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Despite recession, SXSW rocks as hard as ever

Monday, March 23, 2009 by Michael Mmay

The nation’s economic woes may have tarnished the American dream, but this year’s SXSW proved that, at least, the rock and roll dream is alive and kicking.  The festival featured more bands than ever before — 1,900 bands from some 40 countries. 


The only effect the recession seemed to have was a slight downturn, around ten percent, in music badge sales, which cost $695 at full price, although there was an increase in interactive badge sales.  All in all, this year was nothing like the 2002 festival, when the dot-com bust combined with 9/11 malaise made lines for shows were almost non-existent. The SXSW party spilled out of downtown and took over huge swaths of east Austin, where the shows tended to be free and a bit less crowded.

However, there’s no doubt that the recession has hurt the recording business overall, and bands arrived at the festival with diminished expectations. Everyone is painfully aware of how very difficult it is to try to land a huge record deal now.


But bands still come to Austin. They play as many shows as possible, hoping to generate buzz, mostly on music blogs, and pave the way for a future record deal. The New York Times profiled a Brooklyn singer-songwriter named Shipa Ray who played 8 shows here, a test of endurance if nothing else. “Maybe in the past there were your pampered rock stars hanging out,” she said. “But then there’s people like us who climb out of clown cars and hope to make things work.”


The music conference itself was full of panels on marketing and selling music on the Internet, and even some of rock’s most enduring acts are turning to video game revenue.  Metallica held a not-so-secret secret show at Stubb’s on Friday night to promote Guitar Hero Metallica, which goes on sale at the end of the month. In the era of mp3 sharing and diminished CD sales, video games are one of the best ways for bands to ensure that people are paying to hear their music, a fact certainly not lost on Metallica, which famously went to war against Napster.


Metallica was here to promote a video game where you simulate guitar playing, but they proved there is no substitute for the real thing.  Singer James Hetfield took the stage at Stubb’s, asked, “We thought we’d come join the party. Is that alright?” and then proceeded to prove why some bands still get paid a lot of money to do what they do. They tore through 90-minutes of their hits with a rare combination of effortless fluency and sweaty rock and roll fervor.


Metallica wasn’t the only legendary band to see opportunities in the midst of an economic meltdown.  Devo, the legendary art-punk new wave band, announced at the conference that they would release a new album in the fall, most likely as an Internet download.  In an interview at the Austin Convention Center, Devo founders Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh talked about the band’s theory of de-evolution, which postulated that mankind had finished evolving and was now going in the other direction. 


Casale said that now is the perfect time for the return of Devo. “After the de-evolutionary spiral of the past eight years,” he says, “the concept isn’t just some art school rap anymore. And it’s time for us to weigh in on that. We’re going to be your house band on Titanic.”

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