Guitar riffs, cymbal crashes, pounding drums and roaring fans stalked Elliott Usrey as he strolled down a central Texas city street. Volunteers had just assured him they didn’t need help at the tavern hosting a rock band.
A few doors down, then-Indiana State senior Usrey checked in with a group of volunteers staffing a pub entertaining a musical group as part of the South by Southwest festival. He then began his trek to the next stop on his itinerary.
Two venues down. Dozens more to go … and that was just Wednesday night.
More than 1,000 miles away from his Terre Haute campus in Austin, Texas, Usrey interned with the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, helping to organize the thousands of volunteers at the festival’s sites.
For five nights, musicians from around the world perform throughout the city, though most of SXSW is focused in an area not much larger than two dozen square blocks. From hard rock to hip-hop, funk to folk, legendary headliners to aspiring hopefuls play in bars, taverns, comedy clubs, even churches – nearly any place that can hold a band.
From 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. during an early March week in 2010, more than 90 Austin venues hosted the musical acts symbolizing SXSW. Usrey toured the city festival – going door to door, checking in with various venues’ multiple volunteers each night for five nights.
“It was really a lot of work, a lot of hours, a lot of stress,” Usrey said, “and it was great.”
For Usrey, who graduated in 2010 with a degree in music business administration, the internship provided an unofficial job application. His break with the organization came when another Sycamore and SXSW employee James Shinault contacted a faculty member in ISU’s music business program regarding an internship opening available in the festival planning organization.
“I was seen by the higher ups in the company and they noticed my work,” Usrey said, “So after my internship ended, I went back to Indiana in May, graduated, walked in commencement, and I kept in touch with everyone in South by Southwest.”
He remembers the day he was informed his life would change – it was 8910, or August 9, 2010 – when he officially received a full-time job offer with SXSW.
Usrey remembers witnessing some “great acts of the 50s, 60s and 70s,” in his youth at his parents’ theater in Sullivan, Ind. The musical groups were mostly “doo wop, gospel, country and blues,” but they introduced him to the music industry. He got his foot in the door at a young age, as he helped his parents around the theater, working the concessions counter or checking in coats.
“I think I was about 10 years old by the time they opened it, but when I was that young, I was interested in seeing the bands play,” Usrey said.
In junior high, he started teaching himself how to play the guitar. When he started at Indiana State, he opted to study music business though he played in several Wabash Valley bands while in college.
“I didn’t necessarily want to study to be a performer, and I knew that studying music business would give me the best of both worlds where I could develop my performance side and then develop knowledge for music business,” Usrey said. “Music just took over my life.”
Among the people he met at Indiana State, he became acquainted with Shinault, who graduated in 2007 with a music business administration degree. Nearly four years later, they would be calling themselves co-workers in Texas.
Shinault’s foray into the South by Southwest festival began in 2006, when he joined more than a half-dozen other ISU Music Industry Association student group members who spent their spring break volunteering at the festival. While SXSW sometimes occurs as the same time as spring break for universities in Texas, Shinault said, that spring was a rare occurrence in that it lined up with the Indiana State’s weeklong retreat.
“That really made me fall in love with Austin, Texas, and festivals and South by Southwest in particular,” Shinault said of his experience. “I really pushed hard and was able to meet the volunteer coordinator and internship coordinator.”
In 2007, six months before he graduated, he landed an internship with the festival. That experience helped him forge a career goal.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started at ISU,” said Shinault, who now works with AC Entertainment, a company that puts on music festivals across the country, including Bonnaroo. “I knew I wanted to be involved with concerts and live music, but I wasn’t sure how. At Indiana State at the time, most of the graduates had focused on the retail and manufacturing side of the music.”
His time with SXSW gave him different kinds of experience. Concerts are just one component of SXSW, which includes panels and other events devoted to the music, film and technology industries. He sat in on some panel sessions, including one that featured the Beastie Boys.
“Volunteering at a music festival, any festival, is a great way to get started,” Shinault said. “It’s a great way to get your foot in the door.”
He helped continue the Sycamore tradition of interning at the annual festival. He contacted Indiana State, which led to Usrey interning – and later being hired full-time – at SXSW. This spring, Shinault hosted his second ISU intern: Patrick Swartz, a music business major from Evansville who graduated this year.
Swartz remembered when a group of students scheduled a trip to SXSW, but the trip required participants to be 21 to go. He was too young and missed out on the trip, but he checked out the festival itinerary online. His eyes widened at the lineup, and he regularly reviewed the itinerary for the next several festivals. Last year he applied for an internship, which he worked from January to April including through this year’s festival.
“I honestly had no idea what to expect,” Swartz said. “I expected it to be eventful and exciting, and it definitely was. I just went in with an open mind. I was hoping to be ready for whatever came my way.”
Leading up to the festival, he organized the schedules of hundreds of volunteers. During the festivities, he also routinely checked venues hosting bands to ensure everything was running smoothly. One night, when he reached a venue, a rambunctious crowd had gathered at its entrance with several squad cars with lights flashing parked nearby.
“I started to think ‘Oh my God, what did I miss’?” Swartz said.
As he approached the venue entrance, teenagers clamoring to get in noticed his SXSW badge and were “literally throwing me cash,” he said. The teens were hoping to see the electronic dance music artist Skrillex perform at a venue not able to hold the crowd, Swartz said.
“It’s difficult to remember pinpoint internship highlights because it was four months, and especially the festival itself, it was a couple weeks of nonstop” activity, Swartz said. “It was just so much to take in.”
Yet Sycamores have done more than merely volunteer and work at the festival. Several Sycamores experienced the other side of the SXSW, as the Terre Haute-based folk band Yearbook Committee has played the festival each of the past two years.
They applied to play the festival, which is required for musicians aspiring to play what Usrey called an industry festival. The first year, Yearbook Committee members received notice that they were on standby. Six weeks before SXSW, the band was informed that a spot had opened. The second year the band was accepted outright.
“That first year was such a crap shoot, but the second year was so much better,” said band member and 2008 graduate Brad Lone. “They were both amazingly fun.”
Yearbook Committee members created an array of memories from the festivals. Before the second SXSW appearance, the band – in which each member sings and plays a variety of instruments – lined up gigs along the way, including a stop featuring other SXSW bands in Dallas and “an alternative art gallery” in Little Rock, Ark., that featured a half-dozen heavy metal bands with names such as Custer’s Reunion.
“These kids hated us,” Lone said, laughing as he recalled the performance. “They did not give a damn about us at all.”
Each year at SXSW, Yearbook Committee played in a local comedy club. This year, the band played on the music festival’s opening night, which left them the rest of the week to tour the conference and attend concerts. Members of bands performing at SXSW receive passes to access different events.
“I would not go visit now as a 30-year-old man,” band member and ISU junior David Goodier said. “But as a 24-year-old or 23-year-old, I would’ve been freaking out down there. I’m a married 30-year-old man. I’m like ‘Okay, this is really busy. I want to go to the panels.’”
Lone has experienced the festival from multiple angles. He also volunteered at SXSW while an Indiana State student (and fell in love with the festival) nearly a decade ago.
“It’s just sensory overload,” Lone said. “So ISU students, if you’re listening, skip the beach, go to South by Southwest next year.
“You’ll have fun.”
Austin Arceo is the assistant director of media relations.