Austin, Texas – For six days in March, thousands of musicians and bands crowd clubs, concert venues, car parks and streets in the US state of Texas’s capital, Austin, for South by Southwest.
It is one of the largest music festivals in the world.
What started out in 1986 as a local music celebration has transformed into a sprawling, crowded group of festivals on music, film and technology.
The festival is most famous for its music, attracting both American and international artists.
While some of the musicians who played the festival are already big names signed to major labels, such as Iggy Pop and Ryan Adams, this year’s line-up includes hundreds of artists who haven’t yet had that commercial success – they come to the festival for an opportunity to collaborate and be inspired.
For independent musicians such as Rue Snider and Anthony Watkins II, who performs as Mobley, the festival is a chance to network and meet other musicians.
Snider, who is based in New York, says touring and playing in front of crowds is a big part of his music.
For the past two years, he has played 100 shows a year. This year, he hopes to play 250 dates.
Even though Snider feels that making record deals at South by Southwest is a thing of the past, the festival is still important.
“Any time you can get together with lots of other people who are doing something similar to you, is a good thing,” he says.
“For me, it’s primarily a networking opportunity … It’s great when everyone in your industry is in one place.”
Austin-based Mobley creates music that mixes indie rock, R&B and electronic music.
For Snider, “foremost always is just getting time with and in front of new audiences to try to spread the music that way. But then also secondarily I think it’s a time when a lot of people in the industry converge on the city and … it can be a timely opportunity to meet up with various people in the industry and play in front of them and try to make connections that way”.
He is investing in trying to make those connections.
This is the first year Mobley has hired a public relations person this year to publicise his shows.
As a musician who releases his work independently of a music label, he says the current bar for what income his music career brings in is pretty low, that he wants “… basically to not be losing money on the endeavour.”
To support his music, he works in film and doing coding.
Snider grew up playing music. His father was an elementary school music teacher, and Snider learned how to trumpet, piano and cello. He started seriously playing guitar four years ago.
But music, Snider says, “was always a big part of my life. Music was my emotional connection to the world”.
That link drives Snider’s songs.
His latest release features a song about some of the hatred that shaped the American reaction to the global refugee crisis last year.
Snider was on tour in San Antonio, Texas, sitting in his hotel room, feeling powerless about the hatred he was seeing towards Syrian refugees from Americans.
That included statements from governors that they wouldn’t let refugees into their states, even though governors in the US don’t have the power to prevent refugees from settling in their states.
In November, the mayor of the Virginia city of Roanoke put out a statement suggesting that his city reject Syrian refugees just as the Japanese were interned in the US during World War II.
That sort of language was not uncommon.
Snider says: “My newsfeed was littered with people using language that I didn’t realise people actually uttered … For me the refugee thing is pretty simple because we’re a country of immigrants and, for chrissake, what are we doing if we’re not taking care of people who are being raped and murdered and driven out of their country?”
After spending time feeling powerless and angry, Snider realised his music could be a voice.
“For me I thought maybe if I co-opt some of this awful language that people are using to talk about other human beings and I say it out loud on recording and then I say it in rooms in front of people when I sing these songs, maybe it will, saying these things that people are doing in the dark, bringing them to the light will sort of diffuse them a little bit,” he said.
“People will be shocked and offended, which is my hope, and that they will consider the language they are using. It’s not just the ethnic slurs … it’s the fact that people have become casual and cavalier about using these racial slurs and slurs for groups of people in America currently as this presidential race rolls on.”
The New New Colossus
The result was the song The New New Colossus, a song he wrote based on comments he was reading on his Facebook timeline and the political debate.
Every line in it is something he read from someone he knew.
The lyrics are inflammatory, including epithets such as “sandni**er” that people were comfortable posting online.
But Snider says singing them was necessary and intended to shock. “People have become cavalier,” he says.
He hopes the song makes people consider the language they are using.
Compassion is part of Mobley’s music too. His new EP is released in April but is already available for pre-sale.
He is donating 10 percent of sales to relief efforts in Flint, Michigan, a city struggling with a water-contamination crisis that started two years ago when state officials switched the water supply from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River.
The water was not tested for possible corrosive effects on the pipes carrying it into homes and businesses, and lead from pipes and fixtures leached into the water supply, creating long-term health effects in the community.
The donations follow a pattern of Mobley’s contributions to causes he cares about.
“It’s something that I’ve done since the first time I put out music … I’ll do a pre-sale that’s about a month long or so and give 10 percent or so to whatever cause is most heavy on my mind at the time.
“The first time it was relief efforts related to the genocide in Sudan, in Darfur, and then on another occasion it was shortly after the storms in Haiti and contributing to that relief effort.”
Even with success, Mobley notes, compensation is meagre and he spends money to sustain his music career, which is not atypical.
“I’m constantly playing shows. I’ve been on big festivals. I’ve had placements in television and film. It’s just the compensation of artists is so meagre you have to supplement your income until you reach the relatively tiny middle class of artists.”
But even licensing, which once was seen as a way for artists to earn money just as the sale of music on the internet was starting, doesn’t yield the profits it once did.
When the singer-songwriter Moby licensed every track off his 1999 album Play – he was the first musician to license every song on an album – it was seen as a way for musicians to boost sales and make money.
Mobley has licensed music to television shows on American networks HBO, Fox and NBC, but he says licensing is not a sure way to make money, and that sometimes music supervisors on films approach musicians and ask them to pay to have song placement in films.
And while some shows at South by Southwest pay, the financial outlook for musicians working on their own can be bleak.
However, Mobley and Snider say they feel they have to play music. Mobley says he shares other musicians’ “sense of compulsion”.
Even though he went to college thinking he would be an attorney, he become a musician.
For Snider, his travels on tour around the US provide inspiration and feed his desire to make music.
“The more I see of the world and the more I drink in this country … the more I feel like I have other things to say,” he says.