SXSW director Brent Grulke talks DIY culture and inspiration

Posted on 16 June 2010
By Andy Johnson
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SXSW Creative director and Purple Revolver hero Brent Grulke has thrown down the creative gauntlet for all aspiring artists. ‘Get out there and make it happen.’

Brent began life in the industry picking up sound engineering gigs and sleeping on friends’ floors, before taking bands out on the road whilst holding down a job on his local paper.

He started the festival from scratch in Austin back in 1987 with a bunch of friends, blagging free venue hire during spring break – when the city used to be deserted.

The events now attract the world’s best in interactive media, film, and music to Texas, with 2,000 performers playing in more than 90 venues around downtown Austin over four days.

We caught up with Brent at Sound City to get the low down about what it takes to succeed in a DIY culture and carve out a living in the music industry.

Brent said: “Whatever you’re trying to do in the industry, you need to do it with people you love and you share a passion with.

“That and be lucky. To be successful, you have to be really determined, 95 per cent of people start to make money, because they become money minded about what they do. They are determined not to do anything else, but work in the industry.

“People who don’t love what they do quit and end up doing something else.

“Family will always try and talk you out of it, because there’s no money in it.

“They’ll challenge you; ‘You’re not making any money, what’s wrong with you, why don’t you get a real job?’

“My family loved pointing out that I was sleeping on the floor and living with five guys and my life was going nowhere. But you’ve got to keep believing in what you do.”

His rapid fire, enthusiastic speech is far removed from the slow, southern drawl you’d expect from a Texas native.

But after talking to him for 10 minutes its easy to see why he has inspired the cream of the creative industry to descend on Austin every year.

Brent got a surprise CV promotion in the Sound City programme, which elaborated on his start in the industry, fantastically sending him to Denmark where is supposed to have gained 12 years experience in the financial sector.

He explained: “I’ve always worked in music, doing various different jobs – mainly as a journalist, some sound engineer work and as a tour manager – but always in music.

“Don’t know where that thing in the Sound City programme came from about me working in finance and living in Denmark for 12 years, I think somebody was having a joke.

“I worked at venues in NYC, then at a small record label based in LA, which all gave me great experience. But I kept moving back to Austin, there’s so much great music, it kept pulling me back.

“When I was at Texas University, I lived with some guys working for the Austin Chronicle and one day they said you should come work for us. There was no money in it, but I’d swap ads for food and other things and pick the odd sound engineer gig up to keep going.

“But the main thing was being able to say to people and musicians ‘I’m a writer’ and mean it while exploring music. Then the guys I was living with started taking bands out on the road.

“The guy who was doing ad sales for the Chronicle wanted to create a music business model for the bands in Austin, because there wasn’t one (and still isn’t really).

“It was a real close group and it was fun and we just kept building things up from there. This is how SXSW started 25 years ago – we just wanted to create something.

“We went to the venues and persuaded them to let us do it while spring break was on and everyone was away – so they had nothing to lose. And we had control of editorial in the paper, so we had a media machine to drive awareness and it grew from there into what it is today.

“If you want to create something – just get out there and make it happen – there isn’t any better way.”