Is Playing Festivals a Waste of Time For Unknown Bands?
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We're a nobody Canadian band. Does it still make sense these days to play a showcase with hundreds of other nobodies at a behemoth festival like SXSW or CMJ? It seems to us that unless you're buzzing going in it's just a waste of money (especially if you have to drive from Halifax to Texas). But say we do it anyway (and many do): What is the best way to maximize your time there? Is a festival the best or worst time to approach a booker/promoter/label rep/music supervisor?
Anytime/place where you are in direct competition with hundreds of other bands, just the law of odds is working against you. That said, people go to SXSW and CMJ, ostensibly, to discover new music and make those connections.
Is SXSW worth the 2600 mile, 40 hour drive from Halifax? Very, very unlikely. Unless you have really solid leads to pursue, and four or more showcases with bands that are hyped and have a significant fanbase. CMJ is a more manageable 14 hours (break it up with a house show in Maine!) and fewer bands; it's more of a media and industry function and less of a wasted schmooze frenzy/Spring Break for major label product managers. The ideal way to maximize your time is play on the best bills you can possibly get on, at a decent venue/spot, before 1 a.m.
The good news, for you, is that you are Canadian and you have all those Canadian music industry infrastructural perks like radio quotas and FACTOR grants or Candian Council for the Arts; while I have heard a lot of my Canadian friends bitch about them, I only know one Canadian band that hasn't gotten one. All we have here in America are the occasional kid with a trust-funded record labels. My suggestion is start where you are, work towards getting on NXNE or the Tim Horton's stage at some tertiary regional festival. According to the internet, The Halifax Pop Explosion is still going--start with that. Maybe you can be the next Jale, reignite people's fever for Nova Scotian indie rock and make the world come to you?
To address your last question: As long as the person isn't in a port-a-potty line, carrying heavy equipment or settling up with a promoter--any time is relatively "fine," as they will be expecting you and your demo 'round every corner. If they seem peeved or real busy, ask them if they have a card so you can holler at them when they are back at their desk and not barf drunk and horfing a churro at a show.