YOU couldn't turn your head during last week's South by Southwest Music Conference without seeing the logo of some company trying to cash in on the event's hip cachet. Tellingly, though, very few of the sponsors had anything to do with making or selling albums.
"Rome is burning," the Who's Pete Townshend declared in his keynote speech kicking off SXSW. Of the record companies that used to drive SXSW, he added, "If you're a new band, don't even [mess] with them."
It wasn't hard to avoid them in Austin, where the 21st annual SXSW -- the five-day showcase that's considered spring break for the music industry -- ended on Sunday. Instead of multiple stages sponsored by Virgin or Capitol, like the old days, SXSW offered scenes such as:
* Robyn Hitchcock and Peter Buck performing together at a patio-bar party backed by Hyundai, and Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ghostface shilling for Scion cars.
* Jeans companies Diesel and Levi's hosting appearances by buzz-makers Amy Winehouse, the Strokes' Albert Hammond Jr. and Blur/Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn's new band, the Good, the Bad & the Queen.
* Even toiletry makers like Old Spice and Biore sponsoring showcases.
All that outside sponsorship helped keep the conference itself from going in the toilet. In fact, SXSW felt bulkier than ever as it wound down Saturday night, with 11,000 registrants, 1,400 participating bands and about 150,000 other hangers-on jamming streets and crowding restaurants.
Plenty of the already-hot names on the schedule went home carrying extra heat, starting with two cutesy but fun female British acts on Wednesday night: ska-pop star Lily Allen and Ronettes-styled girl group the Pipettes.
By Saturday, things had gotten heavier as tight-jeaned Tennessee rockers Kings of Leon seemed to turn the tide from over-hyped band to real deal, while the reunited Stooges sold skeptical punk purists on its new album, "The Weirdness."
Performing Friday on a live broadcast for Seattle station KEXP-FM, Stooges frontman Iggy Pop said the real reason his band got back together after a 34-year hiatus was, "I couldn't think of anything else to do. I'm not a rocket scientist."
SXSW hipsters were reminded of the genius behind classic soul label Stax Records, which marked its 50th anniversary and touted reissues with a showcase that included Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, William Bell and Eddie Floyd. Before the show, a bewildered Hayes said of his first SXSW experience, "Where do all these people come from?"
Townshend popped up around town all week. He hosted one of his "In the Attic" collaborative showcases with girlfriend Rachel Fuller. He also climbed on stage with Scottish rock trio the Fratellis at Spin magazine's barbecue and with ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan's Bump Band at the Austin Music Awards.
Audioslave/Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello -- stepping out as the sociopolitical solo act the Nightwatchman -- had an impressive guest list for his show, including Slash and Perry Farrell. He also played an acoustic set inside a Presbyterian church, whose staff prompted him to rethink a religion-oriented speech he had planned.
"That's how sectarian violence comes to an end," he said, "with a couple of nice church ladies."
Morello was foremost among the Southern Californians at SXSW. The piano-laced punk quartet Cold War Kids played a hyperactive but razor-tight set Thursday that included a charmingly moody cover of the soul classic "A Change Is Gonna Come" -- especially gutsy considering the Stax Records guys had just performed a few blocks away. And Friday, bilingual singer Lady P of the punky L.A. quartet Los Abandoned came off like a Latina version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O.
Meanwhile, the city of Austin made amends with L.A. Latin/hip-hop/rock favorites Ozomatli via a free public showcase with Public Enemy on Town Lake with 20,000 listeners -- a far cry from Ozomatli's 2005 SXSW run-in with police, who arrested band members for doing their show-ending drum line on the street.
Not all of the corporate entities at SXSW seemed out of place. MySpace.com President Tom Anderson was given a hero's greeting at the convention center Thursday for a live Q&A; helmed by ex-Sex Pistol and Indie 103.1 (KDLD-FM) host Steve Jones. Insiders buzzed afterward with the news that MySpace soon will become a digital music vendor.
Townshend, for one, welcomed the online companies and announced that he's even launching his own: a music composer site called the Method.
Said Townshend: "A really great festival based on the Internet is much more valuable than one based on the fact that people in Austin, Texas, like to drink beer and listen to great music."
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Festival at a glance
The Stooges and Kings of Leon, who played outside Stubb's BBQ on Saturday, had the loudest presence.
Damon Albarn's the Good, the Bad & the Queen seemed outright bored on stage during two performances. Flamboyant British singer Mika earned Freddie Mercury nods going into the festival but left with unfavorable comparisons to SXSW's "It" Brit of 1997, Robbie Williams.
Chicago rockers the Redwalls had crowds howling for their scrappy sound that harked back to Hamburg-era Beatles. Brother Ali, a Muslim albino rapper from Minneapolis, brought a topical and forceful tone to the fest over four different showcases.
Rickie Lee Jones cut short a set at the New West Records' afternoon party. British tunesmith James Morrison never woke up the La Zona Rosa club with his Nick Drake-like acoustic songs. And gypsy- music purveyors Beirut didn't work out the sound kinks at their packed gig at Emo's.
British pop star Lily Allen, 21, took the venom from her MySpace blog and applied it to her showcase's sponsor, NME magazine, even belittling one staff member's anatomy.
David Byrne -- helming the panel "Record Companies: Who Needs Them?" -- said, "They aren't factories anymore, and they probably won't act like banks much longer. But there are things that they're good at."