Anyone who's writing about a multi-stage festival is jiving you when they say they're really reporting on it. Unless they cloned themselves to do the rounds, the truth is that they caught a fraction of what was offered up. At best, the writer is gonna fish for some kind of angle and sum-up moments that cover the whole festival but read a few of those articles and other than mentioning a few of the same bands, it sounds like these scribes attended different fests. What usually gets written up are the buzz bands of the moment, big marquee names and maybe if they're lucky, a handful of mostly unknown acts (I did that myself on my other blog). At just about every panel at SXSW that I've done, a question always comes up from an inspiring musician or label about what they need to do to get noticed in this onslaught of music. Ideally, the right answer would be "write good songs" but the truth is that you can just as easily (or more easily) make it on a good sound or a good appearance. But what the hell does it mean for a band to get noticed in 2008?
Usually, the story was that you built up a fanbase, got noticed by a label and then got signed (and then usually regretted it). Even for bands that were savvy enough to build up their reputation online (Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys), they ultimately signed to labels, albeit smaller indie ones. Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah are a great exception as they take charge of their own albums, production and distribution but that's not a model for everybody. Most of the bands at SXSW would point their audience to their MySpace page (which is a good idea 'cause frankly most of their own sites suck) but they still had mersch tables set up to sell CD's, even those little discs are supposedly on the way out. For the handful of bands that break-out of the pack and get noticed in Austin, their reward isn't necessarily a record contract so much as more recognition and b-u-z-z.
Once they've gotten that extra boost, what does that translate into for these bands? Ideally, it would be more sales, realistically not fueling jet-setting lifestyles but at least paying the bills so they can keep doing music as their main job. But if CD sales are fizzling out and online downloads aren't taking up the slack, what's going to keep these bands going? In the absence of a patronage system (i.e. in Europe), these groups are going to have to rely on other items that can't be duplicated as easily by downloads- shows and mersch. For the former, that means that bands will have to keep playing shows so that they can play bigger shows more consistently. For the later, it means that as part of their act, they have to sell a brand as well, pushing T-shirts, artwork, posters, stickers, buttons, etc..
But maybe patronage isn't such a far-fetched idea after all, especially when it's coming from the private sector. Licensing deals for movies, commercials, video games can not only give a boost to a band in terms of recognition but can also a sizable influx of cash to keep the band going. Far from being a crass idea, in the last 10 years, it's been seen more and more as viable option for an industry that can't make money shifting albums anymore. The trick is to latch onto the right sponsor who's gonna give you a decent paycheck while you don't look like a total schmuck for working for them.
As such, it ain't necessarily a bad thing for bands to tour to get bigger tour dates or push mersch for sales in lieu of disappearing album sales or hope to find the right sponsor for their music. That's just the state of the biz now, like it or not.