Many an exhausted blogger returned this week from the 2009 South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, which once again delivered a bevy of memorable highlights and signaled that even if the music industry is collapsing along with the rest of the economy, there remains no shortage of great bands to be heard. Started in 1987, this year's fest was the biggest one yet and featured 1,900 bands. At its core, the festival remains an industry event, featuring dozens of very business-sounding panels during the day, and official band showcases to discover the "next big thing" at night.
Over time, however, the combination of a thousand-plus bands looking for opportunities to be heard and tens of thousands of music fans looking to avoid conference panels have created a blossoming scene outside of the official festival. In many ways, the world of day parties is even more appealing than the officially-sanctioned stuff. The days are so supply-heavy that even the strongest of free parties will promise free beer or food to lure in prospective audiences. And the wealth of talent means that one can see daytime lineups that wouldn't otherwise be possible, turning a festival where one might see twenty bands in showcases into a place where it's possible to catch several times that many.
The festival's continued electricity is as much the result of the social and public policy choices of the City of Austin as it is the wealth of talented bands in attendance. Austin bills itself as the "Live Music Capital of the World," but despite a fair number of successful bands, the city is not known nationally as having a thriving indie rock scene. This commitment to live music does mean, however, that most of the dozens of bars in the downtown area surrounding Sixth Street have some sort of stage and PA system. Add that to the fact that the city's residents appear at least superficially willing to put up with the wandering hordes of tipsy hipsters who help make the festival the highest revenue-producing special event in Austin's economy (2008's fest brought in an estimated $110 million), and Austin becomes the ideal place for a tornado of indie hopefuls to come blowing through every March.
That tornado makes South by Southwest an absolutely great time to be a music fan with all of the upsides and downsides of any buffet. Personal highlights in this year's festival were many and varied, ranging from the captivating folk-rock of Loch Lomond and Rural Alberta Advantage to new spins on Euro-electro-pop from Yelle and Little Boots. Bay Area artists represented too, and I caught an amazing set of spiritual psych from San Francisco's Sleepy Sun, the heady pop of Girls, and the always terrific garage sounds of Thee Oh Sees. The festival's buzz band reputation didn't disappoint, and I'd advise readers to look out for Telekinesis and Passion Pit, two bands that will almost assuredly blow up in the near future.
As happens every year, however, overconsumption eventually becomes a little less fun. Fatigue sets in, the feet begin aching, and the opportunity to see free live music and drink beer begins to feel a little bit more like a chore than a treat. That exhaustion -- which I hit this year about 56 bands in -- is probably why Saturday, the final day, always feels a bit underwhelming. So I only saw two bands during the day, and opted Saturday night for reliable bets like The Octopus Project and the legendary-but-new-to-me ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead over the prospect of new discoveries. Both bands are two of the biggest to emerge from Austin in recent years and they didn't disappoint, with the former offering a percolating set of instrumental electro-rock and the latter delivering a heavy, loud, and ultimately cathartic slab of rock and roll. It felt like a fitting end to a thoroughly enjoyable and exhausting week.
Having attended for the last five years, I'm still not exactly sure whether, on balance, most bands really benefit from the Texas pilgrimage. It often feels like there are simply too many of them competing to reach most of the South By audience and I doubt that most of the free CDs one gets during the festival week are ever actually listened to. Over the festival week, it feels as if each new band faces the prospect of a diminishing impact on a bloated listener already stuffed on new discoveries. Rather, I'd wager that most bands that build a buzz post-SXSW already have one going in, particularly now that the internet has opened up new avenues of self-promotion and new music discovery and an army of bloggers and fans spend all year searching for their own "next big things" online. But if playing the right show to get signed by the right label doesn't mean much when you can sell your music yourself on iTunes, it's still an opportunity for the music world's PR firms, managers and journalists to discover the bands they'll be promoting, booking, and blogging about over the next year. And in the new music economy if that buzz can translate into downloads and tickets sales, it is probably as or more valuable than a great record label deal ever was.
Ben Van Houten is the Programming Director of The Bay Bridged.