Hot Bands Help Ignite 1998's SXSW

More than 700 bands and 7,000 music execs, critics and publicists (not to mention artists that flew in to play non-affiliated clubs and on the streets, and the thousands of fans hoping for an early glance at the next R.E.M. or Stevie Ray) descended upon Austin, Texas, last week for the 12th annual South by Southwest music industry schmoozefest.

The famous row of bars along Sixth Street alone hosts hundreds of shows during the week. Visiting bands from as far away as Japan, Ireland and Norway (and all over the U.S.) play one after another, like talent rolling down an assembly line. And yet somehow, despite the fact that they're essentially competing for ears, they all groove on the town, the fans and the event itself -- if only to forget the pressures of why they're really there.

"It seems like the community [Austin] is so much more involved," Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon said just before her filled-to-capacity show at La Zona Rosa. Surprisingly, Gordon was one of the few musicians who wasn't aware of SXSW's high profile. "I didn't even know what it was we were playing at actually. I had no idea how big it was. I didn't realize it was bigger than [New York's] CMJ [music conference] and all that." Why she'd come then? Gordon mentioned that she had planned to check out shows by Tribe 8 and Royal Trux, but couldn't make it; hubby Thurston Moore did attend.

Double lines formed outside of the Electric Lounge as people strained to get into the overcrowded but amazing Cornelius show, led by the Japanese electronica-meets-punk-and-metal-and-lounge wizard. The following evening, Sean Lennon played to a sardine-packed crowd at Liberty Lunch backed by Japanese band Cibo Matto.

Electronica and Japanese bands might have stolen the spotlight from the rash of more traditional indie rock bands, but it was the rootsy singer-songwriter acts (Austin's "Y'allternative" artists) that guaranteed attendance. Buzz surrounded big-time locals like Jimmie Vaughan, Junior Brown and Joe Ely. Everyone wanted to see Nick Lowe, Billy Bragg, Johnny Winter and Buddy Guy, too. Either way, this kind of buzz is more about show anticipation than newcomer excitement.

Of course, even having luminaries seemingly defeats the purpose of showcasing new talent. But according to SXSW's creative director Brent Grulke, major label artists account for only about 13 percent of SXSW's live shows. About 25 percent of the bands have no label affiliation whatsoever (and the rest have indie label contracts).

Ultimately, the not-so-secret career advancement agendas can pan out for a few lucky souls. "South by Southwest absolutely helped," explained the Negro Problem's lead singer, Stew. "People started talking about us all over the nation. Suddenly, it was like we were exposed. Literally." Their live show, naturally, was packed. But remember: Buzz status doesn't secure anything. Former buzz bands like Fluffy and Grant Lee Buffalo generated heat at SXSW in years past only to flail commercially. Ben Folds Five and Presidents of the United States, on the other hand, fared well since playing the festival.

Perhaps Sonic Youth's Shelley summed it up best: "If you're an up-and-coming band, it's good to play anywhere. I play with other musicians in clubs with 15 people in 'em, so I understand what it's like." Of course, other bands don't have a Sonic Youth to fall back on when gigs get scarce, but his point still holds. And 700 bands can't be wrong.