Taylor Mowrey Burge and her husband, Austin Burge, are having a baby in September. That’s an expensive proposition for anyone, but especially for people who work in the service industry. Taylor works with Coté Catering. Austin runs a coffee business that sets up shop at farmer’s markets and other events, and he does landscaping on the side—and they’re going to pay for all of their baby-related expenses with money that they make during SXSW.
“Next week, I’m going to write a check to our midwife to pay for everything up front,” Taylor says as she walks down Sixth Street to a space above El Sol Y La Luna that, for an 8-day stretch of SXSW, is the Camel Lounge. “Otherwise, we’d be setting up a payment plan.”
The Burges aren’t alone in feeling a very real economic impact from SXSW. People in Austin are prone to complaining about the event—traffic is a nightmare; parking downtown costs $40 or more; buses are re-routed and bus stops are closed; many out-of-towners act rude and entitled, and treat the city like a toilet; etc., etc. And as much as SXSW’s identity involves music, film, art, creativity, and other desirable traits, the whole thing is very much about money.
But that money doesn’t just end up in the coffers of the festival organizers, or in the pockets of those who are privileged to work in the entertainment/technology/media industries. It ends up in the pockets of the Burges, and by extension in the hands of an Austin midwife. So how does SXSW affect people in the less glamorous industries?
“We hire our friends,” Taylor Burge explains. “At the Camel Lounge, with tips, we’re making $300 a day. [Tuesday], we did an event for MediaCom in the morning at Laguna Gloria and paid $300, then another $300 at the Camel Lounge at night.” Those are long days—twelve hours or more—but in the service industry, there aren’t many opportunities in Austin to take home $600 in a single day. And especially not to do it again and again, for eight days in a row.
Taylor’s husband similarly picked up a lot of work—Figure 8 Coffee Shop, which opened recently, decided to finish landscaping its patio in time for SXSW, recruiting Austin Burge for the job. His coffee business served at the MediaCom event as well, and Taylor says that the toughest part, aside from the long hours, is finding qualified bartenders on short notice.
“We were contacted by Camel two weeks ago, after their original caterer dropped out at the last minute. It’s getting so big now that some local companies have too many gigs, and have to let them go,” she says. “Which makes it hard to find bartenders who are TABC certified. A lot of them have other gigs, or are playing shows.”
The Burges know that dynamic well—Austin plays bass in the Austin band RF Shannon, whhich is playing a showcase on Saturday—and Taylor is taking Friday off from catering to drive her 12-passenger van to help an independent record label get its artists to its own showcase. So she’ll see a drop-off from the big dollar gigs. “It’s worth it to get off my feet, though,” she says. “If you’re not going to enjoy SXSW for the music, you just make as much money as you can—or you can do both.”
Scott Graber is the Creative Director at Neon and More, a shop that specializes in neon signs that opened in Austin a little less than three years ago. This is the first year that Graber’s company was on the SXSW radar, however, and it’s made a dramatic difference.
“We mostly do signs for small businesses—you know, “Open,” “No Vacancy,” “Pet Grooming”—and this is the first year we’ve made a bunch of neon signs and displays for corporate SXSW events,” Graber says.
Neon and More made a neon camel, as well as a neon thumbs-up sign for music streaming service Pandora, and displays for Dropbox, NetSpend, and Aether. “Probably the coolest one we did was a pink neon wing display for the #10KSA breast cancer awareness campaign launched by Saudi Arabia’s Princess Reema [a SXSW Interactive keynote speaker],” Graber says.
Last-minute jobs were a part of the gig for Graber, too. Neon signmaking is a labor-intensive process, but not everybody was prepared in advance. “Depending on the size of the job, signs usually take an average of three weeks to manufacture—most of the time is spent bending the glass tubes. Most companies contacted us in late January/early February, giving us ample time to complete,” he says. “Some contacted us a week before the event, and we had to work overtime to get them out the door.”
So how does SXSW affect the bottom line of someone in the neon sign industry? It may not be as dramatic a spike as a bartender experiences (“I can’t say that it doubled our income,” Graber says. “I wish!), but the starting numbers there are much larger, too. “Since the price on these signs range from $1,500 to $3,000 each, it certainly gave us a boost in both revenue and visibility.”
Patricia Schaub is a veteran of the Austin pedicab scene, and SXSW 2015 is hardly her first time on the job. The challenges of SXSW are familiar to her—street closures, long hours, the physial strain of hauling a couple of people up Austin’s hills as they sit in a heavy cab attached to the back of your bike—but so are the rewards.
“I’ve heard that people can make up to a thousand dollars in a day,” Schaub says. A $1,000-day as a pedicabber—what Schaub describes as “the Holy Grail”—would be a long one, of course. Schaub says that a SXSW day tends to start very early, to take people to panels and sessions around 9am, and then continues on until the clubs close at 2 o’clock the next morning, but the money isn’t anywhere close to as good the rest of the year.
For that reason, Schaub—who works full-time for the University of Texas—made her SXSW experience an eight-day stretch of giving people rides, even with a day job. Most of the year, pedicabbing is a gig whose perks include some extra pocket change, a reason to be outside and downtown on the weekends, the opportunity to meet new people, and a little bit of exercise. During SXSW, though, it’s a job.
Pedicabbers are independent contractors—most rent their cabs from a company who handles permits, maintenance, and other expenses—so the amount of money a person makes depends on a handful of variables. HBO’s Game Of Thrones has outfitted some pedicabs with a mock-up of the show’s Iron Throne. HBO pays the owner of the cab $150 a day for the installation, but according to Jeremy D., a three-time SXSW veteran whose cab is currently a throne, pedicab contractors don’t get an extra cent, just an extra 70 pound weight.
But gimmicks like that help, too—Jeremy says that some people are more inclined to ride with him because they want to be on the throne—and there are no shortage of pedicab gimmicks during SXSW: Wonder Woman is out riding around, and Fred Flintstone, too. One pedicabber has a Darth Vader sculpture built on to the back of his cab, and others do everything from play drums while they ride to work with other drivers to set up races for their passengers. The better the gimmick, and the more personable the driver, the more rides they get and the larger the tips. (While I was riding my bike downtown earlier in the week, one pedicab driver next to me at a red light shouted, “I love SXSW!” and told me that a couple to whom he’d given a four-block ride tipped him $60, before the light turned green. Who wouldn’t give a good tip to someone so joyful and expressive?)
Some pedicabbers complain about Uber and other car service apps, but Schaub thinks those concerns are overblown. “If you’re an Uber driver giving people rides four blocks, you can’t be making much money,” she notes. Instead, she says, it’s more important to make sure that you’re in shape for the job. She doesn’t know any pedicab drivers who engage in formal training, but they’ll pull extra shifts during the slow months to get ready for the festival.
“There’s not much money in December or January,” Schaub says, “But a lot of pedicab drivers will ride through the winter anyway, to be in shape for South-By.”
It’s not just the caterers, signmakers, and pedicabbers who are making extra money during SXSW. Waiters who keep their usual jobs in downtown restaurants pull in huge tips. Entry-level production jobs that involve telling bands where to park and load-in for the A.V. Club/Flowerbooking day party at Cheer Up Charlie’s pay $200 for six hours of work. Drivers with car services like Lyft and Uber make hundreds of dollars a day behind the wheel. Even buskers make money during SXSW.
All of which adds to the discussion of the SXSW economic impact, which extends well beyond heads-in-beds at high-end downtown hotels, and increased tax revenue for the city. SXSW is a sprawling, complicated, traffic-snarling mess that crowds the streets of Austin with visitors whose sense of entitlement can, at times, appear downright toxic—but it also gives countless working-class Austinites in a variety of different industries the chance to enjoy the fruits of the overflow from all of that money being spread around town. The construction workers building new downtown hotels this week might be getting gouged on parking, but their current gigs only exist because of SXSW in the first place. When Austinites curse the SXSW traffic, they’re also cursing the engine that’s going to pay a doula in September. Like so much about the ever-expanding festival, this part of it is complicated, too.