The official motto of Austin, Texas, is "Live Music Capital of the World." That's 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 2008 edition of the South By Southwest Music Conference, and filed this report.
More than 8,000 bands and artists applied to perform one 45-minute set at one of the 72 Austin venues hosting showcases during SXSW 2008. Out of that group, only 1,580 performers, or fewer than 20 percent, were accepted. One of them was San Diego California's Steve Poltz. Poltz came to Austin to spread the word about his new CD, Traveling, home to 11 original songs, including "Rain" and describes a typical day at SXSW life.
"Five shows a day. We started at ME Television, which is the Austin Music Network, and we rocked hard,' he said. "Then we came here, where we are now, at Mother Eagan's, and played here. Then we're going across the street to Opal Divine's to play. It's fun, I love it! I like playing. This is what I wanted to do since I was a kid, so I can't complain."
When the first South By Southwest took place in 1987, only 700 music industry professionals attended the event. Twenty-two years later, more than 13,000 were registered for the four-day "South By," conference and tradeshow, with several thousand more purchasing wristbands that gave them access only to the evening music events.
The success of the South By Southwest Music Conference has spawned both a film and interactive media festival, and their economic impact on the Texas town is immense. In 2007, the three events were directly and indirectly responsible for injecting nearly $95 million into the local economy. That figure includes the money spent by conference attendees, who spent more than $77 million in the city's restaurants, hotels, and merchants, including local record stores.
Former Austin resident Caroline Herring was back in Austin for SXSW this year. Her new CD, Lantana was released the week before the conference began. She had a busy schedule during "South By." What were some of her priorities?
"To talk with different press agency and then to market myself to talent buyers nationwide and in North America," she said.
Cole: "You've got a new record out this year. Is it more fun to come to something when you have a new album?"
Herring: "It's more fun to do anything in the music business when you've got a new record out. My record is called "Lantana", and yes, there's already a buzz created here for me because of publicists and the things that record labels do. And so it is fun to be here, and have people know who I am and want to hear me play because of that record."
Cole: "Now, in your normal touring life, you go up on stage once a night usually, maybe twice, and do a set for an hour or maybe a little bit longer. It's not like that here, is it?"
Herring: "Oh no … 30 minutes, if you're lucky. And you do have to be 'on,' and really you're performing the entire time you're here [in Austin] because talent buyers and press and the whole system is watching you."
Cole: "How do you get someone's attention with only a four or five-song set?"
Herring: "I guess it's the same concept that openers [opening acts] use when they put themselves out in front of bigger audiences and do those openers. It doesn't take much to have people hear your voice and your song. And you pick your best songs and put together a varied group of songs. I think it works just fine."
When "South By" began, it was intended as a way for unknown bands from the American southwest to get a bit of national exposure. The focus has changed a bit since then. This year, SXSW hosted many established acts including R.E.M., Van Morrison, X and Ice Cube. The keynote speech opening the business conference was given by rock icon Lou Reed.
Regardless of their profile, all the musical acts participating in "South By" receive the same compensation: A choice of a $225 performance fee or access to the conference, tradeshow and music showcases.
The big advantage gained by performing at SXSW is the exposure that a "South By" showcase brings. Being connected to the hip conference has been known to give a career boost and some new "street cred" to acts trying to revive a career.
The artists performed all types of popular music from pop and hip-hop, to country, bluegrass and blues.
But no matter what they play, every performer is very aware that making a good first impression at SXSW is imperative. After all, despite all the rave reviews 23-year-old Welsh singer Duffy brought from the U.K., the fact music was being performed at 72 different venues each evening meant she 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 her first ever U.S. show. Duffy later said she was taken aback by the Austin heat (35 degrees Celsius), but never faltered during her six-song set, which ended with "Mercy", the Number One song in the U.K. at the time of her performance.