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Going Inside SXSW

Independent.com Heads to Austin to See What Modern Music Is All About


By the time you read this on Thursday morning, my flight will probably have already left the Santa Barbara Airport for Austin, Texas, where I will spend the next few days getting a healthy dose of modern music, from indie rock and new age pop to alt-country, hip-hop, world music, and everything in between. This is the promise of South By Southwest, which has been happening in the Lone Star State’s capital city since 1987, when about 700 souls signed up to check out some tunes and discuss the music biz.

Known more simply as just SXSW, the conference now blends live shows and music industry discussions with an interactive media component and full-on film festival, making it perhaps pop culture’s biggest combined draw every year. More than 12,000 people register to attend the music part of the conference each March, and another 11,000 sign up for the film and interactive segments. (I registered for both music and interactive press passes, but the interactive seems to be done by the time I arrive.)

On top of that, there are about 1,200 musical acts officially lined up to play in Austin’s bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies, and performing arts venues, plus another few hundred hitting up unofficial shows. There’s gotta be more live music in Austin during this extended weekend than in any other city at any other time in the history of the world. (Any NOLA Jazz Fest-loving takers on that bet?)

So how does one navigate this all?

Well, I thought that getting a few dozen emails each day since early February from labels, public relation companies, radio stations, individual acts, associated sponsors, and the festival itself might help. But then I tried arranging a schedule based on said email hurricane, and quickly lost interest.

How about using SXSW’s handy music schedule? Tried that too, but realized I didn’t know where any of these venues were, couldn’t predict how these shows might mesh with the schedule of my random friends in attendance, or determine what the chances of getting into each show would really be (I’ve heard horrid rumors of endless lines).

My strategy? Just go with the flow and see as much as I can.

According to Mark Iverson, a former Santa Barbarian who now lives in Austin and once played bass with the Mad Caddies, I made the right decision. When I wrote to a group of friends sharing their show selections that “I am so overwhelmed that I have decided to give up, and see where each day takes me,” Iverson wrote back, “That’s the smartest call. I made a list for each day last year and that plan lasted all of mere seconds. You’ll get pulled from all sides once you arrive in the melee.”

It also turns out that Iverson lives around the corner from the house south of downtown Austin where I’m staying, which is owned by longtime Santa Barbara promoter-turned-Austinite Rob Dalley. And then there’s Marko 72, the Sugarcult guitarist from Santa Barbara who once scribed The Indy‘s Positively State Street column many moons ago - he’ll be sharing Dalley’s house with me until Rob returns on Saturday. We’ve promised not to tear it up like others used to do to Nym, the State Street club that Dalley used to run.

I think we’re all up to speed now, and you know about as much as I know about anything SXSW-ish. Other than I have RSVP’d to see Devo play on Friday night at midnight. So I got that going for me.

Oh, and to let everyone in on a little secret, one of the main reasons I decided to attend SXSW 2009 is because, for the past couple years, I have been wondering whether a conference of this sort could also be pulled off in Santa Barbara - something much smaller, of course, but offering a similar blend of up-and-coming music, smart industry discussions, and a special setting, which Santa Barbara most certainly is. I’ve had some fairly serious discussions about this idea with a variety of industry insiders, and have only heard overwhelmingly positive responses. That’s about all I can divulge for now, but that is my hidden mission this weekend in Austin.

Follow me at independent.com/sxsw to learn of my findings. And if you’ve got any advice, email me at matt@independent.com.

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