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Close to 160 UK bands attended this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. The two main venues for UK acts were the British Music Embassy and Sellers Underground on 4th Street, which is in the heart of the city.

British Music Embassy is curated by the Department for Business and Trade, Music Export Growth Scheme, and a list of music industry partners.

MU Head of International Dave Webster speaks onstage at an SXSW Networking Event

Sellers Underground is the home of UK music export organisation British Underground. They collated a series of evening showcases with partners such as labels and promoters including Speedy Wunderground, Alcopop, and Jazz Refreshed.

As the union’s Head of International, my job at SXSW was to support as many musicians as possible, recruit new members and discuss the work of the MU.

Meeting artists backed by the International Showcase Fund

Thirty-five of the artists performing were backed by the PRS Foundation International Showcase Fund, such as Scottish band Dead Pony, and I had the opportunity to talk to them about the ways that the MU helps and supports its members. The importance of a trade union for musicians was acknowledged by all the musicians I spoke to over the course of the week.

Sometimes, for emerging artists, finding union fees for all band members can be a challenge in these difficult times. Having one or two members of the band in MU membership is a great start. But with all the band in membership, we can then provide a partnership agreement, the entire band are covered for public liability, and all can benefit from the advice and services the union provides.

The International Showcase Fund held their Grantees and Partners Breakfast networking session on day two of SXSW. Thanks to PRS Foundation CEO Joe Frankland for inviting me on stage to introduce the MU to the assembled artists.

Large group of musicians assembled in support of the Let The Music Move campaign

As part of the campaign against the proposed increase to US visa petition fees, Let the Music Move were also at the session and all attendees took part in a photocall to show their support. The campaign, started by the Music Managers Forum and Featured Artists Coalition, is also backed by the MU and the band Panic Shack were on hand to show their support.

Helping out with contracts through our Contract Advisory Service certainly helped MU member Gen from North of England band Gen and The Degenerates. The whole band dropped by for a chat and to show their support for the Let the Music Move Campaign.

The best of emerging UK jazz

Later in the day, I met Balimaya Project at Sellers Underground, the venue for the British Underground/Jazz Refreshed evening showcasing the best of emerging UK jazz. This ten-piece band, led by percussionist Yaheal Camara Onono wowed audiences with their West African inspired jazz.

Balimaya project pose outside Sellers Underground

Also playing at the Jazz Refreshed showcase was MU Midlands member Marcus Joseph. Marcus, like so many of the UK’s artists, is looking to expand contacts in the US and make all the right connections to develop his career there. Being an MU member has been invaluable to Marcus through the advice and guidance he has been able to get to help him achieve his career goals.

Brighton band Dutch Criminal Record, who played the British Underground Alcopop showcase, also told me that they found MU guidance on working in the EU and legal advice from their Regional Office invaluable.

MU East and South East members Sam Thrussell and Bassist Joe Delaney–Stone talked at length about how the MU has assisted them over the years. The band were able to fund their trip to SXSW through income generated via their TikTok page.

Showcasing acts from Scotland and Northern Ireland

MU Scotland member Seth Tinsley from the band Elephant Sessions dropped by for a chat. Elephant Sessions have just released their fourth album and won numerous awards. They played the Wide Days Scottish showcase at The Creek and The Cave – however, as their stage was one of the many outdoor stages in Austin, the storms that hit the city that night meant all outdoor shows were postponed. Thankfully as the storm abated, Elephant Sessions performances were able to start again.

The British Music Embassy also showcased artists from Northern Ireland. At the Output Belfast showcase, I was delighted to meet the bands Junk Drawer, Dea Matrona, Wynona Bleach, Lemonade Shoelace, and Cherym. Following the set from Cherym, I had a chat with Hannah, bassist Nyree and drummer Alannagh. It was great to be able to answer questions about the benefits being part of the MU offers and how we might be able to support Cherym in their career.

Tackling issues that affect musicians globally

On Friday 17 March, I met with colleagues from British Underground, PRS Foundation and Covey Law/Tamizdat to discuss next steps on the US Visa increase proposal. Then back to British Music Embassy to talk to Scottish band Hamish Hawk. It is their second time at SXSW and the band is going from strength to strength.

Hamish Hawk band smile at the camera

The next day I was invited to the British Music Embassy Continental Connections speed meetings where I met colleagues from across the world. The work the MU are doing on issues affecting musicians globally was a common theme. It seems the world has come out against proposals to increase US visa fees.

There is more that connects us than divides us

As SXSW came to a close for 2023, it’s clear that there is more that connects us than divides us. It was a privilege to meet so many musicians and talk about the work of the MU.

It was helpful to be able to ask members about how the MU had helped them in their careers, what they got from their membership, and whether they had any concerns we could assist with. Meeting non-members led to generous and open conversations on what it means to be part of a union of musicians.

Five person band Panic Shack smile at the camera and hold up a "let the music move" banner

The UK had the second largest representation of bands after the US at the festival, which speaks volumes for our industry and the quality of musical output from the UK.

Despite challenges presented by the pandemic, Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis, this goes to show how important music is to who we are and how we exist in the world. The union will keep working hard to support and advocate for its members at every level.

Photo ofDave Webster
Thanks to

Dave Webster

Dave Webster is a Head of International at the Musicians' Union, and is currently heavily engaged in managing the impact of BREXIT and other international issues affecting musicians. Dave joined the MU in 2004 following a busy career as a freelance drummer, percussionist and teacher. Dave’s Union activism came about as a member of the North London Branch Committee and subsequently Chair of that Committee. He also Chaired the Theatre Section Committee.

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Exterior of Caird Hall in the city centre of Dundee, Scotland.

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