Music, media fest sees surge in attendance

For four jam-packed days, the streets of downtown Austin once again became the music industry’s playground during the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, which ended Sunday.

In its 24th year, the sprawling fest has continued to build its reputation as a booze-soaked incubator of music culture where work meets play. This year more almost 2,000 official bands filled the streets, which didn’t prevent innumerable additional acts from making the pilgrimage to the city’s dingy bars, driveways and yards — wherever they could plug in their amps.

This year’s 13,022 registrants — including talent, press, sundry industry pros and fans — represented a significant increase over last year’s 11,687 people toting badges.

On 6th Street, Austin’s main drag, music blared from every open door and window, producing a dissonant mix of deafening metal and acoustic balladry. With more than 80 official venues stretching dozens of city blocks filled from noon to night, even the most ambitious concert-goer faced a bewildering array of choices.

In a dark, little bar, quiet gems like Canadian crooner Basia Bulat hovered over the piano playing to an intimate crowd. Later that afternoon, hundreds of music lovers crammed under a tent at the French Legation Museum to watch buzzy British band The xx play its dreamy brand of electro pop. Lines snaked out of venues with people hoping to catch “it” bands like jj, the Dum Dum Girls and She and Him , while other groups played to empty rooms littered with beer cans.

At a time when the music biz is almost desperately trying to reinvent itself, the fest thrives as a beacon of hope — a reminder that creativity is alive and well, even if that doesn’t translate into a fat record deal for most bands.

Many unsigned musicians found it difficult to find a break while competing for audiences against super groups like Hole and Muse as well as bands like Sleigh Bells, Surfer Blood and Best Coast, who recently burned up the blogosphere after last fall’s CMJ Music Marathon in Gotham.

“We’ll just have to see what happens from here on out,” said Karl Houfek, keyboardist of indie band It’s True.

The Omaha, Neb., quintet travelled to Austin in hopes of finding a label to release their upcoming album, but like many bands who arrived with that goal, they walked out happy but mostly empty handed. “Unless we get an email or phone call later this week that knocks us off our feet, I think it’s a sure thing that we are self-releasing.”

Amidst panel discussions over the dismal future of the music industry and no-deal disappointments, bands kept rocking, people kept watching and even a few vinyl discs might’ve been sold. In the end, SXSW was a chance to be heard for all, but a fairytale for few.

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