AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - At Allens Boots, where cowboy footwear comes in ostrich, crocodile and elephant skin, salesman Bryan Perez is prepping for the annual South by Southwest festival invasion.
As tens of thousands of people head to the Texas capital for the music, film and interactive conferences that kick off on Friday, Perez expects to educate visitors from Europe, Asia and big U.S. cities like New York on how cowboy boots are supposed to fit (snug in front with wiggle room in back for the heel).
"They want boots," Perez said. "They want the real Texas experience -- I guess."
Organizers for the festival, dubbed SXSW, expect this year's industry-conference-meets-cultural-exchange to be the biggest yet, surpassing last year's 49,000 registered attendees and featuring more music concerts, film screenings and panel discussions than ever. The technology conference runs March 9-13, films screen March 9-17 and music plays March 13-18.
The music portion features more than 2,000 acts from dozens of countries performing during the festival. Almost every place in Austin becomes an official or unofficial SXSW stage for bands trying to get noticed: the airport, downtown clubs, parking lots and outdoor spaces along Lady Bird Lake.
"What happens during South by Southwest is kind of Austin on steroids," said Roland Swenson, SXSW managing director.
Speakers include Bruce Springsteen - he and his E Street Band will also perform - and Rainn Wilson (Dwight from TV's "The Office.") There will be red carpet premieres for movies like the comedy "21 Jump Street" with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. The Counting Crows, the Shins and Norah Jones will perform.
Venture capitalists, software developers, film distributors and representatives of independent music labels will schmooze at parties fueled by beer and live music. They will sample barbecue and Tex-Mex and perhaps venture away from downtown to try the "Japanese farmhouse" food and sushi at Uchiko, whose executive chef, Paul Qui, just won Bravo TV's "Top Chef: Texas."
If it sounds like fun, it is. But these also are serious industry conferences where musicians, filmmakers and people with new or buzzworthy technology ideas angle for attention. In fact, much of SXSW is about making connections with like-minded people and businessmen and women from around the world, which is why it has grown dramatically from a 700-person affair in 1987.
"That's the reason people keep coming back," Swenson said. "To meet people they've met here before, to meet new people, to experience great artists, great films, great thinkers and entrepreneurs."
SXSW has been credited with drawing attention to Twitter, which gained momentum at the 2007 event, and for musicians such as the late Amy Winehouse, who played at SXSW that same year shortly before she hit it big in the United States.
British folk rockers The Dunwells, who recorded their debut album "Blind Sighted Faith" at Willie Nelson's Pedernales Studio near Austin are performing this year at their first SXSW.
"You play the right showcases at the right time and the right industry people are there. It's going to better our careers. That's what we're looking to do," said Joseph Dunwell.
First-time filmmaker Mark Jarrett of Austin hopes to develop relationships that will lead to the distribution of his movie, "The Taiwan Oyster," a dark comedy that tells the story of two Americans who steal a corpse and set off on a road trip through the Taiwanese countryside.
"It's hopefully a springboard," Jarrett said of SXSW. "Our strategy isn't to land a monster deal. We want to get it seen by as many people as possible."
At the interactive conference, startups like Americans Elect, which is promoting an online, nonpartisan presidential nomination, will be among those trying to cultivate a following.
Dunwell said he and his band are ready to play the music they love and soak up the culture of Austin.
"We're jumping in the deep end," he said. "We're going in with our arms wide open, ready to experience anything that's thrown at us."
Reporting By Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte