Since launching in 1987, South by Southwest has become a rite of passage: Unknowns named John Mayer, James Blunt and Katy Perry have broken big and signed deals after shuttling down to Austin in years past, while superstars like Kanye West, Drake and Justin Bieber recently have disrupted the annual mecca for music industry tastemakers.
Expect a shrinking of sorts when SXSW returns March 10-17. After 2016's festival drew 2,200-plus performers from 67 countries, must-attend showcases and parties including Hype Hotel, Spotify House and Illmore won't be returning, while staple Fader Fort will relocate from Plaza Saltillo to the notably smaller Clayworks Studio/Gallery.
Why has SXSW lost some of its luster? Because, says Mollie Lehman, president of A&R at Atlantic Records' Taste and Tone, "people are generally going there more for the social aspect than the artist discovery." Yet Lehman (and other A&R reps) still make the yearly trek in search of new talent and lasting connections; she's heading there this year to see Swedish singer-songwriter Albin Lee Meldau and dream-pop act Kingsbury, plus Atlantic signee Charlotte Cardin, who she says "kind of sounds like Amy Winehouse -- she's amazing."
Crush Music head of A&R Evan Taubenfeld believes anyone could emerge from Austin with label interest, depending on how their performances go. "The building-buzz-ahead-of-time thing is so f-----g old -- someone can kill it, and then you've got to see them," says Taubenfeld. He's keeping an eye on rapper Pell and The Aces, a Utah quartet that wowed him at Crush's Grammys party. "They're a girl group doing pop-punk. I wanted to hate them, and they totally blew me away."
With so many options, SXSW has become what you make of it. Jon Tanners, A&R rep at All the Noise and manager at Threee, considers the week more of a hip-hop festival now. On his list to see: J. Cole signee J.I.D, Houston rapper Ugly God and trap-soul singer 24hrs. "His music fits in with what has happened in the wake of The Weeknd," he says of the lattermost act. "He's gotten attention and will get more."
And when the music gets too overwhelming, what else is there to do? Lehman's answer is simple: "Barbecue."
Success at the Fest, From Uber to The 1975
Six months before dropping its debut LP, the British rock group cut its teeth at tiny venues like Club Deville in 2013. "I went to every single show of theirs," says Lehman, "and became a mega fan for years."
For Tanners, the rapper's 2015 performance was so thrilling he still believes the Corpus Christi, Texas, MC will cross over. "It signaled much of what Kevin has become as a challenging artist," says Tanners, "even if he hasn't scored a hit yet."
Taubenfeld says the ride app blew up once his inner circle used it to get around Austin in 2014. "Next thing you know, everyone is using it!"
This article originally appeared in the March 18 issue of Billboard