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Austin's South By Southwest Festival Becomes Big Business


For 10 days every year, the place to be for America's entertainment industry is not Los Angeles or New York City, but rather Austin, Texas. Performers and fans flock to Austin to attend the annual South By Southwest Music, Film and Interactive festivals. In the first of two reports, VOA's Katherine Cole reports on the business side of the event.

Started in 1987 as a way to bring national attention to Texas musicians like Alejandro Escovedo, South By Southwest has grown into America's largest music business convention. In fact, with more than 11,000 participants attending the four-day music conference this year, and over 5,000 more taking part in the Film and Interactive conferences, South By Southwest has become the largest entertainment conference in the United States.

According to South By Southwest co-founder Roland Swenson, the event contributed more than $38 million to the local economy in 2006. Was that number higher this year?

"I really don't know," Swenson said. "I know a lot of people come here, and they spend money. And I know the businesses count on it, the service businesses like nightclubs and restaurants. And you ask any cabdriver here, and he's like 'Oh yeah, we wait for this. This is our week of the year.'"

The South By Southwest Music Conference proved to be such a success in its first few years that two more festivals, one for films, the other for interactive media, were added in 1994. As Roland Swenson explains, adding a computer-related event was a bold move in those days.

"In fact, when we started the interactive event, the worldwide web was still very new," he said. "Mosaic, the first web browser had just been released. And the first year that we had the interactive event, we filled a room with computers with Internet access and we called it 'The Internet Theater.' There was a line for people to come in and look at the Internet for the first time. The following year [1995], we did it again, and there was no line at all! By then, everybody was on the web everyday."

There is one thing has not changed in the years since the first conference; a career can be made at South by Southwest. That's why the thousands of entertainment industry types are still drawn to town. Bands without a label come looking to find one, while computer game developers may arrive looking for money to take their newest project out of development and onto your laptop computer. While others come primarily to share their real world knowledge, there is no denying that everyone is looking for the "next big thing."

"I'm here for the South by Southwest film festival," said Doreen Ringer Ross, vice president of Film and TV Relations in the Los Angeles office of music publisher BMI. "I believe the independent film culture is really the artist development forum for the film business … for the film and television business actually, which are blurring together. If you start to look at whose careers spawn from this forum, you'll see that it is the artist development ground for all the new directors, actors, composers, writers, cinematographers. In about a 12- to 13-year arc, you will start to see people spring out of this world, coming right into the middle of the mainstream of the entertainment business. Because this where all the interesting ones seem to come from."

"So it's like Sundance [Film Festival] used to be 20 years ago, except that it's happening here in Texas," she continued. "And it's really special because it is attached to this music festival, so it has a huge music component to it, which really defines it. Within two days, the town will be overwhelmed with nothing but bands and music folk."

Those musicians will be the focus of our next report on South By Southwest 2007. It's estimated that close to one-quarter of the more than 1,400 bands taking part in the week-long event this year came from outside the United States. One-hundred-eight were from Canada, with Australia and New Zealand sending a record 42 groups to South By Southwest 2007. In all, 39 countries were represented this year.

The United Kingdom, which sends more bands than any other foreign territory, had 145 acts in Austin this year. They included Lilly Allen, The Fratellis, and Amy Winehouse, who had everyone talking about her showcase set and party appearances.

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