It’s an opportunity that can’t be missed. Each year, thousands of bands descend on Texas for the South by Southwest music festival in Austin. While the capital city gets a ton of international exposure, many smaller markets are doing everything they can to capitalize on the talent pool filtering into the state. And why not? Over 1,400 bands perform at the conference, including hundreds more who play at non-affiliated parties and concerts, and many arrive in Texas via the state’s vast interstate system. For the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP, the festival is a chance to book indie rock bands that only come around once a year. “A couple weeks before the festival, we get contacted by a lot of bands looking for a place to play,” said Marina Monsisvais, programming director at the university. “It’s a good opportunity for us because the programming is very cyclical and things start to slow down this time of year. South by Southwest jumpstarts our programming schedule as we head into spring.” El Paso is in the same state as Austin, but Texas’ sheer size puts El Paso the city nearly 600 miles away from the festival (Phoenix is closer to El Paso than Austin). Still, the city is an important stopover off Interstate 10 for acts heading from the West Coast and one of the busiest weeks historically for UTEP. To meet the musical demand, UTEP created the Border Music Festival, featuring five bands over five days at the school. Booked this year are indie rock outfits Casket Salesmen from Corona, Calif., and Goodbye Gadget from Oakland, Calif. Monsisvais said the bands are set up in the main quad of the campus and are typically paid about $500 for a performance. “It’s a low budget operation, but we’re a university and there’s no real cost recovery since it’s a free show,” Mosisvais said. “Plus we feed the band, which is always a big hit.” The University puts some of its marketing budget behind the festival with advertisements in the newspaper and alternative weekly, as well as public relations blitzes on National Public Radio and the college station. UTEP isn’t the only El Paso venue to get in on the action. Nightclub Zeppelins has booked The Devil and the Sea, which has a March 14 show at South by Southwest, while nearby Club 101 and the Rablin Gallery also plan to book acts stopping through on their way to Austin. “Our bookings department stays pretty busy in the weeks leading up to South by Southwest, but often you have these guys calling you expressing interest in playing at your venue,” said Joe Dorgan, booking director and manager for Club 101. “It’s natural for any band to want to get the most out of their tour and the demands are usually just high enough that we can accommodate people. Of course you have to really be careful about how you market these shows. We never mention South by Southwest in the promotions leading up to or following the festival. They’re very proactive about protecting their brand.” In fact, organizers of this year’s South by Southwest Conference have begun cracking down on unofficial events using the SXSW moniker. Publicity Director Elizabeth Derczo said that unsanctioned events throughout Austin that compete with sanctioned venues by offering free showcases hurt the integrity of the festival. “We invest a lot money and time developing our identity and organizing this festival,” she said. “It takes a lot of volunteer hours to put this event together and we want to make sure that those groups that have given so much aren’t overshadowed by individuals who want to take advantage of our 22-year reputation.” Derczo said that South by Southwest employs a group of volunteers whose sole purpose is to seek out misuse of the SXSW moniker. There’s a lot of money at stake at the conference — both Wendy’s and Dr Pepper have signed on as corporate sponsors of the event. While some institutions piggy-back on the availability of talent, other organizers tap into the availability of concert-goers. Independent L.A. promoter Sean Carlson and Adam Hobbs of 857 Collection are planning a free outdoor festival on the weekend of South by Southwest with headliners The Breeders, NOFX and Lucero. Dubbed the “Mess With Texas Fest,” the concert is being underwritten by corporate sponsors Jet Blue Airlines, Fuel TV, Dos Equis, Tecate and six other sponsors. The festival will be within earshot of South by Southwest at Waterloo Park. “The timing alongside South by Southwest is important to us, but I really don’t think we’re going to have a negative impact because while the South by Southwest goes after the music industry crowd and people who paid $500 for a badge, we’re going to be targeting the thousands of people who head to Austin and look for any type of free music they can experience,” Hobbs said. Derczo wouldn’t comment on the Mess with Texas Fest, but said there were plenty of other venues that were getting a piece of the SXSW action while officially participating in the festival. The Frank Erwin Center at the University of Texas, Austin, is hosting a Lou Reed concert and keynote address that is expected to draw strong numbers, said Associate Director Jimmy Earl. “It’s not a traditional concert in that a lot of the tickets will be comps for the people who registered with the conference, and we really won’t see much of that revenue,” Earl said. “But there will be some paid tickets and we plan to do a strong business on our concessions. For us, this is just an opportunity to participate in the community and be part of this great musical festival.” Interviewed for this story: Marina Monsisvais, (915) 747-7468; Joe Dorgan, (915) 544-2101; Elizabeth Derczo, (512) 467-7979; Adam Hobbs, (519) 383-1371; Jimmy Earl, (512) 471-7744
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