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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 March, 2004, 15:32 GMT
The city of a thousand bands

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The Darkness
The Darkness were a success story there in 2003
The South By Southwest Music Conference - which is getting under way in Austin, Texas - is one of the biggest music events in the world.

It is a veritable Mecca for bands, A&R scouts and music writers looking for the next big thing.

For two weeks every year, the bars and venues of this eminently un-Texan town (liberal population, bustling student scene) are transformed into a city-wide music festival, taking in blues, hip-hop, country, rock, and all things in between. It starts on Wednesday and runs until Sunday.

Austin has always prided itself as being a musical city - artists such as Janis Joplin, guitar legend blues magician Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Grammy Award-winning country singer Shawn Colvin have all had reason to thank its music-mad populace for their careers.

This city of less than 750,000 boasts more music venues per capita than New York, Los Angeles or Nashville, the bastion of country music.

British Sea Power
British Sea Power are among UK acts in Texas this year
For every South by Southwest it is deluged by more than 1,000 bands, playing in more than 50 bars, clubs and theatres across the city.

Acts have come from as far away as Uzbekistan and New Zealand over the last 18 years, as well as hundreds of new bands from across the United States.

A gig at the conference, with an audience of thousands of music industry figures could be the step up that fledgling bands need.

Big names

In addition there are lectures and conferences on many aspects of the music business, as well as afternoon barbecues, free shows and sponsored parties.

Last year bands who created a buzz included New York electro-punk act The Rapture and lycra-clad British rock band The Darkness - months before even the UK industry stood up and took notice.

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash played a famous show in 1994
But that is only the tip of the iceberg.

"In 2002 South By Southwest had the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Morning Jacket, and Norah Jones," recalls Independent music journalist and South By Southwest veteran Tim Perry.

"The year before that they had At The Drive In, The White Stripes and The Strokes."

But South By Southwest is not just about breaking a string of new acts.

Mr Perry adds: "One of their most famous and important gigs was in the early 1990s when Johnny Cash played Austin's best punk venue, Emo's.

"The producer Rick Rubin was there, and that's what made him approach Cash about doing the American Recordings albums."

It is possible to see half-a-dozen bands in a night without having to travel enormous distances - unlike other industry events where visitors can be overwhelmed by the number of acts playing.

Meg and Jack White
The White Stripes have been past visitors to the festival
Long a hotbed of "Americana" - music based loosely on country traditions - it is now reinventing itself as a hotbed of alternative rock.

British bands at the festival this year include Mercury-nominated bands British Sea Power and Athlete.

Hotly-tipped guitar band Razorlight are also there - and are hoping to "get hold of three gospel singers", according to Mr Perry. At South By Southwest, making a good impression is paramount.

Austin's bohemian character also helps make the event.

Mr Perry says: "Austin is one of those cities, like Denver or Aspen in Colorado. The more right-wing their state becomes, the more you get places like Austin."

BBC Radios 1, 2, and 6 Music are broadcasting special programmes from South By Southwest between Thursday and Sunday.

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