RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week, the South by Southwest Music Festival has taken over the clubs, bars and the streets of Austin, Texas. Tens of thousands of musicians and fans are there to have a good time, to listen to music, and at least for a few days forget the dire economic news. Organizers say there are more bands than ever in the festival's 23 years. There are also panel discussions. One yesterday was called There's Still Lots of Money in Songwriting and Music Publishing. NPR's Stephen Thompson is there and has this report.
STEPHEN THOMPSON: No one needs to be reminded of the economy — certainly not in the music industry, which was collapsing before the stock market tanked. But here in Austin, 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 South by Southwest.
Mr. JACOB BERLOW (Student): Actually, if it weren't for the economy, we wouldn't be here.
THOMPSON: Jacob Berlow came here from New York City, where he's a student at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
Mr. BERLOW: 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.
THOMPSON: This is Berlow's first time at South by Southwest. He's looking forward to hearing new music — and his odds are good. More than 1,800 bands are playing the festival this year.
Mr. BERLOW: 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, because like nobody's ever heard of this band but everybody feels like they're experiencing like some moment in history where like this band played at South by Southwest this year, and the rest is history.
THOMPSON: 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 L.A. 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.
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THOMPSON: Bill Gray plays bass in The Mae Shi. He says the band's busy performance schedule is a matter of survival.
Mr. BILL GRAY (The Mae Shi): 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. So it's like if we're going to be here, we definitely don't want to spend any money, you know? You're not making any money at South by Southwest. You're just doing it.
THOMPSON: 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. Bill Gray says the challenge is getting spotted in a sea of musicians.
Mr. GRAY: So it's like, well, what can we do that would be weird? It's like, well, we could just play a ton, you know, and like see what happens, and get that like - the endorphins running, and everything gets crazy. It feels cool, you know?
THOMPSON: So if it takes playing 15 shows to attract attention and keep the band in beer, why not?
Mr. GRAY: Also, I'm starting to teach guitar if anybody out there - $15 an hour.
THOMPSON: Of course The Mae Shi played 18 shows last year. So at least one thing about South by Southwest has gotten smaller in 2009.
Stephen Thompson, NPR News, Austin, Texas.
MONTAGNE: And you can hear full concerts from South by Southwest at our Web site. There are also videos, blogs and a hundred songs from bands playing at the festival. Just go to nprmusic.org.
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