SXSW's music portion still relevant

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It's tempting to write off the music portion of the South by Southwest festival, with the rise of the blogosphere and the weed-like growth of events that bill themselves as "South by Southwest parties" but aren't affiliated with the festival. Sure, it's fun to spend a week drinking and seeing bands and friends in Austin, but does the event have any of the cachet it once had as the place where careers were born and legends made?

For many industry insiders, the answer is still yes. For them, SXSW remains a strong brand and a place that provides fertile opportunities for bands, even after they have been vetted by the Web. And SXSW also has emerged as a great place for international acts to break on U.S. shores and for non-indie-rock acts to connect with new audiences.

"The success of the festival is a bit of a double-edged sword," says Roland Swenson, who co-founded SXSW 22 years ago, when it was only a music festival. "There have always been nonofficial SXSW day parties, but it has been getting out of control. It presents a challenge for us because it forces us to compete with all these parties that start at 11 a.m. and give people free alcohol all day long. I've started seeing sponsorship proposals to spend $150,000 for a SXSW show that is in fact not affiliated with the festival. It bums me out to see a band show up at the convention center to sign in and realize that they are not playing an actual showcase. They wind up playing in a corner for 10 people, and it's a shame."

Swenson's attitude still hasn't deterred a good number of labels, promoters, bloggers and even talk show hosts who want in on the SXSW experience, even without direct affiliation. Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton's show is not an official showcase, but that didn't make it difficult for him to secure a venue.

"This is my first time doing a show in Austin," says Hilton. "I just went last year, and I had an awesome time. I loved seeing artists in small venues and having the opportunity to see bands multiple times."

Chloe Walsh, a publicist at Press Here Publicity, agrees. "As a publicist I find SXSW a hugely important event," she says. "With all of those influential people in one spot, we get to showcase our artists without the cost and chaos of them embarking on a four-week tour of the States."

No one benefits more from this "everyone in one place" vibe than the growing number of international bands that play SXSW every year. Maria Catamero, a publicist at Blue Ghost Publicity, says, "I do stress the importance to my bands -- that they must play it -- and to my international bands, (that) I want them to play that over any other festival if they can only make one. I feel like there are more international people there and more of a better mix across the board of industry people."

This year's festival boasts official showcases from Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Jamaica, Korea, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Venezuela and the U.K -- which alone has 150 bands flying across the pond to perform. "For U.K. acts, SXSW is really an established calendar (event)," says Crispin Parry of British Underground, one of the main organizers of the Austin festival's U.K. showcases. "It's a bigger name than something like Coachella; it reaches the level of almost being mythological."

In addition to offering opportunities for international acts, more bands that don't fall into the indie-rock genre have begun to gravitate toward SXSW. Fiona Bloom, founder of publicity firm the Bloom Effect, has put together soul-music programming for the festival. "It's really exciting to be able to bring new artists to the table and get the SXSW promotional machinery behind their efforts," she says. "In the years I've been going, the festival has changed for sure, but it's still as amazing and fun as ever."

An expanded version of this article will appear in Billboard on March 8.
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