SXSW Recap: Wheelchair Sports Camp Asks What It Means to Be a “Successful” Artist

Editor's Note: Kalyn Heffernan is a familiar voice to many regular readers of Westword Music. We've written about her band Wheelchair Sports Camp many times over the years, and she has sent us dispatches from previous trips to SXSW. This year, she shares this recap of the band's sixth trip to Austin, and wonders whether the struggle is forever.

We made it back ALIVE from another SXSW! We have been super fortunate and humbled to represent Denver officially since we started making the trek in 2011. On our first trip and our first time out of Colorado, we had a rare “SXSW breakthrough” experience when about 200+ people came to our showcase, and a good chunk of those attendees were industry people. Got home with a front-page Denver Post story, got in SPIN magazine, rocked the cover of the Village Voice, had an huge A&R reach out, and interviewed with Nardwuar. Most importantly we have kept relationships with all those connects and call them friends now.

Five years later, the Wheelchair Sports Camp crew has come a long way, and yet we still tour like gypsies, making just enough to get by. As I sit here on my twenty-ninth birthday and reflect on what it means to do what we’ve done, I realize so many of my dreams have come true, but I wonder: Will I be thirty, on the cover of your magazine and still struggling to make a living doing what it seems like I’m already doing?
All we talk about on the road is how to sustain this crazy career path. Touring is not for everyone, but for me it’s like a drug that won’t let me go. Yet on the other hand, this is my life’s work, and we deserve to live a comfortable life doing what we’ve busted our asses for. We get a lot of time in the mini-van (about eight hours driving a day on tour) to talk about the current state of the music “industry” or lack thereof. On this trip down to Austin, we talked a ton about our perceptions of what it means to be a “successful” artist. We’ve toured the country and back, played outside of the U.S., sold thousands of CDs and swag, and been in some serious publications. But the reality is, we’re still struggling. We’re friends with our heroes and our heroes are struggling just like us.

It’s so easy to watch someone’s Instagram or Snapchat (which I still don’t get) and assume your heroes and peers are on top of the world. They’re touring, they have fans, they’re at SXSW with all the bigwigs, but where are they sleeping? Are they sleeping? How much money did they make or lose to create this perception?

SXSW is the best and worst melting pot for independent music and corporate exploiters. It is the most diverse fest I know of, a melting pot of music-goers from all backgrounds. There are so many people at SXSW without “official wristbands,” and many of them have traveled from Japan or Latin America or anywhere in between. How many of these musicians lost money for “SXSW exposure”? Most of them, I’d guess. SXSW does not pay performers for their twenty-minute sets (more often fifteen minutes because there’s only five minutes budgeted to change over stages between acts, and the sound guy was over-worked and under-informed). It costs an arm and both legs to stay in Austin if you don’t have a couch to crash on. The food trucks — while amazing — all cost a pretty penny. You may be drinking free Bud Light all day, but you’ve got to eat.

As one of Denver’s biggest, “smallest” bands and representing our city at the world’s largest and most diverse festivals in the world, we can’t help but wonder why our city doesn’t invest in its touring artists. After every single show we play, people want to talk about Denver — it’s the most popular and intriguing city in the country right now. People want to know how our city is handling the legalization of marijuana and if it’s as cool as everyone says it is. We know damn well we have one of the best creative communities, but it’s still near impossible to make a living as an artist here. Denver has all the money and hype, but the money part doesn’t apply to the music economy. Sometimes it seems pursuing the dream of this career will mean sleeping on the floor forever. All I know is that Denver uses us musicians to sell the city to investors and newcomers, and SXSW uses us to sell its festival, but we artists who fuel this economy can’t keep doing it this way. No, the money doesn’t trickle down. Your perception is off, your Reaganomics is off. We’ll continue to represent for Denver, but right now I'm like, “Fuck you, pay us!”

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Kalyn Heffernan