Why I Won’t Be At SXSW….

I know the last thing anyone wants to hear are artists whining about money (trust me I am one of them). But with all the hype surrounding SXSW I thought I would chime in with why I won’t be in Austin this week amongst all of the web 2.0 illuminati twittering and drinking Mexican beers.
A couple of months ago I had a conversation with SXSW that went something like this:
SXSW: Hi, we’d like to invite Graffiti Research Lab to keynote at SXSW!
Me: Great. Thanks for the invitation. Our standard fee is $X.
SXSW: Oh, we only pay for flights and hotel.
Me: Really? Even for a keynote? Giving talks is in part how we pay for rent and food. How about $X/2
SXSW: Nope. Airfare and hotel.
Me: How about you just pay for meals while we’re in Austin so we aren’t losing money?
SXSW: Nope. Airfare and hotel.
Me: Thanks, but no thanks.
I am somewhat more understanding with events that are grassroots and hence under funded, but the Graffiti Research Lab keynote presentation at SXSW (a private company) is sponsored specifically by Microsoft (a giant corporation). Beyond the moral implications of having the largest proprietary software giant funding a talk about free culture and open source, what I would first like to know is where is that money going? I know it’s not going towards fees or food for the presenters. My suspicion is that the people extending the invitation will be paid, the person setting up the audio and video equipment will be paid, and the janitor cleaning up after the talk will be paid. So, is it really that difficult to pay for a handful of meals for the artists while they’re in Austin?
The problem with this as a precedent is that it leaves artists in a position where they will never be able to pay rent. This issue of not paying artists (which I have blogged on in the past) extends well beyond me and well beyond SXSW, and is something that is becoming more common as the world economy continues to crumble. In the end I’m writing this not because I’m greedy and looking to fund my Champagne lifestyle, but because in general it is a system that benefits private for-profit events (e.g., SXSW) and corporate sponsors (e.g., Microsoft) at the expense of artists (e.g., me). In the end I have two messages:
1. Event organizers: If you respect the artists you are inviting, then pay them. You can’t buy bananas with publicity, so don’t try to pedal this as a form of currency (especially since the artists are also bringing you publicity). If you can’t afford to pay artists, then you don’t have enough funding to host the event.
2. Artists: Airfare, hotel, and publicity are not payment for your time. If corporately sponsored events can’t pay artist fess then tell them ‘no’. By accepting gigs like this, we are just as guilty as they are for perpetuating a system that ensures we stay eating Ramen Noodles until the day we die.
In summary: Event organizers, show some love to those you love. Artists, god gave you middle fingers for a reason, don’t be afraid to use them.