When the five-day music portion of South by Southwest gets underway Wednesday in Austin, Texas -- film and interactive events began Friday -- it will do so amid the now annual doom-and-gloom music business stats. Album sales are again facing a double-digit dip, the Virgin retail chain is on the verge of closing its remaining stores and further consolidation is potentially imminent, as industry giants Live Nation and Ticketmaster aim to join forces.
But the concerns of the mainstream music biz always have felt slightly removed from the happenings at SXSW, now in its 23rd year. Among the hundreds of artists traveling to the event, there are only a few household names: Tori Amos, M. Ward, PJ Harvey, the Decemberists, Jane's Addiction and Metallica.
The emphasis instead is on showcasing emerging talent and deciphering ways in which those acts, buoyed by the enthusiasm of the independent community, can thrive in a climate of considerable adversity.
"I can't say we're not at all affected by the meltdown, or whatever you want to call it," said SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson. "But it's kind of marginal at this point. We're down some in music registrations -- maybe somewhere between 10% and 15%."
Swenson said that any dip in music registrations would be evened out by the growth of the festival's five-day interactive confab, which has seen a 30% upswing in registrations.
Last year, SXSW had 12,600 music attendees.
If Swenson seems unfazed by the economic downturn, though, it's very much on the minds of the indie labels attending the conference. "The bottom line is that we have to look at every dollar that we spend, and we have to wonder what are we really getting for it," said Jeff Castelaz, co-founder of Dangerbird Records.
His company is about to start promoting a new album from one of L.A.'s most recent rock 'n' roll success stories, the Silversun Pickups. The act will perform new songs in Austin, but Castelaz said he trimmed the number of staffers going to the Texas capital.
"It doesn't mean we're lowering our sights on our core business, which is marketing rock 'n' roll," he said. "It's just: Why exactly do we need all those extra people down there? What are they really going to be doing other than drinking beer out of plastic cups?"
Financial concerns aside, bands themselves still appear willing to make the trek. The tally of acts cited by SXSW -- 1,900 -- represents about a 100-band increase from last year.
"I know that money is tight for everyone," Swenson said. "One of the strengths of our event is that it's based on live music. Whatever shape the economy is in, there's still going to be bands and they're still going to need a way to promote themselves. South by Southwest has always been about alternative models, and how to manipulate the system to work for you."
Getting booked for some well-branded day concerts is what persuaded unsigned local band the Afternoons to drive to Austin. The seven-piece orchestral pop outfit had never played SXSW, but four of its five members did a stint in rock band Irving, which had.
"It never really did anything for us," singer-guitarist Brian Canning said of Irving's trips to Austin. "We have seven people and three drummers and we wanted to go, but we didn't have any money, either. No one knows who we are, so we didn't think it'd be a worthwhile trip. Then we started getting certain offers and certain interest from overseas and in the U.S. Everyone was saying they'd really like us to play SXSW."
The group turned to its booking agency, Windish, for help getting onto the official SXSW roster -- the band is playing day parties sponsored by L.A. Web radio outfit Little Radio, Urban Outfitters and Sweet Lea Tea -- but heading into last weekend, the Afternoons still didn't have a place to stay.
Manager-booking agent Ben Dickey, who works with DJ-producer Diplo and indie rock acts Spoon and Okkervil River, among others, advises his clients to attend SXSW. Dickey said a trip to Austin is vital, as it gets bands in front of local promoters. "It's hard with a new act who's going to play 40 clubs they've never played before on their first tour," he said. "So it'd be nice if those promoters all saw them."
Even Dangerbird's Castelaz, who characterizes SXSW as people largely "behaving badly on expense accounts," notes that the promotional aspects can be unparalleled.
"It's the economy of scale, and it's getting all those media gatekeepers and all those people who do jobs within the music industry [in one place] -- college radio and Pitchfork and Daytrotter and AOL Music and all that. If you have any kind of head of steam going, imagine how much you can get done in four days."
Budgetary constraints shouldn't have any effect on the artistry on display, however, according to Swenson. "Our years that are not so great financially turn out to be, creatively, our strongest years," he said. "That's one of those nature-of-the-universe kind of things."