When Open Mike Eagle and I were finally able to connect by phone (after the 2-week post SXSW interview back and forth) it almost felt like we were old friends who united under the banner of chaos that is the festival itself. We were in full agreement that it is not an open field with multiple stages and that is exactly what it shouldn't be. It is a professionally oriented networking festival and after his 5th year at the festival Open Mike knew exactly what the deal was and had the foresight to speak with me about what it can do for an artist, all mixed in with realistic optimism and a good dose of humor.
EARMILK: How was your experience this year as opposed to prior SXSW's?
Open Mike Eagle: This time I knew which events to give the most intention to in terms of promotion and expectations coming out of them, because the first few years I was just happy to do anything that anyone asked me to do down there. So I would be doing those things without realizing that some of those things that I was doing were not priorities (as they are before you enter SXSW graduate school.) It's easier for me now to decide which ones are more important and which ones to invite industry people to so it was easier to just go through it relaxed and have fun performances.
EM: So you were better able to prioritize your time there this year because you had that experience?
EM: What were some of your favorite highlights of SXSW?
OME: My favorite show was that we played the Impose Magazine "Needledrop" showcase as Hellfyre club (that's who I was touring with), we did a group set at it and it was crazy. We even started a mosh pit. The crowd was really for it, and it was a perfect execution of everything that we had been trying to build up when we were on tour, all on a beautiful Austin day. There were also some business people in the audience, which was really a highlight for me. We also had our own showcase that night that was an official SXSW showcase that we booked and curated that went really great too. It was weird because we didn't know beforehand the venue that they were putting us in and it was one of those places that was set up for bottle service.
EM: Well that sounds nice!
OME: Definitely, all of the bartenders were in weird leather bikinis and there were booths behind the stage where people could sit and get bottle service and be weird. That was a time. We showed up and we did our thing and put on a great show!
EM: What were your thoughts on the much talked about "commercialism" of SXSW this year?
OME: On one hand, a corporate SXSW is the only SXSW that I've ever known. I've heard how it used to be that you could go there as "Joe Blow" the band or "Joe Blow" the rapper and start a buzz there and have all of these career components come out of that. But the SXSW I've seen has never been like that, it's been SXSW the company that hires performers and puts own shows. The good part though is that there is so much money in it that literally everybody is there. I know that it has been a great networking tool for me because I get to go to one city for a few days and see a little bit of everybody the I usually don't see all year. Rappers from all over the place, rappers I look up to, in my land of the up and coming you get to make a lot of connections. But I've never gone into it expecting that it was going to change my career. Another good part of it having so much money in it is that I do know that there are a lot of grass roots things happening around it, even if that's not the central push anymore. There are no restrictions on what shows can be put on, and anything can happen. And of course a lot of them are unofficial, but they still depend on the economy of SXSW. I've seen a lot of amazing grass roots stuff happening, and a lot of independent hip-hop pockets that I've been able to be a part of. So I can't front on it too hard, but I don't have any expectations because I know what it is.
EM: That's a really healthy attitude, I'd assume a lot of musicians have gone there expecting a record deal… and it just doesn't work like that.
OME: (Laughs) It absolutely does not. What it can do is if you go down there with some good management and a booking agent you can have some label people see you and they can try and talk and try to work stuff out. You're not just going to go down there and be handed a contract or a big oversized check for ten grand. I've always felt really bad for bands in particular because it's such a money pit to get down there in terms of what you're spending. I can't imagine what it would take to make that worthwhile. (Laughs) and you know I definitely wasted money too, but there was some really cool stuff.
EM: So it's really just a way to get out there?
OME: Absolutely, and you know what we made some progress!
EM: What was your favorite event (off the clock) that you went to?
OME: I know that I intended not to go to anything and I think that I actually pulled it off except for a Hannibal Buress Comedy Showcase right on 6th St. I caught that and hung out with him for a little bit. That was really it, other than that I basically had to rap the entire time that I was there. I actually missed a show on Thursday because we had to drive 14 hours and tried to do part of it overnight, then I had two shows Friday and two shows Saturday.
EM: What do you feel that you personally brought to SXSW this year?
OME: I came with Hellfyre Club and that in itself was something. It's not a new thing, but the way that we're doing it now is really fresh. I was on tour with Busdriver, Nocando and Milo under the banner of "Hellfyre Club." We all have a separate pocket of fans and it's been really interesting to view the response of all of us together. Hitting SXSW as a part of that unit was really fresh and tight with all of the different responses and all of the different types of crowds that we were able to put together based on our guy Rhetoric (who flew out from LA to do SXSW) and the four of us. There were a lot of energies from different crowds and labels coming together this year.
EM: Do you think that this was one of your better SXSW's since you knew more what to expect going in?
OME: I've had some great SXSW's but one thing that I can take away this year in terms of my resume is that Hellfyre Club had it's own official SXSW showcase, and that for our circles was pretty big. I've done different official showcases as part of labels or Internet sites (I rocked the Impose Showcase in 2011 with Danny Brown and Mister Exsquire and G-Side) but to have our own… that was pretty tight.
EM: From what I've read about you, you're pretty self-made in the music industry. You've worked hard and it wasn't handed to you.
OME: I mean definitely, I've only gotten management in the last year or so. I come from a DIY branch of indie hip-hop so for me that wasn't something that was even special. We all did that, and a lot of the guys who I'm peers with… that's kind of what you do. I have become a little more fortunate in that you can get some help eventually and I was able to deal with labels from very early on in my career, but we all kind of start out like that where I come from.
EM: So for you, you didn't even think about it. But when you look back on it, because you come from that DIY environment… you didn't have anyone holding your hand.
OME: Right. It was just "get out there and do it," mix the pot up, get on the road any way that you can, make videos any way that you can, promote yourself on social networks and try to build something. Now, I'm starting to put a lot of pieces of the business together.