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Musicians Gather at  <i>South By Southwest</i> Conference - 2002-04-24

The economy is slumping. Record sales have plummeted, and music business executives are changing jobs at a record pace. But in the words of heavy metal band AC/DC, "you can't stop rock and roll." So, it was business as usual at the 16th annual South By Southwest Music and Media Conference, held recently in Austin, Texas.

The number of official registrants this year was down due to the economic recession. But, the amount of live music was greater than ever with more than 1,000 acts performing.

With horns, flutes and 10 back-up singers, the Dallas, Texas band, The Polyphonic Spree were the warm-up act to keynote speaker Robbie Robertson, making them the first band many saw at this year’s South by Southwest. The 25-member group is led by former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter, who describes his new group as "a symphonic pop orchestra."

The group received a standing ovation for their early morning performance at an event where a dip in record sales coupled with the fear that Internet file swapping will make recordings less profitable, could not subdue the ambitions of struggling bands or the pleasures of seeing and hearing live music.

Although South By Southwest is the largest music gathering in the United States the current turmoil in the music business brought attendance down about 15 percent, to approximately 6,500 registrants.

Norah Jones, the Brooklyn-based jazz-folk singer, was one of the most sought-after acts of the conference. Her official showcase drew an overflow crowd that circled the block. Fans waited in vain for a chance to see Jones play songs like "Cold Cold Heart" from her debut release Come Away With Me.

While South By Southwest is a place for young bands looking for stardom, it’s also a prime spot for artists hoping for a comeback, including the punk band Dead Kennedys, and pop bands Marcy Playground and Sixpence None The Richer. Such more-familiar acts seemed to be ones that were released when the major record labels downsized in recent years.

The daytime business panels showed a larger than usual attendance this year, perhaps due to the current state of the music industry. The conference side of the event opened with a keynote speech by Robbie Robertson, former leader of The Band, and ended with an interview featuring singer/actress Courtney Love.

In between were sessions on the amazing success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack despite a lack of radio play; musicians' rights regarding Internet downloads; and avant-garde music.

But what draws most attendees to South By Southwest is the music. The chance to hear the legendary Flatlanders, the trio of Texas songwriters Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, preview material from their first group album in close to 30 years made the New West showcase the place to be that evening.

The music festival began with the 20th annual Austin Music Awards. While singer-songwriters or country usually come to mind when we think of Austin music, the festival also includes an active jazz scene.

Blaze took home the "best jazz band" honors at this year's music awards. The group combines traditional jazz, post modern bop and soul/funk to create a contemporary sound. Their current CD, Say What Know?, includes guest guitarist Robben Ford, and features the song "Flip’s Mode."