RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
South by Southwest, Austin's annual jamboree of all things cutting edge and cool, is in its 28th year. The original South by Southwest Music Festival kicks off tomorrow. Twenty-two hundred bands will be in town from 62 different countries, shadowed somewhat by a tragedy that happened last year. A driver plowed into a late-night crowd of fans, killing four and injuring 20. Add to that the perennial complaints about the rise of corporate branding and large, drunken crowds, and people are asking, can South by Southwest reclaim its soul? NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Most people who dissed South by Southwest last year zeroed in on the Lady Gaga show. The half-naked pop idol rode a mechanical pig and was puked on by a performance artist, all brought to you by Doritos.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWINE")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) You're so disgusting. You're just a pig inside.
BURNETT: It was an extreme example of how brands are elbowing to get in on the fun. Revelers could get free rides, recharge their smartphones or get a massage thanks to the likes of AT&T, Miller Lite, Monster Energy Drinks and McDonald's. Even NPR is sponsoring shows at South-By, as it's called. Austin writer Neal Pollack had a particular favorite last year.
NEAL POLLACK: I was walking toward the convention center, and I saw a glass structure. I looked at it, and it was the Cottonelle Lounge. Just to put a shrine to toilet paper is just - you know, is that what South by Southwest is about? Somewhere along the line, it became this corporate cluster bomb.
BURNETT: Sponsored stages are nothing new at South-By or at just about every other American music festival. South-By's co-founder and managing director Roland Swenson says for at least 20 years, his festival has been accused of selling out.
ROLAND SWENSON: You know, we're not embarrassed about having sponsors. We're not embarrassed about its growth. We think it's a positive force.
BURNETT: More than 375,000 people came to Austin for the music, film and interactive festivals last year. And most of them did not buy official admission badges. What concerns the city is that in recent years, hordes of spring breakers have descended on Austin looking for a good time. Sixth Street is usually ground zero. In an attempt to scale down, this year the City of Austin cut the number of permits for freelance outdoor events and told them to unplug the music earlier.
BILL MANNO: If we could remove the element that just wants to come get drunk and not necessarily hear the music, that would certainly help.
BURNETT: Bill Manno is Austin's special events program manager.
MANNO: There's just way too many people for it to be safe. And that's what were trying to do - is make this safer and also keep the fun in it.
BURNETT: Tragedy struck the festival last year. An intoxicated 21-year-old being pursued by the police drove his Honda Civic through a barricade and plowed through three blocks of music fans hanging out on Red River Street. Again, festival director Roland Swenson.
SWENSON: You know, it's awful what happened. The guy's in jail. He's charged with capital murder. And we're just going to have to let that play out.
BURNETT: South-By has hired a consultant on large crowds who helped with the Olympics and the Hajj. There will be more cops, more barricades and more state alcoholic beverage agents keeping an eye on the hundreds of private events that serve free booze. A computer crawler will monitor the Twitterverse for words like fight and fire. Swenson says it's critical to anticipate problems because South by Southwest only exists if the city wants it to.
SWENSON: There's no one that makes the nightclubs work with us. There's no one that makes the theaters give us their screens, you know? There has to be this public buy-in for it to work.
BURNETT: Musicians still come from around the world to play a grungy Austin bar at 2 a.m.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOX OF PINE")
BLACK EYED VERMILLION: (Singing) Yeah, that old box of pine. I'm going to send you down the line. And I'll never shed a bloody tear for you.
BURNETT: Gary Lindsey is a 45-year-old singer for the Austin punk-folk band Black Eyed Vermilion. He's played South-By for 10 years. And he'd tell anyone that it's still worth coming, even at a time when record companies have shriveled and few bands expect a label deal to come out of a performance here. Sitting in a lounge sipping Irish whiskey, Lindsey says the festival is still a great way to build a fan base.
GARY LINDSEY: This South-By, we're playing - between both my bands - I'm playing, I think, seven shows. I will be in front of a thousand people before the end. And I will definitely get my CD in the hands of people from out of town, and they'll take it back with them. So, you know, it does help to have that many people coming right to your backyard to play in front of.
BURNETT: But no one will be playing on the stage that was built into a five-story tall Doritos vending machine. It's gone this year. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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