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SXSW drums up Austin economy

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Steve Chiotakis: Once again, the music scene has taken over the streets of Austin, Texas. The South By Southwest festival is going into its last weekend. One that’ll feature a lot of music and a lot of music industry talk.

David Brown reports on music and the industry for public radio KUT in Austin. David, welcome — and I guess I have to ask if this economic fallout is causing this well-known indie rock fest to skip a beat?

David Brown: Well, you know, South By Southwest is one of Austin’s surest economic generators — it gens up about $100 million for the city in economic activity each year. With a series of three big events, music’s just one part of it. There’s also a film event and a fast-growing interactive conference. This year, sales of badges — the ticket to see all the music shows — they were down by an estimated 10 [percent] to 15 percent. But there were more bands this year. That suggests that the industry’s putting more money in pushing the bands that make the money and maybe doing less shmoozing. But maybe more important for the festival, we’re seeing sales owned by interactive event up by about 30 percent. We don’t have any final numbers, but as one headline put it here, South By Southwest appears to be rockin’ through the recession.

Chiotakis: Well, a lot of record label folk there too, right David? And downloads and the digital age have turned the industry pretty much upside-down. I mean how does that affect what I would think is an industry event like South By Southwest?

Brown: You know it’s funny, you put your finger right on it when you say industry event. Something people sometimes lose sight of because there’s so much great music down here is that this isn’t a festival. Really this is a music conference. It’s about exposing people in the music industry to new talent and trends and maybe others with something to offer. It’s a networking thing. For the past several years, these panel events have started with a lot of doom and gloom about the meltdown of the record industry. But what’s happened on the flipside of that is it’s all about DIY, or Do-It-Yourself everything — from recording to marketing to building brands. To be a musician today, you really have to be an entrepreneur. So South By Southwest, which used to be dominated by the suits, is completely inverted. Nowadays, if you’re a musician you come not just to be exposed to the people who can sign you to big labels or get discovered, it’s about learning how to stand out in a world where, you know, the barriers to entry on the Internet are nill. So how do you make your brand pop out? How do you get heard with all those MySpace pages out there? That’s what this has become. And so in a way, South By Southwest has become I think maybe truer to the spirit of independent music than it was when it was founded 23 years ago. These are real independents becoming entrepreneurs and making things work for themselves.

Chiotakis: David Brown is host and editor of Texas Music Matters, the music journalism unit over at KUT in Austin. Thank you, David.

Brown: Thank you, Steve.

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