Covering the buzz spread

Finding the next 'it' band at SXSW has grown more challenging -- and tests the mettle of indie labels.

The Vice Records name has become a fixture at Austin's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference and Festival -- and with good reason. This year, for example, the company will stage a Thursday night showcase, largely featuring acts not signed to the label, and host two unofficial parties. But when Vice Records general manager Adam Shore tried to organize the two-day Intonation Music Festival in Chicago last summer, which featured the likes of Bloc Party, Lady Sovereign and the Streets, he quickly learned that his SXSW experience was entirely unique.

"When I booked Intonation, it was so difficult to get the bands we wanted because everyone wanted top dollar to play, and it was a low-price festival," Shore says. "But at SXSW, all the bands are there, and everyone is dying to play shows. Bands aren't even asking us for money. They're just asking for beer."

What with the late nights, the booze, the barbecue and the rock 'n' roll, SXSW definitely enjoys a festival-like atmosphere, despite the declining health of the music industry overall. Yet, somehow, SXSW continues to grow. Last year, the festival had its largest music attendance to date with more than 10,000 registrants (12,000 attendees purchased wristbands for club access only). And this year alone, more than 90 labels, many independent, have committed to hosting official SXSW showcases.

"It's a great opportunity for us to knock about 20 birds out of the sky with one stone," says Glenn Dicker, label manager for Yep Roc and Redeye Distribution. He says the promotional aspects of SXSW are invaluable, citing the amount of press, retail buyers and international partners in attendance.

Barsuk Records head Josh Rosenfeld says SXSW makes it easy "to have lots of meetings without flying all over the Earth, and (there's) much better Mexican food than can be found (at MIDEM) in Cannes."

But some suggest that SXSW's continuing growth might have come at a price -- record label executives have begun to wonder if any one undiscovered band can really emerge from the Austin confab. With so many different performers representing virtually every genre, the buzz is usually divided among any number of acts. And these days, in-demand acts such as modern girl group the Pipettes and psychedelic garage rockers the Black Lips play multiple shows throughout the week, sometimes as many as three per day. With tickets for notable nightly showcases selling out almost immediately, Shore says he has to keep his bands -- the Black Lips among them -- working.

"It's now about playing two or three shows per day," he says. "There's so many events out there, and there's so much competition, that the only way to even be seen is to play a lot."

Things have changed quickly. When Domino Records brought over Franz Ferdinand from the U.K., the act played one SXSW showcase at Buffalo Billiards. The band's buzz turned into a deafening roar, and Domino, which struck a deal with Epic Records in the U.S. for the band, ended up with one of the hottest rock records of the year.

Domino's U.S. label manager Kris Gillespie hoped to repeat such events in 2006 when he brought the Arctic Monkeys to Austin. While the band was one of the most-talked-about acts before and after SXSW, music from the Arctic Monkeys had been widely available on the Web weeks prior to the February release of the band's debut. "It just came down to timing," Gillespie says. "The band's success just got out well ahead of us by the time March rolled around. It was still a great show, but it wasn't quite as propulsive as the Franz show two years earlier."

Leslie Ransom, head of sales for label/distributor Touch & Go, says SXSW performances rarely translate into an increase in sales. To her, the benefit of bringing a band to Austin or arranging a tour around SXSW is to help secure press for later in the year. And it's a positive, Ransom says, even if the overcrowded nature of SXSW prevents a journalist from checking out a band. "People are writing these days about the lines around the block," she says. "That kind of thing translates, but the effect is a little further down the line."

Memphis Industries co-founder Ollie Jacob is hoping for that kind of feedback for the Pipettes, one of the most sought-after bands going into SXSW. "The Pipettes (show) is going to be a little bit like the Go! Team show, I hope," Jacob says. "People aren't going to be able to see it. You want that general buzz and excitement, and it's the show that you can't get into where you say, 'I bet that was amazing.'"