Let's say you saw three bands a night, almost every night of the year. You'd be about on target for catching the number of rock, country, hip-hop and electronic acts who'll play the annual South by Southwest music conference this week. And all that's happening mainly on one single drag in Austin, Texas, from Wednesday through Sunday.
"You go down there, and you're the ball in a pinball machine," said Lenny Kaye, guitarist for punk-poet Patti Smith, one of the main attractions at this year's festival.
"You bounce here, then somebody takes you up there. You have a few drinks here, and pretty soon you wind up there. There's a real element of chance involved that makes it exciting."
Consider the attractions vying for attention: more than 900 bands, from the über-hip to the unknown, plus dozens of panels addressing everything from the future of music in cyberspace to folk icon Woody Guthrie. Toss into the mix all the melt-in-your-mouth barbecue and free beer the music media can swallow, and you have a chaotic but heady brew.
When South by Southwest, or SXSW, as it's popularly referred to, started 14 years ago, it was a showcase for little-known acts hoping to draw some attention to themselves. Today it still attracts some unsigned bands, but they're often crowded off the bill by indie-rock and alternative-country outfits who have label deals and maybe even die-hard critics and fan followings, but have yet to become household names.
In addition to Smith, known for such '70s underground hits as "Dancing Barefoot" (RealAudio excerpt), this year the conference boasts a keynote address from country singer/songwriter Steve Earle, plus shows by Cypress Hill, Elliott Smith, the Mekons, the Supersuckers and Modest Mouse. And of course there are also hopefuls such as Tesch, Aurora Plastics Company and the Chubbies.
Making Sense Of It All
Nowhere does the action get more chaotic than in the mind of SXSW creative director Brent Grulke. Last Thursday, he was prepping for the pandemonium created by the imminent arrival of 7,000 attendees, trying to fill slots of bands who'd dropped out, training crews for the conference's 50 stages and outfitting some of the nearly 40 year-round staffers and 600 volunteers with walkie-talkies. That's in addition to taking care of the SXSW sister fests on film and the Internet that precede the music confab.
This year marks the invasion of the dot coms, Grulke said, as the Internet music scene consumes panels, takes on sponsorships and serves as a constant background to what's going on.
By his estimate, the number of festival participants in the Internet world has jumped ten-fold. New bands are mapping out careers in the unknown territory of downloading and streaming music, while labels try to figure out how to make money online without being overwhelmed by piracy.
"For years at South by Southwest, there was a general understanding of how the music business worked and what one's options were within it. ... That's no longer the case," Grulke said.
While the conference includes traditional talks on topics such as taking a band on the road and getting CDs into stores, panels this year also will focus heavily on the variety of Web music formats, the impact of Internet radio and legal matters in the online music arena.
'A Fever Pitch'
But even as the Net sits on the tips of so many tongues, there are still nearly 1,000 live, in-the-flesh bands that people will see throughout the course of several days.
"During South by Southwest there's an energy and the whole town comes up to a fever pitch," said Ray Wylie Hubbard, a local, the songwriter of the outlaw-country anthem "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" and a five-time conference veteran.
Mr. T Experience singer and guitarist Dr. Frank (born Frank Portman) is a little uneasy about the feverishness. His rock-critic roast, "I Wrote a Book About Rock and Roll" (RealAudio excerpt), seems tailor-made for the crowd, but this year will be the first time his pop-punk act has ever played the fest.
He's not quite sure how to play for an audience composed almost exclusively of journalists and industry types, most of whom did not pay the $495 walk-up fee to attend.
"That turns the conventional approach to touring and playing and shows on its head. What to do to give people their money's worth when they haven't paid any money is an interesting thing," Frank said.
Feeding The Hordes
Roland Cantu knows precisely how to give people their money's worth: Cook up some of the best barbecue in the Lone Star State, the kind that's made fans out of ZZ Top, Bob Dylan and Jay Leno.
Cantu is catering director at the Iron Works Barbecue, the restaurant that's just a guitar pick's toss from the convention center where much of SXSW goes down. Iron Works has doubled its staff to 20 people for the conference. It'll be creating feasts for label parties of 300, 500 and 600 people at a clip. Cantu expects to prepare hundreds of briskets in the days ahead.
"We've had people who've been here 14 years," he said. "They know it's coming, and they gear up for it. Everybody's gonna be here open-to-close to handle this."
There's so much going on at South by Southwest that it sometimes takes an old hand to wring the most out of every nook and cranny.
Still, even outsiders will find it easy to leave what Kaye calls the "gathering of the music biz tribes" gorged on music, industry info. and plenty of beer.
"If you were an alien being looking down on the event from a light year or two, you'd see a vast variety of what is modern popular music … and not-so-popular music," he said.
"It's just like a great ball of creativity down there. Walking down the main street, you're hearing music pouring out of all these bars. You just feel like this is a template of the moment."