Imagine if every music business operator from Los Angeles to New York to Nashville to Munich decided to get together and take over your city for a long weekend. They’d eat your food and park in your parking spots and sit on your barstools and drink your beer. They’d go see your bands—ostensibly the main reason for all the eating, parking, sitting, and drinking—but they’d talk more than they’d listen, complaining that band X wasn’t nearly as good as band Y and that label A overpaid for band B. They’d also smugly opine that your city was much cooler five years ago—before there were so many people.
This is the story of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference ( SXSW), the Austin extravaganza that in its eleventh year is the largest, most prestigious gathering of its kind. For five days in March, when University of Texas students head for South Padre Island, Austin gives itself over to rock and roll. SXSW brings the music of Texas (and of the South and Southwest) to the rest of the world by bringing the rest of the world here. That was the conference’s modest goal when it began in 1987 with seven hundred registrants and two hundred bands, and it quickly developed a reputation as laid-back, unpretentious, and music oriented as opposed to business oriented—especially compared with the granddaddy of such events, New York’s New Music Seminar.
By 1991 SXSW’s great rep attracted 2,800 people. While the basic outline of the conference was nothing new—panel discussions and a trade show by day, followed by manic happy-hour socializing and an even more manic evening in the clubs— SXSW did it better. The panels, usually the bane of any industry convention, were spunky and provocative. The centrally located