First Avenue's Sonia Grover: A day in the SXSW life

You'd be hard-pressed to keep up with Sonia Grover this past Friday afternoon during SXSW. As the line outside the door of the First Avenue day party -- held this year at the Swan Dive in downtown Austin, and co-curated by Gimme Noise and the Current -- grows ever longer, the crowd inside ever larger, the people coming through the door aren't just there to see artists like Trampled by Turtles, Brother Ali, or Night Moves. They're there to see Grover, too.

Grover, the booker at First Avenue, is one of the key players in making the party a reality. She has big, black, curly hair and a bright, ever-present smile that doesn't seem to get any more forced even as she becomes noticeably tired from all the attention.
You can barely catch a glimpse of her as she hurries back and forth: One minute, she's at the front door, restocking the display table with beer cozies. The next, she makes her way across the room, getting stopped by someone new every few steps along the way.

As she emerges, at last, from the crowd, Grover seems startled to hear yet another voice address her. "I'm so sorry," she says, extending her hand in apology. "I really need a break," she adds, and makes a beeline for the door.

Come Saturday afternoon, Grover seems fresh and relaxed, although you get the impression there isn't much time for let up while she's here in Texas. She admits, with some relief, that she's gotten her voice back today, having lost it while she was shouting along at a concert last night. Now she's on her way to meet up with Dayna Frank, who owns First Ave, at a coffee shop.

Grover has come to SXSW almost every year for the past decade, but unlike some of the festival's more cynical veterans, she doesn't sound the least bit jaded. "This is like spring break for everyone in the music industry," Grover insists. Her days are mostly split between seeing bands and spending time with other agents, band managers, and label representatives -- "People I do a lot of business with but don't see on a regular basis," as she puts it.

Dessa and Sims during Doomtree's set at Swan Dive.
Dessa and Sims during Doomtree's set at Swan Dive.
Photo by Erik Hess

She explains, "More and more, people are starting to come to [Minnesota] for certain shows -- because of Target, Best Buy, the Current, First Avenue." Yet even with those sorts of factors helping raise the local scene's profile-at-large, there's nothing that compares with the impact of SXSW. "We go to a couple other conventions a year, but this is the one time where almost everyone you work with is in the same place at the same time."

While doing business is a crucial component of what goes on at the festival each year for people like Grover, she stresses that that's not all there is to it. "I do talk business, but we don't get into the nitty gritty. They're here to have fun, too; to drink their beer, eat their taco, watch the bands and hang out... It's like you're making a personal relationship and strengthening the professional one as a a result."

With that said, it can be next to impossible to follow any sort of pre-planned schedule. Grover's days this week usually get into full swing around noontime and keep going straight through till about 2 or 3 in the morning. "The thing is, you can't always adhere to the schedule because you'll be on your way to one showcase and someone's like, 'No, come hang out with these bands at this hotel, have a drink,'" she says. "You sort of have to be flexible. It's nice to have a plan, but I learned a long time ago that it's tiring and not much fun if you do."

How does Grover avoid letting burnout set in during this most hectic of weeks? Well, her answer probably isn't typical of the average SXSW-goer: "I work out everyday," she says, emphatically. "I'm also not a huge drinker, so I think that helps, too. I'm able to last a little bit longer." She pauses, then adds, as a mischievous afterthought, "Although the booze does help when it's like, 'I'm tired. I just got to see one more band; how am I gonna do it?' A shot of tequila never hurts..."

Brother Ali at Swan Dive.
Brother Ali at Swan Dive.
Photo by Erik Hess

Having met up with Frank, it's time to head off to another commitment, this one hosted by the Agency Group at Lambert's. The party is a get-together for agents and managers, and it's unique in that there's no live music playing -- just people chatting and having drinks at the bar and on the patio. "It's my chance to see most the agents from that company in one spot," Grover says. "We had [our] party yesterday and that was our chance to be in one spot and have people come to us, too."

Through the din of the voices you can hear Southern and British accents, and within minutes of walking through the door Grover has been greeted by an Etix rep from North Carolina and a fellow booker from Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey. One of the hosts of the party, who works for the Agency Group and meets Grover for the first time, looks around the room contentedly and gives a smile. "You know," he says, "this is just like spring break for the music business."

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