New directions for South by Southwest

Austin confab leans on film, interactive media, sponsorships in tough times

Now in its 24th year, South by Southwest, the premier indie music showcase and conference in the country, continues to grapple with an industry in dire straits and an economy still wracked by uncertainty.

Set for March 17-21 in Austin, Texas, familiarly known as “the live music capital of the world,” the five-day confab still draws thousands with its usually unwieldy plate of live shows, panel sessions and ancillary events. This year’s performers constitute a smorgasbord (more than 1,800 acts) of familiar commodities like Cheap Trick, Motorhead, Big Star, Ray Davies of the Kinks and Courtney Love’s revived band Hole, and buzzy new acts like Broken Bells, the xx, the Antlers, the Pain of Being Pure at Heart and Deer Tick.

But organizers admit that the conference — which grew from a regionally based event to America’s best-known showcase for rising musical talent — has hit its share of bumps in recent years.

While declining to cite hard attendance figures for the ’09 event, SXSW managing director Roland Swenson prefers a glass-half-full view of things.

“We did see a drop in paid registrations,” he says. “It was maybe a little over 10% in the final analysis. All things considered, we felt lucky that it wasn’t worse than that. This year is pretty much flat with last year, so we haven’t regained what we lost.”

SXSW has diversified its offerings, with parallel confabs on film (incorporating its own festival) and interactive media having taken up some fiscal slack. Registrations for SXSW Interactive will grow by an estimated 30%-40% this year, while sales of so-called “platinum passes” covering all three events are expected to grow 15%.

“Last year, for the first time, the combined film and interactive events grew to be bigger than the music side of things,” Swenson says. “It’s a real fundamental shift in things for us, because there were points in the past where both of those events were barely making it, and to have that kind of growth was something that we’d hoped for, but never expected to see.”

Corporate sponsorship — once anathema in the music biz — has taken a larger role in the health of SXSW. This year, companies like AOL, Chevrolet, Miller Lite, Pepsi and IFC have kicked in support. “That’s a big part of the new music business,” Swenson notes, “brands making deals with artists and labels; and they’re making deals with us, too.”

Some 30 international trade groups will mount showcases at SXSW ’10.

“International participation is our strongest area of growth for South by Southwest music,” Swenson says. “It’s come to fruition after over 20 years of cultivating that activity. I think what happened, particularly in the last seven or eight years, is foreign acts found more success in the States.”

Though the U.S. majors’ presence has diminished since the confab’s salad days of the ’90s, fresh blood on the domestic side has kept SXSW percolating. “We were fortunate that we have a very broad constituency,” Swenson says. “Even though the labels have been shrinking, particularly the majors, we were able to stay strong, just because of the diversity of groups that we draw on. As the major labels were shrinking, this whole new generation of indies was coming up, and we were able to tap into those folks.”

As in years past, the daytime conference will offer a packed schedule of 160 panel and discussion events at the Austin Convention Center, with participants including keynoter Smokey Robinson, Cheap Trick and Gustavo Santaolalla (“Motorcycle Diaries”).

The focus of SXSW continues to be its four-night fest, which will be held this year at 89 Austin sanctioned venues, while dozens of additional acts will play unofficial shows, often during daytime hours, employing virtually every available square foot of performance space in the city.

At night, 6th Street, Austin’s main music drag, is blocked off to accommodate the swarm of conference registrants and locals with club wristbands who flood the area to check out talent from around the world.

However, scoring a deal with a major or indie label after a festival appearance — a magnet for musicians in the fest’s early years — is a thing of the past, per Swenson.

“Certainly in the ’90s, the media put a big emphasis on the record deal being the ideal result of an act playing South by Southwest.”

But Swenson says the fest was uncomfortable with that characterization. Rather, he says, the event is about bands finding an agent, a manager, an attorney or a publisher in a foreign territory — and acts getting booked on festivals and in clubs around the country.

“I actually have a copy of the first South by Southwest brochure that I keep on my desk,” says Swenson. “When we were formulating the concept, we kept coming back to our mission statement: that South by Southwest is a tool for artists and the companies that work with them to meet and share ideas. I believe that’s still, at our core, what we do.”