By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

AUSTIN, March 19 Ifeel like I need some intravenous silence pumped into my veins, having overdosed on music at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference.

Binge-rocking isn't so much encouraged at South by Southwest as it's required: If your ears aren't bleeding profusely by the time the enormous five-day festival concludes on Sunday night, then you aren't doing your job. (It's dangerous, potentially fatal work, listening to all of those Velvet Underground, Wire and Gang of Four knockoffs, and there's no hazard pay. Isn't it about time for a congressional hearing on the matter?)

Despite the constant drumbeat of negativity that's enveloped the struggling music industry, there seem to be more people than ever trying to get their music heard. And they invaded Austin in staggering numbers this year. Music is dead, long live music, etc. -- for better or worse. At one point during the conference, the mope-rock godhead Morrissey pricked the bubble somewhat, saying, "I think there are maybe too many people making music."

Anyway, SXSW used to be manageable, even quaint. You and a few thousand of your closest music industry friends would come to town for a few days, see a bunch of shows, stuff yourselves silly, hang out with Alejandro Escovedo, maybe play a little softball on Sunday afternoon. Now, with the schedule having spun out of control at the 20-year-old event, everybody's comatose by Friday afternoon. By Sunday? You're ready for a gurney.

SXSW has in recent years spun off film and interactive media conferences, which precede SXSW Music. But the music confab, the largest of its kind in the United States, remains the top draw, and attendance spiked past the 10,000 mark for the first time this year. That led to longer-than-usual lines outside venues, many of which filled up early with your drunken zombies, your porn star mustaches, your indie thrift-shoppers, your liberal cowboys and cowgirls in their $500 ripped jeans. This made the natives and visitors restless, to the point that the Austin American-Statesman published a front-page headline Saturday that asked, "South by Southwest: IS IT TOO BIG?" (The short answer: Yep.)

At the very least, it's overwhelming. Music assaults you constantly here, and at every turn: At the jampacked SXSW showcase venues, of which there were 62 this year (including a church, a hotel meeting room and a tented parking lot); at daytime and late-night parties thrown by media companies, record labels, foreign consulates; and in unsanctioned performances by all those struggling bands that failed to get past the festival's gatekeepers.

"We're in the range of 1,500 acts," said Brent Grulke, SXSW's creative director. "But that's just the official artists. . . . It's not like we said, 'You know, we should have more.' Because more isn't necessarily better. But we had to grow. Look at the number of applications we had this year."

More than 8,000 performers applied for SXSW showcasing slots; not even 20 percent were accepted. But hundreds of the rejects came anyway, hoping to get noticed by somebody who either knows somebody or who actually is somebody. (Which is to say that even though they probably sound like Franz Ferdinand or Spoon, they're more or less praying that they'll become the next Hanson, the Oklahoma pop trio that won the SXSW lottery a dozen years ago by crashing the conference without an invite and then leaving with a manager who ultimately took the siblings to the top of the charts.)

And the artists who were here officially, as listed in the 280-page guidebook, weren't slipping quietly in and out of town, either. The Minneapolis indie-rock band Tapes 'N Tapes, for instance, performed a SXSW showcase plus seven additional gigs on the periphery of the conference. The quartet, whose gorgeous, brittle songs seemed to split the difference between the Pixies and Pavement, was one of the best of the 85 bands I saw at SXSW. No surprise, then, that Tapes 'N Tapes came to Austin in search of a recording contract and left with a gaggle of salivating label execs in hot pursuit.

Other, more established artists also gigged constantly. Billy Bragg said he had 15 performances on his schedule here, from a benefit performance at a soup kitchen to a late-night hootenanny Saturday at the Central Presbyterian Church, where the British folk-punk artist appeared in various configurations with the likes of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Joe Henry and Marty Stuart. It was a special, transcendent performance that clearly benefited from its unique setting and loose, collaborative format. Still, it would've been easy to miss, given the competition on the schedule. In fact, I could have easily gone through the week without hearing Bragg sing or strum a single note, what with so many other musicians performing across Austin.

One of the biggest problems with SXSW is that no matter what you're seeing, you're always certain that somebody, somewhere else, is witnessing something superior -- and possibly even having one of those elusive, transformative live moments for which music lovers live. Oh, the existential dread!

Not that Grulke feels sorry. Told that there's too much music this year, he laughs. "I must choose between quality artists. Boohoo!"

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