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Austin's SXSW Festivals Continue to Expand

Mike Hardwick and Jon Dee Graham perform at 2010 SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas calls itself the "Live Music Capital of the World." That's certainly true for the 10 days in mid-March each year when the annual South By Southwest Music, Film and Interactive festivals attract tens of thousands of visitors to town.

Bob Schneider's "40 Dogs (Like Romeo and Juliet)" was named Song of the Year at the 2010 Austin Music Awards, the event closing this year's edition of the South By Southwest Music Festival. Perhaps they should change the name of the awards to "The Bob's," as he and his band had 10 wins this year, including Musician of the Year and Album of the Year.

Attendees at the 2010 SXSW conference hall
Attendees at the 2010 SXSW conference hall

Started in 1987 as a way to bring national attention to Texas musicians like Schneider, South by Southwest is a now week-long event with performers from every continent arriving in Austin, trying to get the attention of booking agents, managers, publishers, record labels, radio presenters, critics and others in the music industry.

Every year, the international presence at South By Southwest expands. This year, 642 acts from 59 countries were invited to perform. They included Nneka, who came from Nigeria to promote her new CD, "Concrete Jungle." The singer fell ill before her official set, but carried on to perform several showcases of her soul-Afropop blend.

At a time when many business conferences are showing a decrease in attendance, South By Southwest is growing. The music festival had more than 13,000 registrants this year, an 11 percent jump from 2009. The South By Southwest Film and Interactive festivals also saw an increase in registrations this year.

John Hiatt plays at the 2010 SXSW music festival
John Hiatt plays at the 2010 SXSW music festival

The economic impact of the South By Southwest festivals is immense. In 2009, South By Southwest injected more than $99 million into the local economy, and predictions for this year top $100 million. That figure includes dollars spent by conference attendees in Austin's restaurants, hotels and merchants, including Waterloo Records. Known worldwide for an extensive selection of all kinds of music, Waterloo turns its parking lot a music venue during South By Southwest. More than 25 bands played or signed autographs there this year. Among them, rock legends Cheap Trick and John Hiatt, who performed several South By Southwest events to promote his new CD "The Open Road."

It's not just attendee figures that are increasing, the number of South By Southwest performers are on the rise as well. In its 24th year, the event featured more than 2,000 artists performing at venues around town. In addition, hundreds of other bands, not part of the official proceedings, also flock to town, and play in driveways, backyards, storefronts, anywhere they can!

South By Southwest week can be a stressful one for musicians. "Matt The Electrician" is based in Austin, and has a new CD called "Animal Boy." He used to worry so much about playing South By Southwest showcases and impressing the right people that it wasn't fun. So he changed his game plan.

"My general goal the last three years is to stop all of my emotional connections to the politics of the music industry and of 'South By,' not having anything to do with that," says Matt. "I used to have a lot of expectations about what that [South By Southwest] meant and what it was for. And what I was supposed to use it for. And that [stopping] did wonders for my outlook! I could just have a good time playing a whole bunch of day parties, play some stuff at night that was free, see my friends, and not feel like I was missing something, or that I had to do anything. And so now I have a great time!"

On the first day of South By Southwest 2010, word came of the death of singer-songwriter Alex Chilton. One of his bands, Big Star, was scheduled to reunite for a panel discussion at the conference, and a show on Saturday night. That set turned into a benefit for his family, with Big Star's remaining members joined by Mike Mills of R.E.M, M Ward, Amy Speace and others for a trip through the Big Star catalog. The show closed with Susan Cowsill and The Watson twins singing "September Gurls."