, who is a recording engineer and member of the band Youth at Large (and music production student at McNally Smith), described the frantic, and awe-inspiring pace of that experience, where he met performing acts Yuck and the Dismemberment Plan.
“You can be told all day exactly what you’re supposed to do when you get out of school, but actually doing it is completely different. It felt almost religious in a way,” Frost said.
Flying students down to Austin where they will promote and run the “Rock the Cause” day party ups the ante compared to past trips. According to Lewis, students’ experience will be “expansive, engaging and layered.”
LeGere has sent students to SXSW before. In 2009, five of the 17 students he taught at the Institute for Production and Recording in Minneapolis returned with internships and employment opportunities.
The McNally students will attend the conference with similar personal and professional pressures, according to LeGere.
“With a class like this, students are really going to have to tap into a variety of tools for our event to happen. Project management, attention to detail, timelines, customer and client relations – all of these aspects come into play when you’re trying to put on any event, let alone a party in Texas,” LeGere said.
Packing a big social media toolbox
To prepare and promote the event, students dove headlong into the world of social media, a world where Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, tumblr and WordPress are more than just buzzwords. They are the very tools students will need to master to inform their mass audience, according to Frost.
“It’s kind of unreal and exciting that the school let us go and do this. It’s this kind of education that is really important nowadays, especially with the age of the Internet. It gets difficult to keep people’s attention,” Frost said.
At SXSW, the students will be required to tweet hourly, check into each bar or restaurant they visit to promote the day party and chronicle their experiences on a WordPress blog.
“It’s a real world experience, with that comes some amount of responsibility. That’s something that we drill into the students from the get-go,” Lewis said. “It’s about their reputation, their professionalism.”
This electronic paper trail will also serve to enrich students’ portfolios when seeking employment after graduation, Lewis said.
To further provide students with experiential learning and career skills, students were paired with the Minnesota artists who will be performing at the day party. They include Astronautalis, Peter Wolf Crier, The Honeydogs, Night Moves, Me & My Arrow, Zoo Animal, Fort Wilson Riot, Pink Mink and Toki Wright.
“It gives our students the opportunity to engage with living breathing, hands-on artists. One of the problems with music education today, especially music business education, is that it’s so abstracted and removed,” Lewis said.
The students are responsible for providing artists with the instruments and performance times besides advancing the shows with frequent social media updates and links to information about the day party.
Two McNally students — Kara Laudon and David Sutton — and alumni Danami will also perform at the day party. They will drive down to the festival, stopping to play at high schools where they will share their experiences with other young musicians.
David Sutton plays an electric, five-string violin and is a junior studying violin performance at McNally Smith. His latest album “The Vertical Horizon” will be released in June. Sutton was recruited to McNally Smith as a high school student by his current mentor Randy Sabien at a similar outreach event.
“He was the first one to show me how to be something more than just a classical violinist. Then, four or five years later, here I am learning from the same guy. It was always my dream to do the same thing eventually,” Sutton said.
McNally Smith isn’t the only college to stake out space at SXSW. Students and alumni of Berklee College of Music will perform at the school’s seventh annual party, March 16.
McNally Smith’s “Rock the Cause” day party will take place on March 17 from 12-8 p.m. at the Liberty Bar in Austin. Until then, the McNally Smith College of Music students and staff remain hard a work, finalizing details, creating promotional content and networking via social media.
“There has definitely been a lot of coordination between the academic team, the student affairs team, the career affairs services team,” Lewis said. “It takes college to make this kind of opportunity happen.”
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