Fans, Bands Flock to Music Industry's Spring Break

Dubbed a hipster's Mardi Gras and spring break for music geeks, South by Southwest Music Conference, or SXSW, will bring thousands of industry stalwarts, magazine editors, bloggers, bands and fans to Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, for the next five days.

With showcases and music industry how-to seminars, the conference, which began more than 20 years ago, was once a venue in which unsigned artists could get signed, international bands could get heard and small-time rock outfits could play their hearts out.

But today, with more than 1,400 musical acts on the official lineup, such as critical darlings Lily Allen and Bloc Party, and speakers like Pete Townsend of The Who and David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads, the all-out aural orgy is anything but indie.

"Sixth Street is a zoo," said Nic Harcourt, a bona fide SXSW veteran and host of the career-making show "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW radio in Los Angeles. "It's fun just to walk down there and hear what's coming out of the windows … That tends to be more exciting for me."

Tim Krings, a Chicago native and a four-time SXSW attendee, has noticed an increase in big sponsors in the past few years.

"There's a lot more marketing … [and] sponsorship from corporations," Krings told ABC News, comparing the event to when he first attended four years ago.

While the conference "used to just be for the industry folks," Krings said, "now it seems like the promoters want it to be more toward the consumers."

Looking at the list of this year's parties, it's easy to see that Krings is right.

The hoopla has grown beyond the trade show's official showcases sponsored by SXSW into free, booze-soaked daytime showcases with big-time corporate sponsors. This year, Puma, Esquire, Jane magazine, Diesel and music provider Rhapsody will all sponsor parties.

The Bands

For attendees, day parties mean free beer and even more free music. For artists on smaller labels who are eager to play for as many people as possible, they mean an even more dizzying pace.

For Atlanta-based Snowden, the trip to SXSW -- their second -- translates to at least seven shows over four days, all during the middle of a cross-country tour.

"You go, you get thrown on a stage, you get thrown off," said Jordan Jeffares, the band's guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist. "Any band can get a gig at SXSW, but it's not always fruitful."

According to Jeffares, this year, the band, whose latest album "Anti Anti" is on Jade Tree Records, feels like the parties and shows they are playing will get them in front of the right eyeballs. "Not like in the past," he said, "where it was like, 'Why did we do this?'"

"It's just like promotion for the band … [We're] trying to get in front of the people who haven't heard the record," he said. "South by Southwest is a way for us to meet people from different places and magazines."

Still, at some point, the band feels like the constant shows and parties are "kinda mindless."

"It's almost like being on a treadmill at this point," Jeffares said. "It's constantly trying to stay moving … It feels overwhelming and we're not even at South by Southwest yet."

Jim DeGregorio and Chris Watkins, members of the Austin band American Graveyard, can relate. Last year, the band, which also includes Doodle Cox and Billy Jack Phillips, played five shows during SXSW.

"It just didn't really pay off at all," DeGregorio said. "It made me realize if you're good, you're gonna get 'discovered' anyway."

Both Watkins and DeGregorio maintain that the type of career-launching "discoveries" that SXSW is associated with, either in urban myth or reality, aren't as likely to happen in such a crowded field of artists.

"There are so many bands … [with venues] that can only fit 100 to 200 people," Watkins said. "The record companies that are coming down, they already know about you anyway" if your band has buzz.

The Industry

And while many in Austin this weekend will tell you about how they're there solely for their love of the music, many people have another agenda: business.

For Amy Schroeder, editor and founder of Venus Zine, a magazine that focuses on women in music, that agenda is twofold -- to find new talent to cover in the magazine as well as to get to the magazine's name out to record labels.

"We're going to go to as many shows as possible and interview bands," she said. "I'll be thinking for the rest of 2007 if I discover a cool band."

As a whole, the experience can be overwhelming, according to Schroeder.

"[It's] exciting and frustrating at the same time … A lot of the bands will play like six different shows," she said. "I think it's good to pick a few bands you know you like."

For Harcourt, that agenda is to check out and find new bands for his Los Angeles-based radio show.

Although Harcourt tries to make a preliminary list of people he wants to see, he takes a more Zen approach to seeing SXSW bands, keeping his ears open both for what other people are talking about and the sounds coming out of assorted bars on Sixth Street.

"That's when you make the best discoveries … the sense of discovery sort of just being on the street," he said. "I do like to, at least one night a week, to go out with no preconceived ideas."

That's how Harcourt found the band the Morning After Girls, a Swedish band that he later invited to be on his show.

The Fans

But as "SXSW: the Massive Industry Event" grows ever larger, so does its reach to an unintended audience; what was once in many ways a music trade show has morphed into a festival atmosphere, consistently drawing wristbanded superfans to the Lone Star State every March.

To attend official SXSW events, showgoers must have either purchased a badge, which typically costs several hundred dollars and ensures entrance into every event and conference, or a wristband, which runs about $150 and in theory gets you into see the bands you want. But it's still a hierarchy; badge holders are allowed in before people with wristbands.

To avoid lines and, hopefully, the heartache of missing out on every band he wants to see, Krings has developed a system -- a spreadsheet of performances organized by date, time, geographical location and an ordering preference that includes designations ranging from "No Thank You" to "Ideal Situation."

"After the first year, I realized there was so much going on," Krings said.

So last year, before attending his third SXSW, Krings took action. If even one of the bands slightly interested him, he listened to their songs and rated them accordingly; thus the spreadsheet was born.

Although Krings will admit that it's a bit of overkill, having more information is better than missing out.

"It's kind of hard to think on your feet sometimes," he said. "You don't want to be standing in the middle of Sixth Street at midnight with nowhere to go."