Austin's megafest is trendier and crazier than ever, but there will be ample proof this week that it still matters.
It's no longer a spring break for the music industry, as the overused press one-liner goes. In case you haven't heard, the music industry has been too broke to take a break.
Kicking off Wednesday in the only big Texas city that Republicans and major-league sports teams forgot (Austin), the South by Southwest Music Conference has grown more crowded, chaotic and ludicrous in recent years, as every band with its own Facebook page and every 21-year-old with his or her own blog has RSVP'd their way in. But it has also grown less superfluous and far less predictable.
As the horses that SXSW rode in on -- big record labels and print media outlets -- have lost their footing, the four-day conference has splintered into something of a dog race involving hundreds of companies trying to mark new territory in the wider-open music biz, and thousands of musical acts yelping to be heard. There's a lot more of everything at the fest, and that includes all the important stuff. Anyone wanting to stay on top of the future of music had better still pay attention.
Here are some reasons to tune in this year.
1 More Minnesota music than ever before. As of last week, the tally at SXSW.com included 36 acts with local ties playing "sanctioned" nighttime showcases, which is about twice the number as last year and three times the norm in the '00s. At least that many more are headed down just to play the growing "day-party" circuit, which ranges from TV foodie Rachael Ray's big bash (Tapes 'n Tapes) and Paste magazine's party (both Jeremy Messersmith and Trampled by Turtles) to separate all-Minnesota parties hosted by competitors City Pages and Vita.mn.
2 The Kanye quotient. Rumor is Kanye West plans to return for a surprise appearance this year, as he did in 2009. Whether or not that holds true, there are many Kanye-inspired acts already on the schedule who are doing interesting things with hip-hop -- a genre not typically well-represented at SXSW (and a genre sorely needing a new creative burst in mainstream circles). Among them: Wiz Khalifa, Lupe Fiasco, Big K.R.I.T., Chiddy Bang and the hopelessly named Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All. Oh, and our own Doomtree crew.
3 Seeking the next iTunes and Ticketmaster. These two big kahunas of the music industry are going into the new decade limping. Ticketmaster has long faced an unpopular image with fans and bands, but now it's finally facing stiff competition from other effective companies such as Ticketfly and Event Brite, which are strutting their stuff at SXSW. Its higher $1.29 pricing for singles hasn't helped iTunes' cause with young, tech-savvy music fans who are already looking for the next cool downloading or streaming sites, such as the Austin-bound MOG and SoundCloud.
4 Also cool: giving back. Started by a team of Austin's many bleeding-hearted ex-hippies and punks, SXSW is marking its 25th anniversary with several homages to the ways music can change the world for the better. Live Aid creator Bob Geldof is giving the keynote, Yoko Ono will also speak, and there are numerous panels and showcases spotlighting New Orleans musical causes and other charitable efforts in the industry. Some might say a free outdoor concert Thursday by the Strokes -- the biggest act ever to perform at the all-are-welcome venue Auditorium Shores -- is SXSW's gift to Austinites for putting up with the event all these years.
5 Everyone is V.I.P. in 2011. Whether it's a funny little tweet from Har Mar Superstar at the Playboy party or a full webcast from NPR's or IFC's music showcases, SXSW grows more instantaneous and accessible via the Web with each passing year. Which makes you wonder why people still stand in the long lines outside the clubs.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisRstrib.