Even in the worst economy since the Great Depression, people will stand in line for good entertainment, particularly in this so-called "Live Music Capital of the World."
Fans are snapping up four-day passes to the famed South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival that starts this week, when thousands are expected to hit the town's storied nightclubs to catch the hottest new acts. It's too soon to say how the 23rd annual SXSW will compare to last year, but hotel room bookings are up, jazz legend and 27-time Grammy Award winner Quincy Jones is opening the show and nearly 2,000 bands from 52 countries will be playing, promoters say.
"There is really nothing bigger," said Rose Reyes, music marketing director for the city convention bureau. "It is Christmas for cab drivers, restaurant owners, for hotels, for businesses all around the city."
While Austin has been hit by the same economic woes that are spreading across the globe, the hip college town remains an incubator for sizzling new bands and a thriving music scene that brought SXSW here nearly a quarter century ago. Back then, about 700 attended; last year there were nearly 13,000 paid registrants at the music festival and thousands more who showed up to absorb unofficial sideshows.
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Event organizers face the inevitable tension of promoting an international festival with fresh new acts without ignoring the dizzying array of local bands to pick from. Nor can they overlook the growing popularity of all the free, unofficial events.
Austin produces about 13 percent of all the musical performances at the festival and remains the largest single source of bands at SXSW -- about 220 of the 1850 expected to show.
Among them are Drew Smith, whose original new album, Drew Smith's Lonely Choir, was named the No. 1 CD last year by Austin.com, an entertainment and local news Web site. Smith has also gotten rave reviews from critics who find strains of Van Morrison, the Kinks and even The Beatles in his music. He's playing at his old haunt Momo's on Saturday night, which is about as close to top billing as a band can get at SXSW.
"In the midst of everything going on financially around the world it's pretty nice to go play shows and still have people showing up and there's few cities that could still be happening in," said Smith, an Austin transplant who hails from Colorado Springs. "It's still a pretty great town to be an artist in."
For some artists, the festival can be a career launchpad, and Austin jazz singer Kat Edmonson is hoping that's what will happen with her first SXSW showcase. Her new CD, "Take to the Sky" has become an iTunes sensation and her single "Lucky," has been picked as the theme song of the new Steven Spielberg-produced "United States of Tara" series on Showtime.
Edmonson, who grew up in Houston, is physically diminutive -- tiny, really. But everyone knows what kind of packages dynamite comes in: the Austin American-Statesman recently called her "Austin's Great Jazz Hope." She plays on Saturday at the Elephant Room, an underground jazz bar a few blocks from the state capitol.
"There's a lot of hype around SXSW. The underlying idea among all the bands is an opportunity to possibly get discovered," she said. "Most of all it's an opportunity to really be heard by people that would never hear you otherwise."
Though Smith and Edmonson landed prime official showcases this year, they and many other Austin musicians have also found themselves on the outside looking in at past festivals. But one artist's struggle is another fan's treasure.
There are hundreds of unofficial gigs, staged by artists who didn't make the cut, that some say are just as good as the real thing. There are also hundreds of free, sponsored parties and concerts, Indie rock band Cold War Kids and Joe McDermott, a favorite for wholesome family entertainment are among the groups playing free along the banks of Lady Bird Lake during the festival.
"It's become a big free for all," said Jimmy Stewart, who runs DO512.com, an entertainment Web site that breaks down SXSW events by category and time, both official and unofficial. "You can drink beer for free and see live bands from all over the world for nothing."
That's not music to the ears of the SXSW promoters, who, after all, have a for-profit business to run.
It costs $165 for a wristband that's good for all the music shows. Others are all-access badges for about $700, which include panel discussions and exclusive parties. SXSW is actually a three-genre event, with components on interactive media and a film festival crammed into a weeklong music and creative arts frenzy that pumps an estimated $100 million into the local economy.
The film and interactive pieces began Friday, but Austin's reputation as a live music hub makes the music festival, which begins Wednesday, the heart and soul of SXSW. With the economy lagging elsewhere, promoters say the chamber of commerce types are crossing their fingers.
"I think this year a lot of businesses are counting on us to deliver," said Roland Swenson, managing director of SXSW. "We certainly take that responsibility very seriously."