Has 'South by Southwest' Lost Its Direction?
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
March is time for South by Southwest down in Austin, Texas. This year, the music conference is marking its 20th anniversary. South by Southwest started out by just featuring music. Now it includes a film festival and panels on interactive media. But after two decades, is it still the place for hot new musical talent to get discovered? From member station KUT in Austin, David Brown reports.
DAVID BROWN reporting:
In the early 1980s native Austinite Roland Swenson did a lot of traveling. Back then, he didn't have much of a choice. He was managing a few small new wave bands in town and the rules were pretty simple: if you wanted to get noticed by the music industry, you had to get out of Texas and go to Manhattan or L.A., or even worse for an Austinite, Nashville.
(Soundbite of music)
BROWN: On a business trip to the now legendary New Music Seminar in New York, it occurred to him: what if once a year we can convince the music industry to come to us?
Mr. ROLAND SWENSON (Managing Partner, South by Southwest): Initially it was designed to help bands break out of Austin. So a big part of our outreach was to get people from outside of Austin to come here. The goal was for bands in Austin to be able to get a gig in New Orleans and bands in New Orleans to be able to get a gig in Austin and create a bigger marketplace.
BROWN: Seven hundred people registered for the festival Swenson co-founded back in 1987. This year an estimated 15,000 people have traveled here for the 20th South by Southwest Conference. Among them, Morrissey, the Pretenders, Ray Davies, Billy Bragg and Neil Young.
(Soundbite of Neil Young song)
Mr. NEIL YOUNG: (Singing) A painter stood before her work. She looked around everywhere...
BROWN: Also here this year, Michael Corcoran, who was at the very first conference back in '87 as a writer for the Austin Chronicle. He's now music critic for the Austin American Statesman.
Mr. MICHAEL CORCORAN (Music Critic, Austin American Statesman): A lot of people think that South by Southwest started with this goal to only have unsigned bands and all this other stuff. No, they wanted from the very beginning to throw the biggest conference they possibly could.
BROWN: But where has all this bigness left the artists, the working musicians hoping for the big break? Take the Weary Boys, for example, a staple of the Austin music scene.
(Soundbite of the Weary Boys)
BROWN: This will be the fourth year they've been invited to play at South by Southwest. This year they have a prime slot at one of the official showcases, playing the Continental Club tonight. And who knows who might be in the audience.
Mr. MARIO MATTEOLI (Member, Weary Boys Band): Best case scenario is huge record deal, lots of exposure.
BROWN: Alas, the Weary Boys have grown just a little weary.
Mr. MATTEOLI: It's just kind of impossible because there's thousands of bands coming to town and it just doesn't really seem like it actually advantages the Austin musician as much as they hype it up to be, you know.
BROWN: Mario Matteoli plays guitar for the Weary Boys and like everyone else he's desperate to stand out from the pack that includes more than 1,400 musical acts, more than 75 percent of them from way beyond Austin's city's limits.
Mr. MATTEOLI: Apparently like Nora Jones was a South by Southwest find and they keep popping names out like that every once and a while to keep people coming back, you know, like so and so was discovered at South by Southwest, but those are typically people who, you know, if they're going to have that big exposure, they're going to have that money behind them anyway. I don't know. We've stopped expecting anything from it, you know.
BROWN: If you're a performer with a record deal in the bag and a release to promote, like U.K.'s Artic Monkeys...
(Soundbite of Artic Monkeys)
BROWN: ...or an older, established artist trying to jumpstart your career, Billy Idol, Robert Plant, the Pretenders, for example, South by Southwest delivers. People will line up to see you, including the world's music press. But if you're a relative unknown without any connections, is South by Southwest any way to put yourself on the map?
(Soundbite of Spoon)
Mr. BRITT DANIEL (Spoon): (Singing) Always on the outside looking in...
BROWN: Britt Daniel has his doubts. He's leader of the critically acclaimed band Spoon.
Mr. DANIEL: Well, I'm sure that it does still happen that like somebody walks in and happens to see a band and decides to sign them to an independent label or to a major label, but it does seem like it's more like you get something going on your own in your own time and then maybe this is the place where you actually meet up with some people that you've already had contact with. And also, I don't think that you do have to be hoping for that major label deal in the sky like that's the only thing that's going allow you to go where you want to be as a musician or to even to do it full-time, you know. It's not like that.
BROWN: Daniel makes an important point about how much has changed in the two decades since the first South by Southwest. The record deal is not the Holy Grail anymore, in part because the record industry is in disarray. Today the big labels don't have the money or the time to invest in untried artists. Nowadays, you can roll your own label, burn your own CDs, have them heard on Myspace, reviewed by Pitchfork. Never before have independent artists had so many opportunities to reach an audience without the help of major labels or any label at all. So for smaller artists looking to get noticed, does it make sense to pay to come to South by Southwest? Co-founder Roland Swenson hears that questions and takes a moment.
SWENSON: Of course there are no guarantees, but based on the number of acts that have come here once and then want to come back again, I have to think that it's useful for them. Do unknown bands come here and get record deals? Yeah, sure, it happens, but it's not the norm, and South by Southwest would not have survived if that was the only thing that it was supposed to be able to do. So it's really, it's all about promotion and meeting people and sharing ideas.
BROWN: South by Southwest does keep growing every year, but history suggests that even slight changes in the music industry can have profound implications for conferences like these. That New Music Seminar in New York, the one that inspired Swenson a couple of decades ago, it's now out of business. For NPR News, I'm David Brown in Austin, Texas.
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