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SXSW Wrap Up: For Bands, Was Austin Worth The Trip?

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SXSW Wrap Up: For Bands, Was Austin Worth The Trip?

SXSW Wrap Up: For Bands, Was Austin Worth The Trip?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In Austin, Texas, the South by Southwest Music Conference came to a close yesterday. The five-day event attracted some of the nation's most well-known performers, like Emmylou Harris, Jack White, Kanye West. But for some people that was a problem. Some of the smaller acts came away with a feeling that this festival might have grown too big and may no longer be worth it for them.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL: Downtown Austin rocked all weekend. The whole city felt like one big crowded bar. Revelers like Mathew Oats, who just moved to Austin, staggered down the street soaking up the music coming out of every door and window.

Mr. MATTHEW OATS: We're actually not even - we're trying not to pay anything to enjoy, to have a good time

SYDELL: Well, you know, that's really easy to do here.

Mr. OATS: It is very easy to do.

SYDELL: But if you're an independent musician who had to get all your equipment and band members here, the pay-off may not be so clear. Drummer Nick Stetz, who plays with the unsigned Leroy Stagger, has been coming for five years.

Mr. NICK STETZ (Drummer): And it seems like every year it's just harder and harder. You know, it's like there's more hoops to jump through; seems weird that like the bigger bands get more than one showcase.

SYDELL: Stetz is referring to the official South by Southwest concerts. It wasn't that way back in 1986, when there were 170 bands and about 700 people came to see them. This year there were 2,400 performers and 36,000 attendees, and that doesn't count the number of unofficial bands that played on the street and in small venues.

Steve Kuntson, general manager for North America for the independent label Rough Trade, did the cost/benefit analysis.

Mr. STEVE KUNTSON (Rough Trade): There's so much stuff to wade through that it's difficult if you are an artist to have a presence here where you rise above the din.

SYDELL: So Kuntson told several of his acts to stay home.

Even some more seasoned musicians felt overwhelmed.

Mr. ADAM COHEN (Musician): I'm so apprehensive about actually finally being here.

SYDELL: Adam Cohen, son of Leonard Cohen, is making his first visit to South by Southwest.

Mr. COHEN: It's either the mark of my career having gone so dreadfully poorly that I'm finally here. Or I don't - I'm not very happy to be here.

SYDELL: Even though the festival invited him to bring his current band, Low Millions.

(Soundbite of song, "Cry Ophelia")

Mr. COHEN: (Singing) Something went wrong. You're not laughing. It's not so easy now to get you to smile...

SYDELL: Cohen says even if you do rise above the din at South by Southwest, the traditional record industry is in such decline, it's unlikely anyone will offer you a deal.

Mr. COHEN: There's this kind of futility involved in trying to, you know, raid the coffers. You know, there's nothing. There's no more gold bullion. There's no more - you know, unless you're Lady Gaga, you're trying to make a fast buck in the slow lane.

SYDELL: At a time when few artists are making money selling records, performing has become more important than ever. Adam Woodard of the unsigned band Star & Micey from Memphis says he's met a lot of club owners looking to book acts.

Mr. ADAM WOODARD (Musician): I don't think it's so much about the label as, you know, if you meet that one guy from England who owns that club that, you know, he sees you and he just falls in love with you and he's willing to buy some tickets to fly you out there to play...

SYDELL: And it's not like South by Southwest has ever really attracted the most pragmatic people. Twenty-seven-year-old Johnny Z came down from Chicago with his band The Sunshine Elsewhere.

Mr. JOHNNY Z (Musician): We met Rick Rubens' manager. We met Lady Gaga's manager. We've met so many people.

SYDELL: So the dream lives to get signed.

Mr. Z: The dream not only lives but it's incredible how easy it is to meet so many people down here.

SYDELL: And if that doesn't get you a deal or a gig, even the grumblers had to admit you can't help but have some fun being around so many people who love and play music.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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