Infectious Magazine had the honor of chatting with Mike Ziemer, founder of the South By So What?! music festival. He discusses how he initially started the festival, using the negativity of others as the fuel to succeed, advice for young music industry hopefuls, and much more. Check it out below.
Infectious Magazine: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. How are you?
MZ: Hey! What’s up? I’m doing well! I am currently in Denton with some of the members of the SBSW team working on the festival! Only 16 days to go!
For those unfamiliar, can you tell us a little about your background?
Well… I started promoting concerts as a senior in high school to help out my friends’ bands and it grew into 10 years of putting on concerts and festivals! South By So What?! is my baby and it’s turning 7 this March! I also manage bands, photographers, directors, and producers under Evolve Music & Media!
You got your start in high school. Do you think kids have it any harder these days, in starting something like this while still at that age/time period?
I think the only limitations a person has are the ones they put on themselves. I had no special talents to put on these concerts, I wasn’t rich, my parents didn’t give me money to do it, school didn’t help me, it was all me. I think anyone can do anything they want to, it’s just a matter of having the passion and persistence to see it happen. I will say there are A LOT more distractions these days and most kids are so A.D.D. about everything they don’t really know what they want to grow up and be.
Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to found South By So What?!
South By So What?! is the direct result of a necessity to combine a ton of tours coming through Texas during SXSW so that kids can afford to see all the bands in one big show. I wanted to fit as many bands and stages as I could in one show and I think with 3 days, 3 stages, and over 140 bands, we are definitely doing that this year!
How has it grown since its inception seven years ago, and where do you see it 7 years from now?
The first South By So What?! did 2,800 people, this year between the 3 days we are expecting 20,000 people. It’s crazy to even say that. We started at a community center with 4 stages – 2 going at the same time – and 2 setting up and a bunch of local, regional, and smaller national bands. Natural progression and bands spreading the word about how much they enjoy the festival has helped it grow more than anything. That and the fans that support us year after year!
In a lot of ways, booking has become a really delicate art, and one that a lot of people are just flat out afraid to get into. Without giving away any of your secrets, what do you think are some of the key components to success?
Booking a successful festival is a combination of your local support (local bands that will sell tickets, promote the event, and help spread the word), headliners (the big bands everyone has heard of), and the hot up-and-coming bands. If you can throw in the “holy shit! how did they do that!” component, you’re really set. Bringing back bands like Terminal, As Cities Burn, booking Glassjaw, having Taking Back Sunday and The Used this year, those add that to our festival.
So many young people are competing to break into the music industry. What advice do you have for those people?
The music industry is not a normal job and it never will be. You don’t work a 9-5 (usually) within this industry but you work a 24 hour job of promoting your shows, working for your bands and booking tours. No matter what area of the industry you are in, you’re gonna be answering calls sometimes at 3am, you’re gonna be answering e-mails 24 hours a day, and you’re going to get overwhelmed. You have to have a good team and you have to love it. To get started, be an intern, be an assistant, work with local bands, learn every angle of the industry you can so you can understand everyone’s point of view.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions you had when entering the industry?
I thought I would always be the tiny, small promoter… hence the name “Third String” productions. I never thought I could book The Used or Taking Back Sunday or do shows in an arena or a baseball field. I thought I was limited to my small little niche market.
What is the best piece of advice you received when starting South By So What?!
The best advice I have ever been given is the negativity and ignorant hate of people that believe I can’t do something or shouldn’t do something or that I am going to fail. The pressure to succeed and the drive to be one of the best out there keeps me going. I didn’t receive a lot of advice starting this out. I remember someone from Live Nation once telling me that they didn’t need to partner with me because if they ever wanted a tour more they could just overpay on it – that made me work hard enough to be at a level where they would come back and respect what I do and not see me as some tiny dude.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
To anyone that wants to work in the music industry, do it, as long as you love music with passion and it’s what you truly want, it’s worth the internships, the sleepless nights, and all the ups and downs. Music is one thing that is universally loved and being able to bring joy and happiness to people through music is an incredible feeling.