March 20, 2009 / 10:14 PM / 10 years ago

Recession? Texas festival SXSW bigger than ever

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The U.S. economy is in the grip of recession, but you wouldn’t know it from attending the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, a 10-day music, film, and interactive industry networking marathon fueled by massive quantities of beer and barbecue.

Lead singer Colin Meloy performs with The Decemberists at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California April 28, 2007. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

By nearly all measures, the festival, now in its 23rd year, is bigger than ever. Big musical acts include the Decemberists, Metallica and rapper Kanye West. At the related film festival, attendees got a sneak preview of Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming film “Bruno.”

More than 1,900 artists from over 40 countries will play in the music portion of South by Southwest, also dubbed as SXSW, that runs through Sunday, up about 100 from last year.

Hotel bookings are up about 10 percent from last year for the festival that attracts about $100 million to the economy of Austin — capital of the Lone Star state.

“I don’t know if there is any relationship at all” between the nation’s economic woes and the festival, creative director Brent Grulke said. “But I know that more people are making music than ever before.”

The only negative: sales of passes to attend the music event — which sell for $695 each - are down about 10 percent from a year ago. But sales for passes to attend the interactive portion of the event are up, organizers said.

A walk through SXSW’s bustling trade show offered a view of the music industry’s changing face. If there was one common theme, it was “do-it-yourself” — book your own shows, record your own music and sell it on the Web without a middleman.

“There is a lot more that an artist can do on their own at very low or zero cost,” said Matthew Seigel, co-founder of Indaba Music, a website where artists can collaborate on songs and post music for sale by linking to iTunes and

“You don’t need studio time or a record deal,” Seigel said.


For Moritz Meier, in Austin to promote the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Germany, times couldn’t be better.

“Honestly, we haven’t had problems,” said Meier, whose trip was sponsored by Hamburg — the city where the Beatles launched their musical career. “The live industry is becoming more and more important” as sales of CDs fall, Meier said.

For bands that flock here from as far as New Zealand, Japan and Romania, SXSW is about exposure, not profits.

“You never make tons of money in Austin,” said Will Zimmerman, bassist and keyboard player for the band Shout Out Out Out Out, as he unloaded gear from a van he helped drive from Edmonton, Alberta - a four-day journey. “The worst-case scenario is we’ll break even.”

The band had two scheduled festival performances, not including a showcase for Canadian bands at a city park on Wednesday night, where Austin’s signature barbecue was in heavy supply and beer flowed freely for guests.

John McAlinden, who manages the band Nacional from Glasgow, Scotland, said he cut travel costs by bunking with an Austin host family and borrowing equipment from other bands.

On Wednesday, the opening night of the music festival, Austin’s 6th Street was crowded with throngs of festival-goers amid a musical cacophony.

“It gets bigger and bigger every year,” said Marc Savlov, staff writer for The Austin Chronicle who has attended SXSW for 20 years, waiting in a bar to hear punk rockers Gallows from London. “It’s basically like one giant party for 10 days.”

Editing by Eric Walsh

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