South by Southwest 2006

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Members of the music industry made their annual pilgrimage to Austin, Texas last week. For 20 years, the South By Southwest music festival has played an integral role in presenting new and burgeoning talent.

This usually bucolic festival is a magnet for some of the world's most talented and underrated musicians, giving them a time and place to show their brilliance to an audience of adoring industry mavens and hip taste-makers.

The event earned significant groans this year from the mostly jaded audience that attended. With 1400 bands performing officially at the festival, and a few hundred more performing unofficially at parties and barbeques around Austin, navigating the four day event became a chaotic steeple chase for even the most laid back slackers.

The main criticism is that there's just too much going on at once. First, there's the music conference during the day, held at the Austin Convention Center, for insiders to discuss the future of the business. The same location also serves as home to Flatstock, the gallery showing of some of the finest rock illustrators and their posters.

Then there's the music festival. The festival was originally built to bring A&R; reps to Austin to sign new talent, but that purpose has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Now, at least half the talent at South By Southwest is already signed to a major record label or large independent company. With so many recognized artists performing, many of those shows were sold out, leaving the public and a lot of the industry waiting at the door.

But if you're an unsigned band, south by southwest can be your launching pad to a successful career. For the unsigned artists, half-empty rooms are usually filled with curious talent scouts and deal makers, providing the necessary introduction to the live performance.

I've been attending the conference for years and every year, I look for a musical moment that's pure, inspiring and unexpected. But this year, it didn't happen.

However, I was witness to wonderfully creative marketing moment. I was standing in a queue for the British Phonograph Industry Party on a hot Friday afternoon. The outdoor barbeque was well in swing, with an acoustic singer-songwriter having just left the stage. Everyone was relaxing, drinking warm beer and enjoying the Austin sunshine. Suddenly, a large black truck pulled up along side the entrance to the party. The entire side of the truck peeled down, revealing a platform stage with two large speakers facing the barbeque. In seconds, a 3-piece rock band emerged on stage, with outstanding performance skills and commanding vocals. The party-goers at the barbeque were aghast. Who were these intruders, encumbering their relaxing afternoon retreat? But the band was prepared for a little push back. As soon as their first song ended, they moved into the interior of the truck, allowing the mechanical stage to rotate back to its driving position. A second later, they drove off. The experience of watching this young up-and-coming band unveil themselves for us remains one of the most exhilarating, unexpected moments in an all too predictable festival.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.