SXSW and the Myth of "Making It"

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Editor's Note: Denver rock band In the Whale is in Austin this week for SXSW. The duo of Nate Valdez (vocals and guitar) and Eric Riley (drums and backing vocals) will be documenting their exploits and observations for Westword Music. For more shenanigans, follow In the Whale on FacebookTwitter and/or Instagram. For the most shenanigans, head to the hi-dive on April 3rd, where the band will be celebrating the release of a new album called Full Nelson

SXSW is over. So, what now?

We are writing this from the van, heading home for a whopping 48 hours before heading off to Treefort Music Festival in Boise. We’re cutting the dozens of wristbands off our wrists and attempting to reflect on five days of chaos and what it really means.

For most artists who performed, they will return to home to their day jobs and play local shows. Maybe a few summer festivals, some sporadic touring and they wait. They wait for the few dozen people in the music industry that can make or break you to email them. That’s the illusion SXSW, CMJ, and the countless other industry festivals provide bands…HOPE.

The Voice, American Idol, and America’s Got Talent have convinced people that all you need is one shot and you’re a superstar. The harsh reality is while that sounds nice, superstardom or success in entertainment is even rarer than finding a clean bathroom on 6th Street. It’s about little steps, pushing forward in the face of adversity, and if the door doesn’t budge, kick it open yourself.

For 99 percent of the bands who performed at SXSW 2015 it was just another show. We all (In the Whale included) were background noise for thousands of people getting blackout drunk, swiping right and trying to get their crowdfunded start-up some additional cash.

Our first trip to SXSW in 2012 was one of many wakeup calls we have had since starting this band. We thought we’d descend on the festival with our ingenious marketing strategy of handbills and poster boards with set times, become overnight sensations and leave our lives behind for rock superstardom. Within hours, that strategy was out the window, as people were more interested in the street preacher telling you you’re headed to the lake of fire or 60-year-old man wearing a thong. There are so many choices, so many things happening at once, it’s extremely overwhelming. How do you stand out?

Smash-cut to the present day. We’re honestly still asking ourselves the same question, but we’ve also learned that, while SXSW is a great opportunity, it is just one step of a thousand steps you have to take making music your career. Last year, we were added to a theater tour opening up for one of our favorite bands, the Presidents of the United States of America. When we told our friends about the tour, many insisted it was “our shot.” No matter how many we tried to explain to them that this is not how it works, people just thought we were kidding ourselves. Guess what happened? We had a great tour, made a bunch of new fans and turned some heads… then, we went home and worked our day jobs. A few weeks later, we started the cycle again with another band in a different part of the country and then came home to our day jobs. See the theme? Our lives as In the Whale is indeed the song that never ends.

Hold on, we just ran over a nail in West Texas and need to change a tire. That, my friends, is really what happens when you zig-zag across the United States in a van.

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