James Hetfield and Co. rocked out at SXSW in the name of Guitar Hero.
James Hetfield and Co. rocked out at SXSW in the name of Guitar Hero.
Patrick Michels

At SXSW, The Bell Tolled For Thee

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not at all.

By most accounts, this wasn't supposed to be a strong year for the annual South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival in Austin. Nope. If anything, 2009 was supposed to be the year that the economy took the festival down a few pegs. Put it in its rightful place, you know? Humble it a bit.

A simple look at the names of the bands originally scheduled to attend and perform the festival suggested as much. Yeah, there was Devo, sure. Keynote speaker Quincy Jones was a nice catch too. And there are always going to be a few new (or new-ish) bands that no doubt had revelers excited. But for the most part, heading into SXSW '09, it was tough to avoid the thought that this year's fest lacked a certain punch—especially in the big-name department.



And this says nothing of the fact that, without a doubt, there wasn't a major promotional push behind any of the new bands à la last year's ordeal with Vampire Weekend, perhaps the biggest buzz band in SXSW history.

So, yeah, we journalists, fans and curiosity-seekers suspected we were being set up for a disappointment.

We were wrong.

With acts Metallica, Kanye West and PJ Harvey stopping in Austin for special, "secret" appearances, and with Dinosuar Jr. and Dallas' own Erykah Badu performing both showcase gigs as well as surprise dates surrounding those official performances, this year's SXSW flexed as much muscle as any attendee could have hoped.

Still, there were signs of economic downturn. Most obvious: The somewhat less jam-packed swag bag handed out to badge-holders at the start of the fest. Fewer magazines, fewer sampler CDs, fewer coupons. I know—boo-freakin'-hoo. Is it a huge deal if those who could afford one of the exorbitantly priced badges got less to take home from Austin? Probably not. But there were also fewer freebies elsewhere: fewer free booze-related day-parties; fewer free food options; fewer of the oh-so-critical and very necessary free energy drinks to be found around the way. Fewer event sponsors too.

Even in the face of those examples, there were also signs of unadulterated support for the music industry. More than ever before, events were filled with the badge-less and wristband-less, a sure sign that, though the economy may not have been able to support certain aspects of SXSW, there still exists a vital cog to the wheel of SXSW: fans.

And, at the secret performances especially, those fans got their action in spades. Need proof? OK. Check your Twitter account.

Let me explain: Digitalmusicnews.com, a Web site that declares itself "the news and information authority for music industry and technology executives," scanned a list of more than 8,512 tweets (posts to Twitter) tagged with the term "sxsw" over the past weekend and ranked how often certain acts and names were mentioned in the posts. Of the top 10 most mentioned acts on Twitter, all but Devo and Quincy Jones performed a free or "secret" show. The most egregious of those mentions: Rachael Ray, the squeaky clean celebrity chef who checked in as the 10th-most tweeted name at SXSW. Quite thankfully, she did not perform at SXSW, but she did host a free day party that showcased the fourth-most tweeted name at the event: The Hold Steady. Also of note: Los Angeles' Silversun Pickups checked in as the sixth-most tweeted, obviously indebted to the fact that the band opened up for the top tweeted name, Metallica, at the legendary metal act's "secret" show at Stubb's BBQ. Oh, and for good measure, the third-most tweeted name? Kanye West, who offered up his not-so-secret performance at the Fader/Levi's Fort.

Three of the most talked about events at South by Southwest this year were sponsored by a video game, a magazine and chef. Not a major label in sight. And, oh yeah, you could attend all three on the cheap, if you were willing to wait in line.

In the end, was it the best SXSW ever? Probably not. But in spurts, it was as good as any, which means that this year's SXSW should be remembered for reinforcing the oldest truth in music history: In the worst of times, music is at its best.


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