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SXSW sets the stage for music

Festival likened to audio paradise for bands, fans

When the Swedish quintet the Shout Out Louds comes to play Austin’s South by Southwest music festival this month, don’t expect to find the group feasting on barbecue or lounging by the city’s famed Barton Springs pool. The band hopes to play as many as 10 shows over the course of the week, including several day parties in addition to its official festival showcase.

“They don’t want free time,” says Merge Records’ Christina Rentz, who serves as the band’s publicist. “They come over here to work.”

Take a look at the raw numbers and you’ll understand why a band would feel compelled to slog it out in the hot sun, playing afternoon shows to industry veterans: This year’s festival, which runs March 12-16, will showcase 1,700 acts in 80 venues, both records.

Roughly half the bands playing the festival are unsigned, but the bulk of the media will undoubtedly gravitate toward the big-name acts. Those confirmed to play include country music doyenne Dolly Parton, London rapper Dizzie Rascal, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Van Morrison, former teen heartthrobs Hanson and the recently reunited L.A. punk band X.

With media outlets ranging from MTV News to NPR blanketing the festival with wall-to-wall coverage, SXSW offers bands the perfect opportunity to spotlight new material. Alternative rock stalwarts REM will make their first-ever SXSW appearance to promote “Accelerate,” due April 1 on Warner Bros.

Bertis Downs, the band’s manager, says SXSW presents an indispensable opportunity to expose REM’s music to a “critical mass” of fans, industry contacts and music press. “The game these days is exposing the music and letting people hear it,” he says.

Apart from its showcase at Stubb’s on March 12, REM will record a segment on the PBS concert series “Austin City Limits” the next night and then do some radio promotion before heading to Europe.

“SXSW was created as a promotional vehicle for artists and the companies who work for them, so in that sense it’s the same as it’s ever been,” says managing director Roland Swenson, who should know: He’s been with the festival since it’s inception in 1987.

Over the course of two decades, Swenson has seen Austin’s little homegrown festival blossom into a cornerstone of the nation’s post-Oscars cultural calendar. Since 1994, SXSW has offered film and interactive conferences running parallel to the music showcase. While the film festival isn’t threatening to supplant Sundance anytime soon, it still has enough indie cred to make Austin hipsters proud.

Swenson says he’s seeing more and more crossover between the music and film conferences this year. For starters, Lou Reed is keynoting the music portion of SXSW, while the Julian Schnabel-directed live concert performance of Reed’s 1973 concept album “Berlin” is one of the key draws for the film component.

As for SXSW Interactive, which runs March 7-11, Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg is arguably the festival’s largest draw to date. He’ll be talking social networking and fending off cash-carrying suitors from Microsoft and Google in his keynote on March 9.

If the 1,700 bands seem a bit overwhelming, SXSW offers plentiful networking and educational opportunities in the air-conditioned confines of the convention center. Apart from the nightly showcases in every bar, club and coffee shop in the city, Austin’s convention center will be ground zero for the tradeshow portion of SXSW, which includes popular demo listening sessions, a mentorship program and panel discussions on everything from music placement in videogames to strategies for enhancing digital retail.

Other key events include an interview with Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records, and a session titled “A Conversation With Moby,” which will examine the electronic musician’s relationship with cinema and his success composing original scores and licensing music for film and TV projects.

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