March 14, 2006

Music biz set to invade Austin for SXSW fest

By Chris Morris

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival, which kicks off Wednesday in Austin, may be getting too big for its already Texas-size britches.

Record attendance of more than 10,000 registrants is expected. More than 1,300 acts will be playing official SXSW showcases, with dozens more scheduled at unsanctioned events running concurrently with the festival all over Austin.

In the early days of its existence, the conference was a relatively bite-size event. Now, in SXSW's 20th year, crowds create near-gridlock conditions in downtown Austin, and afternoon shows swell already full calendars. Some attendees -- and even organizers -- are beginning to wonder what one can hope to accomplish at an event as sprawling as this five-day music showcase, which runs through Sunday.

"For the most part, it's what you can make of it," SXSW managing director Roland Swenson said.

There was a time when acts clamored for festival slots in the hope of getting signed out of Austin. Given the sheer size of this year's event, both the talent and the label reps need to have their ducks in line before getting on the plane or into the van for this year's festival, in Swenson's opinion.

"Ideally, a band or somebody in the business is following up on something that's already started," Swenson said. "If there are relationships that are already in place, that's when it works best for people."

For talent scouts, dealing with the abundance of music at SXSW can be rewarding or frustrating.

"My experience has been varied," said Mark Williams, an A&R (artists and repertoire) executive at Interscope Records. "I've actually seen or heard about things there that I ended up signing."

Williams said that in earlier years, he signed Whiskeytown, Veruca Salt and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the strength of their SXSW performances.

However, he noted that major labels have increasingly used the festival as a ramp-up for the promotion of its new acts.

"The platforming has overshadowed the music part of it, but that's still there," Williams said. "But there's so much, it's a bit overwhelming."

Rachel Howard, A&R director at Warner Bros. Records, said she hasn't signed a band out of SXSW, though she is working on bringing in an act she saw at the festival last year.

Howard said: "The pleasant thing is that you can stumble upon something that's really great. . . . (SXSW is) not too big, but it is pretty overwhelming."

"For signing bands, it's probably not the greatest thing for us now," said Glenn Dicker, a partner at the Haw River, N.C.-based indie label Yep Roc Records. "I have to see the bands without so many distractions. . . . It's definitely useful, but at this stage it's easier for me to fly someplace to see a band, even if it's Minnesota or something."

Peter Jesperson, vp A&R at Los Angeles-based indie New West Records and a 15-year SXSW vet, said that his presence at the festival is primarily promotional in nature. In addition to an official festival showcase, the company also is mounting an afternoon-long private party.

"Now the bulk of my time down there is with New West artists and doing New West business," Jesperson said. "I have maybe five or six things that I see that are extracurricular."

Still, as in years past, Jesperson hopes he will stumble on an act that's right for his label.

"You always look for those happy accidents," Jesperson said. "That still happens to me. I do think the surprise element is what we all look for."

Some still welcome SXSW as a one-stop talent shopping experience. Film and TV music supervisor Gary Calamar of SuperMusicVision said, "Even though all these bands play in Los Angeles eventually, for me it's good to pack it all in one week. Meeting people face-to-face in this atmosphere also breeds good relationships. . . . Hopefully I'll discover a band I didn't know about."

For those involved in promotion, SXSW's still-burgeoning list of off-site events offers a world of possibilities. One list of unofficial SXSW shows and parties posted on the Internet runs 16 single-spaced pages.

For a publicist like Cary Baker, who operates the Los Angeles-based indie firm Conqueroo, the confab is all about pressing the flesh with journalists and getting his acts seen by movers, shakers and punters alike.

"All the press in the world is there, and for an indie, my next dozen clients are there," Baker said. "Sometimes in my random stumblings, I run into people and wind up working with them."

Baker said some of his clients are playing as many as a dozen off-site events and parties -- some of them in far-flung South Austin, where a kind of alternative SXSW has sprung up in recent years.

"I want my artists to be seen by the locals, because they've got money to spend at (top Austin indie record store) Waterloo," Baker said.

Shilah Morrow, who runs Los Angeles-based Sin City Marketing and manages New West act Tim Easton, has mounted an off-site show at a South Austin taco stand for several years. This year, she has expanded the gigs there from one day to two.

"I've doubled my efforts because Sin City has become such a popular event that we had more than 40 artists want to play this year," Morrow said.

Most of the performers on the Sin City shows are playing multiple gigs in Austin this week. "There's so much competition," Morrow said. "It costs a lot of money to get there and house your artists."

She added that, with an incredible array of music available virtually 24-7 during the festival, one has to be prepared to improvise at SXSW: "We all have our schedules of shows we want to hit, and by the time you get to Austin, you throw it out the window."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter