At SXSW, Worries Can Wait

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No one needs to be reminded about the economy — certainly not in the music industry, which was collapsing before the stock market tanked.

But in Austin, Texas, wall-to-wall music fans seem to have turned a deaf ear to the lousy economy. It's even given some of them an excuse to visit the clubs, bars and streets that host the South by Southwest music festival.

Jacob Berlow came from New York City, where he's a student at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

"Actually, if it weren't for the economy, we wouldn't be here," he says. "Because the person who drove was an investment banker. ... He lost his job and decided to take the road trip that he always wanted to take."

It's the 23rd running of South by Southwest, but it's Berlow's first visit. He's looking forward to hearing new music — and his odds are good. More than 1,800 bands are playing the festival this year.

"That's what I'm looking forward to: Saturday night, finding my way to that one show that everybody's talking about that is, like, awesome," he says. "Nobody's ever heard of this band, but everybody feels like they're experiencing some moment in history where, like, 'This band played at SXSW this year,' and the rest is history."

Those moments are still available to fans. But the days of music industry professionals coming here to bid on the next big thing are long gone.

To improve their odds of getting heard by someone, musicians are playing as much as they can. Take The Mae Shi, from Los Angeles: Add up its appearances at evening showcases, private parties and casual barbecues, and the group is performing at the festival 15 times in four days.

For independent bands like The Mae Shi, a busy performance schedule is a matter of survival.

"Beer is really expensive after a bit, and if you play a lot, you get more beer and water and things you need to survive — pita bread and that kind of thing," says Bill Gray, the band's bassist. "So it's like, if we're going to be here, we definitely don't want to spend any money. You're not making any money at SXSW; you're kind of just doing it."

Members of The Mae Shi paid their own way to get here. They applied for and received a spot on an official festival showcase. The rest of the time, they're playing private parties.

Gray says the challenge is getting spotted in a sea of musicians.

"It's like, 'What can we do that would be weird?' " he says. "It's like, 'Well, we could just play a ton,' you know? And see what happens, and get the endorphins running, and everything gets crazy. It feels cool, you know?"

So if it takes playing 15 shows to attract attention and keep the band flush in beer, why not? Of course, The Mae Shi played 18 shows last year. So at least one thing about South by Southwest has gotten smaller in 2009.

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