Nearly 7,000 music industry representatives and more than 1,000 bands are descending on Austin this week for the 17th annual South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival.
Even for a place that calls itself the “Live Music Capitol of the World,” the planes, buses and vans arriving full of shaggy-haired men and tattooed women carrying guitars and drums adds a new dimension to the city.
The musicians and industry representatives have come for four days of industry panels, discussions and trade shows. To balance out the shop talk, the festival features four intense nights of live music with 1,000 acts on 53 stages.
“I’ve always thought of it as a big tribal meeting of people in the business of music and working with artists,” said Roland Swenson, the conference’s managing director.
In addition to a heavy focus on college-rock and Americana bands from across the United States and Canada, bands representing Asia, Europe and South America have made the pilgrimage to the festival in hopes of catching the ears of industry representatives.
“It would be nice to get some interest, but it’s going to be good for us whatever happens,” said Emily Summers, vocalist for Todd, a London rock band.
South by Southwest originated in 1987 as an offshoot of an annual Austin music awards show. In 1992 the conference launched film and interactive festivals, which are also taking place this week.
Participation in the music conference has rebounded after it experienced a 15 percent drop in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Swenson said. This year, more bands than ever before – 6,000 – applied for showcases.
While some bands over the years have complained about the brevity of their 40 minutes of allotted playing time, the proximity of the clubs and the short sets create an almost-unbelievable environment for lovers of live music.
“It’s possible to see two or three bands in an hour,” Swenson said. “But I think the most fun people have is when they wander and hear whatever crosses their path.”
South by Southwest’s staying power is notable considering its association with the recording industry, which has experienced a drop in CD sales as shrinking major labels wrestle with how to cope in the personal-computer world of downloadable music.
Swenson said this year is not the first time the conference has weathered tough economic times, tightening travel budgets and industry layoffs.
“In a way, when times are tough, I think we become more attractive as a cost-effective way to promote artists,” he said. “I also think when business is bad, people want to get together and talk, share new ideas and commiserate – and look for new acts.”
South by Southwest benefits from its pertinence to a variety of music industry players, from major media corporations to small independent labels, record shops, radio stations, publishers and the bands themselves.
The conference panels target different elements of the music business with titles like “Latin Music and the Media,” “Which Publishing Deal to Sign and When” and “How Retail Finds and Serves Customers.”
The convention even includes a poster show, called “Flatstock,” that attracts 60 poster artists from around the world.
Lee Gutowski, publicist for the independent Chicago label Bloodshot Records, said the conference is the perfect showcase for the type of Americana bands that her label records, including Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo and Chicago alternative-country act the Waco Brothers.
To promote the label and its bands, Bloodshot hosts a club showcase of its bands and throws a free afternoon party at a local art gallery. Music fans drained 15 kegs at last year’s party, Gutowski said.
“We’re showing our wares,” Gutowski said. “It’s more of a networking thing: Here we are, stop by and have a beer and let’s get to know each other. We’re keeping our profile out there.”