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Bands at SXSW are calling for better pay


South by Southwest music is currently underway in Austin, Texas. Every year, the festival brings in millions of international fans and dollars to the Texas capital. Working musicians are the backbone of the festival, and some say they are getting paid a pittance to play. Now they're asking for more. From member station KUT in Austin, Andrew Weber reports.

ANDREW WEBER, BYLINE: Audrey Campbell and her band Pleasure Venom were in their second of three shows in 24 hours at the Austin bar Hole in the Wall.

PLEASURE VENOM: (Singing, inaudible).

WEBER: During the break, she thanked the crowd and the folks who put on the show, joking that they paid them a decent wage.

AUDREY CAMPBELL: Thank you guys for paying us adequately (laughter) to do this. We really appreciate you guys.

WEBER: It's the worst kept secret in Austin's music scene. South by Southwest's wages aren't great and they haven't changed in more than a decade. A band that plays the festival gets $250. For this show, though, Audrey and her band made three times that. But it's unofficial. The show was put on by the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, a nonprofit that helps artists get paid. It was started by New York musician Joey La Neve DeFrancesco

JOEY LA NEVE DEFRANCESCO: It was a low wage 10 years ago, and it's a essentially meaningless wage now.

WEBER: The festival started nearly 40 years ago. Since then, it's brought billions of dollars to Austin. It's helped the city secure a profile as a tech capital. And it's been bought by Penske Media, a multibillion-dollar company. DeFrancesco says artists aren't profiting. In fact, they lose money playing the festival. It starts with a $55 application fee. Then there's room and board, parking, food. DeFrancesco says playing for exposure at South by Southwest isn't fair.

DEFRANCESCO: They think they're a mega corporation, you know, same reasons - Spotify, Live Nation, Ticketmaster, right? - they don't want to respect musicians either because they think we have no power.

WEBER: So his group is pushing the festival to pay at least $750 and no application fee. In a statement, South by Southwest said it's going to reevaluate its wages ahead of next year's festival and said, quote, "it's committed to creating professional opportunities for artists." True, South by Southwest often markets itself as a place to be discovered for musicians like Audrey Campbell from Pleasure Venom. But she doesn't buy that. She doesn't need the exposure.

CAMPBELL: I've paid all the dues at this point. You know, I've done enough free shows. But I've done it all. And it's like I don't have anything to prove.

WEBER: She and her band have opened for big legacy punk bands like L7 and Bikini Kill, not because of exposure at the festival, but because of their work. After her set, Campbell admits being outspoken about low pay at South by Southwest could affect her chances of playing at the festival next year. But she wants to say something for musicians who may be afraid to speak out.

CAMPBELL: So it feels like my responsibility to say something for artists that might feel small and don't want - don't feel like they have, like, the confidence to say it because they feel like they're going to lose a job. Guess what? I have always said whatever I want, and I still get work (laughter).

WEBER: Campbell admits, ultimately, it's up to South by Southwest whether it pays artists more, but hopes at least they made some noise.

CAMPBELL: (Singing) OK. Got it.

WEBER: For NPR News, I'm Andrew Weber in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.