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Trying to make it at SXSW

An Atlanta band, filmmaker, and entrepreneur hit up Austin's 2013 mega-conference. Was it worth it?

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Every March, hundreds of thousands of musicians, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs from around the world descend on Austin, Texas, in hopes of being discovered at South by Southwest. Now in its 27th year, the once-local festival has swelled to a nearly $200 million economic behemoth for Texas' capital city — up from $113 million just three years ago. That money largely comes from corporations and industry giants that, in turn, plaster the city with their iconic logos. This year, concertgoers watched musicians perform on a stage erected inside a six-story Doritos vending machine. Web geeks waited in a four-block line to share an Instagram photo taken with Grumpy Cat, the real-life version of the Internet meme. The conference's interactive component has particularly grown over the past five years, creating opportunities for emerging social media startups such as Twitter and Foursquare to become industry titans.

But with each passing year, name-brand business's hold on the festival gets tighter, leaving dwindling opportunities for the independent artists SXSW originally set out to promote. Media companies rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars at the annual event, while individual creators usually leave with less in their pockets than when they arrived. Nevertheless, the allure of the breakout SXSW appearance compels legions of musicians, filmmakers, and entrepreneurs to make the trek.

This year, CL followed a group of Atlantans trying to make it at the 10-day festival: local band Dog Bite, euphonia director Danny Madden, and entrepreneur/N4MD co-founder James Harris. Everyone had the potential to make an impact in Austin, but even those with serious talent can get lost in the chaos.

Madden holds a Zoom audio recorder in his hands. In euphonia, a similar device became the main character's prized possession, who would soon become obsessed with it as well.
  • Max Blau
  • Danny Madden holds a Zoom audio recorder in his hands. In euphonia, a similar device became the main character's prized possession, who would soon become obsessed with it as well.
DOUBLE CHECK: Inside the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, director Danny Madden goes over euphonia’s final details minutes before the film’s world premiere.
  • Max Blau
  • DOUBLE CHECK: Inside the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, director Danny Madden goes over euphonia’s final details minutes before the film’s world premiere.

SXSW Film: Danny Madden

Peachtree City native Danny Madden was the only metro Atlanta filmmaker officially selected to be a part of the SXSW 2013 Film Festival, and with good reason. The 25-year-old wrote and directed euphonia, a captivating film that depicts an adolescent male's growing obsession with a handheld Zoom audio recorder.

Madden filmed the 53-minute feature throughout the metro Atlanta area during July 2010 for less than $1,000. The movie uses experimental sound design techniques to explore how technological dependence can adversely affect personal relationships. The lead actor actually captures audio that's heard throughout the film. "You can see the film from the microphone's perspective and how it interacts with a kid who uses it to help him at first and then falls into excessive dependency on it," he says.

March 2013 was Madden's first time attending the social-media-dominated conference, even though his animated short "(notes on) biology" won a 2012 SXSW Jury Award. He and his fellow Ornana Films partners — including producers Jim Cummings and Ben Wiessner, and cinematographer Jonathan Silva — weren't pressing to make financial moves since they've already funded their low-budget film. Instead, Madden says they wanted to absorb as much knowledge about the film industry as possible.

"We're coming at it from a real privileged position," Madden said over the phone before SXSW from San Francisco, where he's currently based. "We're not expecting to make money back from [a prospective SXSW film deal]. We don't have high expectations for that. We feel like we can go in there with a 'take it as it comes' mind-set and push the movie out there."

The outspoken director attended Boston's highly regarded Emerson Film School. But the Georgia native started making movies at home while growing up in Peachtree City. He and his older brother would direct, while his younger brother (euphonia's leading man) helped.

Many SXSW-bound filmmakers, even those screening shorts, hire publicists or marketing professionals to help push their world premieres. Hundreds flock to red carpet galas for major motion pictures such as Spring Breakers or The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. Madden and his team, however, handled press themselves. At night, the four filmmakers, plus lead actress Maria DeCotis, all crashed in a single hotel room. By day, their quarters converted into a DIY assembly line for crafting large posters, handmade fliers, and promotional labels. Madden and company then hit the streets with their handouts to promote euphonia's world premiere.

But rather than simply bombard uninterested passers-by with promotional materials, Madden took a cue from a euphonia scene featuring some Atlanta street performers. To re-create the scene, the Ornana Films crew purchased old pots, pans, and painter's buckets from a local shop. After spray-painting the premiere's details on a makeshift drum kit, Madden set up at the corner of Brazos and Sixth streets outside a high-profile "Bates Motel" party. While other film and TV fans waited in line for the event, he laid down drumbeats for nearly two hours. As he banged away, Cummings, Wiessner, and Silva struck up conversations with the curious onlookers and handed out fliers plugging euphonia's premiere the following night.

The next day, the Ornana Films team prepared for its first screening at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center, a nearly 230-person venue. Madden, a self-described "control freak," meticulously attended to the event's details. He worried about the film's soundcheck, ambient lighting, and other logistics: the things he could control. Who and how many would show up were out of his hands. The screening drew around 150 people and received positive reviews from Film School Rejects, Paste magazine, and other outlets. But Madden says the sound was much quieter than he wanted. And one person walked out, which he thought distracted the audience during a subtle-but-pivotal moment in the film.

Two days later, euphonia's second screening filled the 70-person Alamo Ritz. Besides an occasional nacho crunch or bustling waitress, the screening went smoothly and engaging dialogues followed. Among those in attendance were These Birds Walk filmmaker Omar Mullick, a Pixar publicist, Skywalker Sound employees, and a German film festival programmer. "It felt right," Madden said with a big grin as he left the theater.

Aside from screenings and guerilla marketing, Madden watched as many films as possible. The entire team met with other filmmakers and networked with companies such as Canon and Vimeo. One conversation prompted the decision to partner with the online video website and stream euphonia for free, starting April 21.

For a young production team, meeting passionate, like-minded individuals helped put the work into perspective. The festival also allowed the filmmakers to rack other artists' brains. Madden particularly hit it off with Mullick, discussing everything from his Pakistani subjects to color-correcting techniques.

Madden, Wiessner, and Silva headed home before euphonia's final screening to prepare for the Atlanta Film Festival, where euphonia showed the following week. Cummings stuck around and noted that the film reached a different, older audience this time, likely because the screening was held at a satellite SXSW theater.

Madden seemed energized, surprisingly able to filter out SXSW's noise and engage in the kinds of conversations he came to have. Cummings, on the other hand, says he felt "lobotomized" after SXSW's sensory overload, but says the trip was a good experience even though they didn't make any money. Over six days, Ornana Films spent approximately $300 on food, $300 on promotional materials, and $2,300 for a single hotel room with a SXSW discount. "We paid more to come to SXSW than for the film," said Wiessner.

From the outset, though, Madden was more interested in the networking than the money: "Equally important is starting conversations and dialogue with people who are or aren't artists that come into the theater," he said before the trip.

"What is the monetary value of not going?" Cummings asked in an email following SXSW. "We met so many great people and made great friends that will help us to make more movies."

Entrepreneur James Harris holds four Vinylmation robot figurines in his hands. He uses these collectibles, which originally belonged to his daughter, to demonstrate what N4MD's four content filters do when he gives a sales pitch.
  • Max Blau
  • Entrepreneur James Harris holds four Vinylmation robot figurines in his hands. He uses these collectibles, which originally belonged to his daughter, to demonstrate what N4MD's four content filters do when he gives a sales pitch.
SOUTH BY SALESMAN: James Harris pitches N4MD, a Flipboard publishing platform, to Unilever executives in a meeting at the SXSW Startup Village.
  • Max Blau
  • SOUTH BY SALESMAN: James Harris pitches N4MD, a Flipboard publishing platform, to Unilever executives in a meeting at the SXSW Startup Village.

SXSW Interactive: James Harris

At midnight on a blustery March weeknight, James Harris anxiously waited for his bus to arrive outside Atlanta's Biltmore Hotel. The 46-year-old serial entrepreneur, who launched the third-party Flipboard publishing company N4MD (pronounced "informed") after SXSW 2011, organized a startup-themed charter bus to take him and nine other young Atlanta entrepreneurs to Austin.

Round-trip tickets cost around $200 per person — far cheaper than a flight and housing. The luxurious charter bus sometimes used by touring hip-hop stars was worth more than $500,000. It slept 12, and had wood-grain countertops, satellite TV, and a full-blown entertainment console. And, of course, Wi-Fi, a key feature that allowed all the techies to work online while traveling.

"Our company was founded [following] an impromptu meeting with Flipboard at SXSW — that made us," says Harris. "[The startup bus] encourages other Atlanta startups to go be successful, bring back opportunity, build a big business, and stay in Atlanta."

When the charter bus arrived in Austin 950 miles later, Harris concentrated on his own business endeavors. Before founding N4MD, Harris ran an interactive agency for 17 years that worked with companies like Compaq and IBM. But at SXSW, N4MD was a small operation at a conference filled with major corporations able to throw money at events, exhibition spaces, and promotions. He spent time at several Blacks in Technology events — networking hubs for African-American startups. His most promising business leads happened in SXSW's Startup Village at the Hilton. The official room, open only to badge-holders, helped connect entrepreneurs with other established businesspeople. It also provided small startups with an opportunity to schedule short meetings with larger participating corporations. Harris scored a 15-minute meeting with several Unilever executives.

N4MD's content-aggregating publisher combs the Internet for relevant content — say, gardening tips for Home Depot, Harris' largest client — and saves companies the time and resources required to manually look for such articles. To explain the concept to the Unilever executives, Harris placed four colorful two-inch robot figurines, which he originally bought for his daughter, on a table. Each toy represents one of N4MD's four content filters. Harris moved them around to explain the publishing platform the way someone might shuffle restaurant condiments on a table to describe a location. At first, the approach seemed hokey, but it worked. "No one ever rejects them," he says. "One lady asked if she could keep [one]."

The collectibles allowed Harris to disarm business executives who had been bombarded with proposals throughout SXSW Interactive. Once he captured the Unilever executives' undivided attention, he gathered them around his 17-inch MacBook and walked them through his publishing platform. Immediately after the meeting, Harris felt confident that he'd hear from them in the future. "It took N4MD two years to get the point where we can put an idea on the table and companies say, 'Yes, we need that,'" he says.

Other in-person meetings with companies such as Pandora and Samsung fell through, but impromptu conversations with AT&T and Roku took place. On his final day in Austin, he grabbed drinks with a pair of employees from Scripps Networks, which owns HGTV, Food Network, and the Travel Channel.

Harris thought the mere chance to expose major corporations to N4MD was worth the several-thousand-dollar investment he made into his SXSW trip. It remains to be seen whether these talks translate into actual business. Even if nothing pans out for N4MD, Harris says he's walking away with a "motivation to move faster."

Phil Jones, who founded Dog Bite and is the project's primary songwriter, cradles several guitar picks in his hands.
  • Max Blau
  • Phil Jones, who founded Dog Bite and is the project's primary songwriter, cradles several guitar picks in his hands.
SMALL STAKES: Dog Bite performs to a tiny crowd at the North Door during its official SXSW showcase, hosted by the band’s label, Carpark Records.
  • Max Blau
  • SMALL STAKES: Dog Bite performs to a tiny crowd at the North Door during its official SXSW showcase, hosted by the band’s label, Carpark Records.

SXSW Music: Dog Bite

Last year, former Washed Out keyboardist Phil Jones ventured out on his own to focus on his psych-folk project Dog Bite. Jones, a 23-year old, soft-spoken SCAD graduate, is trying to make a living as an artist. He's a drawer, painter, and sculptor, but music has become his primary focus as of late. The Atlanta guitarist and vocalist, who plays with a rotating cast of local musicians, garnered enough early attention to sign with indie label Carpark Records.

There were plenty of reasons for Dog Bite to be excited about SXSW. The band's full-length debut, Velvet Changes, had just been released. He and his current bandmates, bassist Woody Shortridge, drummer Tak Takemura, and guitarist Russell Owens, were coming off a successful, month-long North American tour opening for Toro y Moi and performing to sold-out, thousand-cap rooms almost every night.

Before the music conference, Jones had a single goal for the trip: "I hope people come out and dig the music that we're playing." Given Dog Bite's momentum, the band was primed to have a breakout SXSW.

But as with so many bands in Dog Bite's position, it simply didn't work out that way.

The band's trip got off to a shaky start when Jones learned that the first of its six SXSW performances was scheduled to take place a full day earlier than expected. As a result, a leisurely 22-hour drive from Los Angeles turned into a race against the clock. After hightailing their trusted white Volvo station wagon to downtown Austin, the Atlanta indie rockers arrived only an hour before their first show at Red 7. Jones forgot his guitar effects pedals, but the early afternoon showcase went on as planned. Several dozen people attended.

As the band registered at the Austin Convention Center, the musicians acknowledged it was a struggle to play dive bars and house parties after a definitive tour with their Carpark labelmates. SXSW also represented a role shift for Jones, a laid-back guy who now leads his own group without the help of a dedicated manager. It was a far cry from his SXSW experience last year with Washed Out, when he was just responsible for playing music. "With Washed Out, they would just hand me stuff," he says.

After a day off thanks to the schedule mix-up, Jones participated in an on-camera interview with SXSW in Iron Works BBQ's sweltering asphalt parking lot. He showed up slightly hungover for his lone media obligation, but managed to cruise through standard questions. Once the conversation ended, Jones, Shortridge, and Takemura headed to East Austin, where a trendy Los Angeles clothing company hooked them up with free apparel — a common practice at SXSW. They picked out free merchandise, including camouflage pants, sunglasses, and an oversized shirt that read: Sex, Drugs, and Rap. Jones also chilled with friends in other bands playing at SXSW, including Toro Y Moi, Sinkane, Wild Belle, and fellow Atlanta rockers Mood Rings.

IN AND OUT: Phil Jones (left) and guitarist Russell Owens load their equipment into the Spiderhouse Ballroom for the KVRXplosion, Dog Bite’s second SXSW performance.
  • Max Blau
  • IN AND OUT: Phil Jones (left) and guitarist Russell Owens load their equipment into the Spiderhouse Ballroom for the KVRXplosion, Dog Bite’s second SXSW performance.

The group's second gig was part of the KVRXplosion. The student-run University of Texas radio showcase was one of several shows located more than a mile away from SXSW's main drag. Inside the Spiderhouse Ballroom, a shiny disco ball twirled and cast light onto a couple dozen people. Jones strummed his guitar in an empty candlelit booth as the showcase ran behind schedule.

College students hustled Dog Bite through a short 10-minute soundcheck. Without introduction, the band dove straight into lush album opener "Forever, Until." A small audience slowly trickled in to catch the brief 20-minute performance. The band agreed that the show went better than the first.

Dog Bite's biggest issue with this show, and numerous others, wasn't the performances, which were impressive. The problem was that the gigs were harder to get to than the average showcase. Some required a bus ride — a killer at a conference with dozens of shows taking place at any given hour.

It's hard to blame Jones for not having a manager or booking agent given the costs associated with each. But having neither greatly diminished Dog Bite's impact, especially when so many other acts utilized industry professionals to capitalize on SXSW's opportunities. The lack of support also resulted in the band playing venues of varying quality. Some establishments had top-notch audio equipment, while others had shoddy audio rigs that didn't provide Jones with the heavy reverb he needed for his vocals. "There's usually an effects knob," said one volunteer audio engineer at a dingy living-room show.

There were silver linings for some performances. Dog Bite's official Carpark Records showcase drew 40 people, but more importantly it was live-streamed. More than 1,100 people checked out the band's Bust magazine house party performance online when only around five people watched in person.

Jones was able to meet face-to-face with Carpark Records' staff, including founder Todd Hyman. Dog Bite has already finished making a "heavier" sophomore record that Jones would like to see released in late 2013.

More than anything, the band appeared to have mentally checked out as each show passed. They were running on fumes toward the end of a hellish four-show, 24-hour stretch in Austin. Dog Bite did have a career-defining experience, only it happened on the road in the month leading up to SXSW rather than at the festival itself.

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