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Variety Continues to Ring True at South By Southwest Music Conference

The official motto of Austin, Texas, is "Live Music Capital of the World." It is certainly true for 10 days in mid-March each year, when the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) music, film and interactive-arts festivals attract thousands of visitors to the capital of Texas. VOA's Katherine Cole attended the 2006 edition of the South By Southwest Music Conference, and filed this report.

Jon Dee Graham, there performing Swept Away from his forthcoming CD, Gone, was named Artist of the Year at the Austin Music Awards, the opening event at the 20th edition of the South By Southwest Music Conference

When South By Southwest first took place in 1977, only 700 music industry professionals attended the event. Twenty years later, more than 10,000 registered for the three-day "South By," conference and tradeshow, with another 4,000 purchasing wristbands that gave them access only to the evening music events. The number of performers has increased as well, with the 2006 event featuring more than 1,400 artists performing concert sets over four days at 60 venues scattered across town.

The artists showcasing performed all types of popular music from, pop and hip-hop, to country, bluegrass and blues. There were plenty of rock bands too, including The Flairz, a pre-teen trio from Fremantle in western Australia.

The Flairz, is made up of drummer Scarlett Stevens, and two singing guitar players, cousins Dion and John Mariani, who sang lead on Sidewalk Surfer.

The trio, with no members over the age of 13, traveled close to 17,000 kilometers each way just to play a 40-minute set in Austin.

John Mariani, explains what that long trip means to him.

"A lot! Because we don't know what's going to happen here," he said. "We could maybe get signed up [to a record label, or something. It's a chance to show our music to the rest of the world, and we're really privileged to be here."

Dion Mariani is very aware that, making a good first impression at SXSW is imperative. After all, despite all the rave reviews he brought from Australia, music at 60 different venues means he might just have one song's worth of time to impress the potential managers, booking agents, radio presenters, critics, and other music industry folks checking out The Flairz during their showcase.

" It's kind of like a fresh start," he said. "Nobody knows who you are, and if you put on a good show, they'll always remember you as good. If you put on a bad one, it's remembered as not that great."

Things went well for The Flairz in Austin. The group was considered one of the "break out" bands of the event, and has received offers to sign with several American record labels, as well as positive reviews from major newspapers including The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

But the variety at South By Southwest 2006 was shown in more than just the musician's ages. Of the 1,400 acts, 337 came from outside the United States. That's up from 294 last year. South By Southwest's largest international contingent came from the United Kingdom, with Canada coming in second. Japan, Sweden, Africa, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, Turkey, and Yugoslavia were also represented.

Why do so many international acts attend, despite the hurdles of obtaining a visa in the post-9/11 world? The answer is economics. The weak dollar means across the board expenses, including travel and lodging, are affordable for many groups coming from overseas.

With the hundreds of bands playing each evening, and daytime events including a conversation with rocker Neil Young, it's hard to declare a most memorable event of South By Southwest. But judging from the lines outside the Austin Music Hall hours before his appearance, the highlight for many was the opportunity to hear Morrissey, the one-time lead singer of The Smiths, performing "You Have Killed Me," and other songs from his upcoming release Ringleader of the Tormentors.