With SXSW Canceled, The Fader Takes a Mainstay Music Experience Digital

First online-only Fader Fort will raise funds for music charities

fader fort's digital flier
The Fader will broadcast its first-ever digital Fader Fort on March 31. The Fader
Headshot of Ian Zelaya

Key insights:

The Fader was one of many brands to drop out of SXSW days before the host city of Austin, Texas canceled the event due to public health concerns over COVID-19.

The decision was heartbreaking for the music magazine, which had to scrap plans for Fader Fort, its annual multi-day concert experience showcasing local and emerging artists, which has been a mainstay of SXSW since originating at the festival in 2002.

With a physical Fader Fort no longer an option, the brand has decided to take the experience digital to a global audience for the first time.

The Fader will stream a daylong broadcast of Fader Fort on March 31, featuring more than 40 exclusive, curated performances from emerging and well-known musicians. The nine-hour broadcast, running from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. ET on The Fader’s website, will raise funds for numerous charities chosen by the magazine and participating artists. The charities are focused on helping the people and city of Austin, as well as musicians and the entertainment industry as a whole.

Jon Cohen, co-founder and co-CEO of The Fader, said once SXSW was canceled and his team began to see the impact of coronavirus unfold, the company started brainstorming ways to help those in the music industry—from production and sound workers to stagehands and tour managers—who rely on Fader Fort and SXSW in general for income.

The Fader landed on the concept of a charitable, digital music festival to also bring together emerging acts slated to play Fader Fort this year, alongside artists who have performed at past editions.

“The most heartbreaking thing is that Fader Fort, for 17 years, has had such a community in Austin that supports it and works on it,” Cohen said. “After we made the decision [to drop out], our first thought was: How do we do good and bring attention to people that will be affected on a local level? We wanted to do something with Fader Fort to create a global platform to raise awareness for people that will get really hurt by this.”

Fader Fort is typically an invite-only “concert within a concert” that serves as a music discovery outlet, which the company kept in mind when curating content for the digital fest. The broadcast will offer a mix of live and pre-recorded performances, interviews and at-home content. Since most of the videos are exclusive, the concert will only be available to view for 24 hours after the broadcast; Cohen said the show won’t be archived, which gives people an incentive to tune in.

So far, the announced lineup includes pop star Kesha, who will premiere a never-before-seen cut of the intro to her My Crazy Beautiful Life documentary; rapper Guapdad 4000, who will give fans a cooking demo; an at-home performance by singer Ashnikko, who was slated to perform a surprise after-hours set at Fader Fort this year; and a performance by Giveon, an emerging R&B singer and Drake collaborator.

“Fader Fort’s DNA has always been about the emerging and developing artists. We wanted to make sure this digital platform stayed true to that,” Cohen said. “Young and emerging acts can use our platform to get the word out on their music and what they’re doing, and then, in typical Fort fashion, we’re sprinkling in some surprises and superstars.”

Producing the first digital Fader Fort hasn’t been without challenges for the magazine’s team and in-house creative agency, Cornerstone. Cohen said there are limitations, with employees all working remotely due to COVID-19, not having access to all the appropriate gear and equipment, and the fact that the artists are all scattered.

“Organizing this has been quite a challenge, but we really took all the barriers down and made sure we were flexible in terms of what the artists can deliver and how they can deliver it,” Cohen said. “We didn’t want to be limited by the way people normally do livestreams. We basically asked the artists to get us their content in any way that was convenient to them.”

Like a traditional festival, artists will have designated performance slots accessible on the festival’s website, along with a direct link to the artist’s chosen charity. Viewers are also encouraged to make donations to various charities.

The event is raising funds for 14 charities, including I Lost My Gig, which supports Austin creatives and service workers affected by SXSW’s cancellation; Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a national nonprofit providing financial assistance to musicians and music industry workers in need; the COVID-19 Mutual Aid Fund for LGBTQI+ BIPOC Folks, a fundraiser on GoFundMe; and the Central Texas Food Bank.

When it came to choosing which charities to support, Cohen said The Fader researched groups who were leading fundraising efforts in Austin and globally; participating Fader Fort artists also helped determine the list.

Sponsors include Bacardi—which is now among the distillers producing hand sanitizer—Truly Hard Seltzer and &Pizza, which had planned to have onsite presences at the physical Fader Fort, are now supporting the digital version. Cohen said the brands staying on as sponsors has allowed revenue to stay in place to execute the broadcast and pay staff. Proceeds from the sponsorships will also go toward the charitable causes.

According to Cohen, the sponsors’ participation will be organically weaved into the broadcast with preroll ads and in between the music content. The sponsors are also focused on similar causes in their own right. Truly plans to donate funds that provide financial assistance to musicians and music industry workers directly affected by COVID-19. And since March 14, &Pizza has donated more than 15,000 pizzas to hospital workers around the country.

Cohen said depending on how successful the first digital Fader Fort is and the further impact of COVID-19, the brand will consider holding more virtual music events for good causes. He noted that the company has already received more content than it could fit into the first broadcast, which it’s not planning on letting go to waste.

“Music is so important during these times. It’s a thread that brings us together,” he said. “Over the next few months, we want The Fader to be a platform where we can focus our attention on problems that need help, and to give people an escape from some of the craziness of the situation.”

While Fader Fort debuted at SXSW, the experience has also traveled to music festivals like Coachella in Indio, Calif. and Governors Ball in New York. Due to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, Coachella organizers postponed the event until October, while Governors Ball organizers have canceled the June festival with plans to return in 2021.

ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.