The mid-February release of Ashy ‘s infectious new single LA Talk was neatly timed to share with her audience before she travelled to the USA as an ‘official showcasing artist’ at SXSW (South By SouthWest) in Austin, Texas, followed by some time in LA. Christchurch pop artist Ashy Batchelor describes the song as an anecdote of her life as a young woman in the entertainment industry, and the festival as… well, read on to get Ashy’s take.
SXSW is an event I can best describe as a whirlwind. I have to admit my concept of the festival was minimal when I was offered an invitation to showcase at the 2023 festival. This was my first time performing overseas and Austin, Texas did not disappoint!
I feel very privileged that I got to see this festival first hand and the idea of being at the same event as Nick Jonas really put things into perspective for me. There’s no wonder artists like Billie Eilish were discovered at this event, and I feel extremely humbled to have been among the handful of NZ artists invited to play.
One of the best parts about SXSW was of course performing! A big shout out to my band of Emily Browning and Phoebe Hurst, true talents that helped bring my show and music to life. I played eight shows which is a large task and quite rare for showcasing artists, so definitely put them to work, but when you come all the way from the other side of the world you want to make the most of this sort of opportunity.
To paint a picture, one of my very best moments at SXSW encompassed the true intention of being there. It was the night of my final show, on a rooftop at the JW Marriot Edge pool deck. Despite the fact it was freezing cold it was picturesque and a perfect moment, and I think this was when it actually hit me! I had got to play one of the biggest entertainment industry festivals in the world, and I was performing my original music to a crowd on the rooftop at a fancy hotel with my incredible band. I actually said to the audience, “I think it all just hit me at this moment” and the crowd cheered. I’ll never forget it.
Another of the great things about SX was meeting and connecting with so many new people. Whether they were spectators of a show and we talked afterwards, took a photo (or even signed an autograph!), or going to events and meeting with other artists like myself. Everyone at SX is there for the same thing, to hear, watch and connect with people that are in the music business. If you go to something like this, you obviously have to make the most of it. I always considered the financial effort that I had made to get there and that was enough to get me out of bed after a big show the previous night and back to networking!
It really is an event where you never know who you could be talking to unless they explain their reason for being there. I often chatted to someone about the band that was currently playing and in one instance that someone was the manager of the Sugababes! It may well be that they’re the head of a large company, or they just do something really niche and interesting within the music industry.
A big benefit of being a showcasing artist was access to the artist lounge. It was placed on an outdoor deck of another fancy hotel and they served free food and drink. I often stopped by before or after a show as it was a very central location to a lot of my performances. Obviously it was also a great place to connect with other showcasing artists and their teams.
One morning I stopped by the Australia House hosted at Lucilles on Rainey Street. They put on an amazing brunch, most importantly with incredible coffee, and then had their showcasing artists play. That event was hard to leave – the artists, the industry and the vibe was immaculate. I met some of my most important connections there and got to enjoy watching other people’s incredible showcases.
My own ‘big success’ moment was probably at the New Zealand Showcase. Throughout the week up until that point I hadn’t performed on a stage as such, more hotel lobbies or a makeshift stage. So it felt really great to be on a proper stage with plenty of room. My band and I were able to spread out and perform the set as it should really look and sound like.
The crowd was fully engaged and a lot of great connections and buzz came from that performance. The best part was I was having so much fun. It felt electric! Lots of people told their friends about my performance there, so more crowds came to my later shows throughout the week. Not to mention, it was great to see my fellow Kiwis smashing it at SX!
The challenge of playing so many shows throughout the week definitely took a physical toll, but my mindset was to keep going. Throughout the festival, there are also other events, networking opportunities and panels so scheduling can be as difficult in the day as the night time. I prioritised my own shows, interviews and networking opportunities which meant for the first part of the week I didn’t actually get to see a lot of the real SXSW. I don’t think I still have, it is so overwhelming in one of the best ways possible.
My tour manager Honora was my saving grace, finding spots during the days that we could go to events or see Austin, such as the Lush beauty event, Dr Martens stage or even just going to get breakfast tacos. (If you ever go to SX go get tacos. They are cheap and it certainly helped the budget having them for breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner, but Texas does them well!)
Travelling so far overseas and bringing a band is an enormous task, and most importantly a financial challenge. Make sure who you take with you is as committed as you are, as surviving this festival is no small feat. You really need to make sure that you’re ready and be sure of your goals.
Having attended SXSW 2023, I think it is an outlay that may or may not pay off depending on how committed you are as an artist, and if you choose to implement what you learn or gain from this experience into your future. When finding funds and sourcing information for this festival I asked friends in the music industry who had been to SX if it was worth it for them and where they could garner funding. Luckily my manager Cary Caldwell had applied for Outward Sound funding before and was a huge help in my getting a grant. I also found other sources of funding for creative endeavours and applied with my fingers crossed. Every bit helps.
The difference between performing in NZ and the US was huge for me. I am a pop, contemporary and RnB artist, and to perform in a territory where that music is highly produced and sought after was amazing. The crowd response was everything I could have hoped for. Every detail we worked on from the structure of the show, the planned choreography moments and the styling choices were recognised. There was a ‘click’ that my music had with audiences over in the US that I had longed to experience and it has just made me want to play over there even more!
If you’re playing more than two shows I suggest staying close to the city. Don’t opt for an AirBnb a little bit further out because the Ubers and lugging band gear around Austin is truly not an ideal situation. Luckily I was close enough that it was manageable. And bear in mind all venues are usually walkable, so have enough people in your team to carry the gear!
I completely underestimated the power of being a Kiwi in Texas. People almost find it impossible that we travelled 23 hours to come to this festival. Let alone that I was from a country that they’d always wanted to go to. Our accents are a true winner.
Don’t be like me and assume just because you are heading to Texas the weather will be warm. It was definitely quite the opposite, it mainly felt like being back in Christchurch and I did not bring appropriate clothing for this! Be prepared for all types of weather.
Be stage ready at all times! A big lesson I learned over there was being prepared to play at any time. We had a last-minute show added on one of our first days of performing – my band and I were prepared and flexible enough to make it work.
Be prepared for the absolute worst live sound – or the best. It really is hit or miss at SX and you have to fake it till you make it. The crowd doesn’t hear what you hear through the foldbacks. I won’t lie, it is a lot harder to perform when you don’t feel like it’s translating well, but you have 40 minutes – there’s no choice but to entertain. Most stages are tiny, so anticipate having to tighten your set-up in your band.
As a vocalist, and performing that many shows one of the most crucial parts for me was rest and drinking water. It is easy to forget amongst the chaos to look after yourself, but also to not have FOMO. SX has the coolest events you’ll ever go to but it’s about deciding what is best for you and your performances.
One of the biggest lessons I learned and what most artists struggle with over at an event as big as this, is the age-old question, ‘What makes me different from any other artist?’ I would say SX helped me figure that out, it painted a true picture of my demographic. The real people who would attend my shows, listen and consume my music. This event helped me really lean into who I am. A pop artist that is; a young woman, ethnically diverse and from NZ. This held more power than I ever would have thought. So really lean into who you are and what you like! Authenticity is the key.
To sum up my experience at SXSW, it was truly one of the best weeks of my life. It was an opportunity to showcase the music that I had written and performed with some of the best in the industry. I met people I know will have a huge impact on my career going forward.
Nobody can prepare you for what this event is like, its scale is enormous. I was so fortunate to go with an incredible team, at a time in my career when I was truly ready. For those contemplating applying, do it! You just never know.
Photo credit, main image: Akim Evans