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 Sixth Street entertainment district made it possible to amble from club to club all night long and see two songs apiece by twenty bands in five hours. And to out-of-towners especially, Austin’s leisurely pace, cheap beer, and ample barbecue seemed like paradise. The city welcomed SXSW’s tourism dollars, while Austinites welcomed the music; locals have always had the opportunity to participate in the conference by paying a modest price for a wristband that gets them in to all the clubs. All things must pass, however, and in the past few years SXSW has lost its homey innocence. In 1993 the conference moved from the Hyatt Regency to the cavernous confines of the newly built Austin Convention Center. In 1994 the New Music Seminar went under, leaving SXSW as the cool—some would say aloof—only child instead of the kid brother who tries harder. In 1995 it drew 4,700 registrants, a level of success that attracted bigger bands along with bigger crowds and the inevitable criticism that SXSW no longer cared about the esoteric or the unsigned; bands that didn’t get festival gigs started playing unofficial anti- SXSW shows in protest. Meanwhile, the conference’s mission was becoming more diffuse. In 1993 it spawned sibling multimedia and film festivals—the latter has been a rousing success—and music gatherings in Portland, Oregon, (North by Northwest) and Toronto (North by Northeast). This year 5,707 people registered for SXSW, seven thousand wristbands were sold to the general public, and more than 750 acts and solo artists performed—all record levels of participation. Yet even if the lines are now around the block, and even if music business weasels make commerce seem more important than art, SXSW is still a nonpareil event. Where else can you take in tejano, punk rock, jazz, Britpop, country, and the latest alternative hitmakers in the course of a single evening—with the sets (mostly) starting on time? Still, the conference never fails to inspire a certain amount of defensiveness and sarcasm from the locals. Take the Wannabes. The Austin band, which has played at eight SXSWs, had T-shirts printed for this year’s gig. They read “Don’t Move Here.”
The Austin Music Awards have always served as SXSW’s unofficial kickoff, but in 1997 there were club showcases scheduled at the same time. This proved not to be a conflict, as the big show filled up with Austinites while out-of-towners looked elsewhere. The awards have always been a downright mystifying experience for non-Austinites anyway; people from New York or L.A. don’t really know who (guitar hero) Ian Moore or (disc jockey—blues singer—awards emcee) Paul Ray is. They also show up completely underdressed. You see, the awards are actually prom night for the Austin music community, the one time each year when the city merges its bohemian attitude and thrift-store chic with big hair, big chests, and other time-honored Texas values. The real purpose of the evening is making the scene and being seen; hence the plunging necklines and overapplied makeup, the red and gold lamé and the tattoo-revealing strapless dresses, and the people who look like they haven’t been to a club in fifteen years. One such person—the guy wearing the “Kirk Watson for Mayor” campaign button who was genially pressing the flesh of a six-foot redheaded woman with a VIP sticker directly affixed to her bare arm—turned out to be the candidate himself.
Show Me the Money
Reduce things to purely economic terms and SXSW’s schematic is this: One group (record companies) spends money on another group (musicians, journalists, booking agents) to the ultimate benefit of a third group (Austin’s hotels, restaurants, clubs, and retailers, to say nothing of SXSW itself). The music business is slumping, however, so this year the largesse was somewhat less—and that’s not all that was different. Instead of big-name headliners, most of the major artists who appeared were culled from the Social Security rolls, though booking Tony Bennett, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Webb, and Elvis’ most famous backing musicians was still quite a coup for SXSW organizers and quite a joy for SXSW audiences. Actually, the absence of buzz bands made for a more user-friendly conference: With a few exceptions, there was a shorter wait to see music, a greater variety of acts,