By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — For the nearly 2,000 acts performing at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, this week, the odds of success would seem insurmountable.
The music industry is a wreck, and the economy is in disarray. This is not an opportune time for a band looking to land a record deal or sell a lot of records.
But economy be damned, those are among the chief goals for the flood of acts descending on Austin for the 23rd annual SXSW Music Conference and Festival.
Musicians were never known for their business acumen, anyway.
“It is kind of one of those classic ‘Is the glass half-empty or half-full?’ kind of situations and we tend to have the optimistic spirit at South by Southwest,” says Brent Grulke, creative director of SXSW.
Kicking off today and running until the early hours of Sunday, SXSW is an oddity.
For four nights, practically every venue in downtown Austin hosts shows, sandwiched together every hour and often grouped into showcases put on by record labels and sponsors.
The effect is that one walks down the main drag in Austin — 6th Street — through a cacophony: metal music behind this door, folk at the bar next door and some odd digital outfit across the street.
It’s an extravagant, frenzied party that could seem incongruous to lean times.
Grulke says despite economic pressures, SXSW will this year have more bands than ever before, though he did acknowledge registrations for the music conference (which follows film and interactive conferences) are down slightly.
Attendees are mainly press and industry people, and badges are usually had for about $695 each.
SXSW is partly designed as an industry dialogue on the business, with panel discussions (one example: “There’s Still a Lot of Money in Songwriting”) and speeches taking place throughout the week.
This year, the keynote address will be given by Quincy Jones. Devo, the Hold Steady and Steven Van Zandt will also be interviewed on stage.
But the energy of SXSW ultimately comes from the concerts. The focus is on performance, and concert-going remains one of the few fairly healthy parts of the music industry.
“Live music has always been the most critical component of most bands’ careers and that’s obviously something we’ve featured,” says Grulke. “We’ve really been much more appealing to people that are do-it-yourself, make-your-own-career sort of folks.”
The swarms of registrants will surely gravitate to shows by some of the popular names in indie music: the Decemberists, Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear, M. Ward, No Age, Camera Obscura, Glasvegas and Austin’s own Explosions in the Sky.
Bigger names also often drop into SXSW to shore up indie cred and make a splash. Metallica, there to promote its new Rock Band videogame, will perform a semisecret show.
Kanye West confirmed to The Associated Press that he’ll also perform. And Big Boi of OutKast is expected to put on a showcase to preview his upcoming solo effort.
As if all the shows weren’t enough, parties will be across town in the afternoon sun.
This year, blogger Perez Hilton and celebrity cook Rachael Ray will return to host two of the more popular parties.
One of the pleasures of SXSW is perusing the enormous, alphabetical list of bands. A few: Danananakroyd, This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, Legendary Tiger Man, We Should Be Dead, We Were Promised Jet Packs.
“I love seeing the fresh faces of hope,” says Bob Boilen, host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered.” Boilen and NPR will broadcast and webcast two concerts at SXSW, including one headlined by the Decemberists, who will be playing their new album “The Hazards of Love.”
Boilen, a musician himself, says economic concerns are far removed once a band hits the stage.
“There is the ‘I hope we get a break’ part of it, but the bigger part, having lived in and been in a band, is: ‘I’m going to play music in front of people tonight,’” says Boilen. “And there’s nothing better feeling than that.”