Rockin’ amid recession: More than 1,900 artists will play at SXSW

[19 March 2009]

By Dan DeLuca

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

AUSTIN, Texas - Is there anything going on in this Lone Star State capital city on a South-by-Southwest Thursday night?

Well, let’s see. There’s Philadelphia rapper Amanda Blank, rhyming over at the Scoot Inn, and Philadelphia rapper Freeway, doing his thing at the Habana Bar Backyard.

At 8 there’s a tribute to the late, great Doug Sahm at Antone’s, featuring Dave Alvin and others, and at midnight a tribute to the late, great Chris Gaffney at the Continental Club, featuring Dave Alvin and others.

British buzz act Micachu will perform, as will Brooklyn art-rockers Grizzly Bear, French folk-popper Herman Dune, New York guitar-shredder Leni Stern, feral Danish rocker Ida Maria, Nashville country-roots scion Justin Townes Earle, South African rockers BLK JKS, and Atlanta sci-fi popster Janelle Monae.

None of those to your liking? Not to worry. There are more than 400 other acts playing at the 73 official venues all over this midsize Texas city, and that’s just tonight.

Over the course of the 23d annual SXSW festival, which kicked off in earnest Wednesday night and goes full steam through Saturday, more than 1,900 artists will play. Many of them, like the charming New York fuzz-pop band Pains of Being Pure at Heart, are playing as many as 10 exposure-seeking shows at the music industry’s annual spring-break gathering.

What gives? Isn’t there a recession on? And hadn’t the music industry been in a free fall for a good decade before the rest of the global economy caught up with it?

Yes, and yes. But over the years, SXSW - which also includes ever-more-popular film and interactive-technology festivals, both of which closed as the music conference kicked up - has established itself as the place where the falling-down music biz tries to figure out how to pick itself up again.

So at SXSW 2009, there will be keynote speeches by boldface names like Quincy Jones and Little Steven (of the E Street Band and “The Sopranos”), and news conferences with long-in-the-tooth acts like Devo and Metallica.

SXSW is not just for indie outfits. It’s also for Monsters of Rock hyping a new alliance with the “Guitar Hero” video game.

And if the laminated-badge-wearing attendees manage to resist the temptation of sipping margaritas in the Texas sun at the scores of day parties? (Sorry, freeloaders - open bars are expected to be less plentiful this year because of industry cutbacks.) Well, there will be plenty of nuts-and-bolts panel discussions inside the Austin Convention Center.

“It’s more streamlined this year,” says singer-songwriter Damien DeRose of Doylestown, Pa., who records and is performing at SXSW under the name Peasant. DeRose, 23, is making his second visit here.

“It seems like there aren’t as many unnecessary parties this year. ... Mostly I’m here to have fun,” he said, “but it’s useful, too. It’s funny, it’s hard to meet up with someone who lives in New York, but you can catch up with them here.”

Some of the sessions will be environmentally focused (“Making a Green Album”); some will be lighthearted (“BBQ: The Texas Way”); and some will be historically focused (“Kind of Blue at 50”). But there also will be lots with titles like “Great Expectations: Artist Development Meets Economic Reality”; “Bands, Brands and Fans”; and “Making Money with Music AND Keeping It.”

Those nuts-and-bolts talks will speak to the serious digital-age issue that lies behind the all-day (and all of the night) party in Austin this week. Now more than ever, the overstuffed SXSW schedule attests that there’s more music being made than even the most energetic and insatiable music lover could hope to hear. But is there enough money around for musicians to keep making a living making it?

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