AUSTIN, Texas — During a highly anticipated club show on the final night of this year’s South by Southwest music festival, Prince looked out over the 1,000 or so fans before him at the intimate La Zona Rosa. Their collective roar made it clear — they were ready for a third encore. Still, the impeccably dressed pop-soul icon just had to have some fun with them.
“Don’t make me hurt you,” he said with an impish grin. “You know how many hits I got?”
For those who’d forgotten, the performer reaffirmed over the course of his show Saturday — a thrilling funk-rock throw-down that eventually stretched to six encores and featured classics such as “1999" and “U Got the Look” — that Prince lives in a pop scene that he helped create.
Yet this year, Prince was just one of many marquee names at SXSW, an annual conference that began in 1987 as a way to spotlight emerging regional talent. Though it continues to attract thousands of hopefuls looking for a chance to impress managers, label executives and journalists at showcases and parties, it’s now serving a new purpose for megastars with something to prove.
On Saturday, Prince was onstage at the same time that Justin Timberlake was playing less than a mile away. The same thing happened Friday night with Green Day and Depeche Mode — and before that with Iggy and the Stooges and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Other A-list acts in attendance included Snoop Dogg, John Fogerty and Dave Grohl, who convened his all-star Sound City Players on Thursday for what he called the final gig in support of his documentary “Sound City.”
Like Prince, each had a distinct reason for being here. The Purple One’s goal seemed a need to confirm that he’s back in the recorded-music business, with a series of singles he’s selling online. As for Snoop Dogg? He’s reinventing himself, again, this time in the guise of his improbable reggae alter ego, Snoop Lion. Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong was showing that he’s recovered from the drug-addiction issues that derailed the promotion of the band’s 2012 albums "¡Uno!,” "¡Dos!” and "¡Tré!” And Timberlake, as you may have heard, has a new album out Tuesday.
But if the presence of so many heavyweights reflected an increasingly fractured music industry (in which even famous acts must fight for attention), it also meant that the baby bands often seemed crowded out of their own convention: You didn’t have to wander for long last week to get a glimpse of a group entertaining an empty bar. And even the more established outfits, like L.A.'s roots-rocky Dawes, had to work overtime to get some traction amid the star power; Dawes played 14 times at SXSW.
What precisely the up-and-comers were after — a big break — varied in specifics between them. Walking from one of his shows to the next on Saturday, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes told me his goal was to give new fans some context for a record the band is to release next month.
The untested L.A. outfit Rhye, performing Thursday at a Pitchfork showcase, transitioned the lush electro-soul of its album “Woman” to the stage, laying the groundwork for a profitable touring business. And Friday afternoon, Solange rubbed elbows with Kendrick Lamar during Spin magazine’s party at Stubb’s; perhaps the seeds for a collaboration were sown under the broiling Texas sun.
All these overlapping agendas led to an atmosphere of frenzied excess, and they raised a question: If everyone comes to be noticed at SXSW, isn’t the net effect the same as if no one came?
It certainly seemed at points that the entire music world was here. All week long, word of tantalizing one-offs spread through the festival: Robert Glasper with Erykah Badu! The Afghan Whigs featuring special guest Usher! Daft Punk backing up Paul McCartney! (That last one may have materialized only on Twitter.)
Yet for as much genuine excitement as these phenomena sparked — let me repeat: Prince was deliriously good — the speed at which they multiplied made you wonder about the sustainability of SXSW’s growth. Or at least about the sustainability of its vaunted spring-break vibe.
This year, corporate logos — those of the companies paying to host top-line talent and to ply festival-goers with free booze — covered what appeared to be every available surface in Austin. And rare was the performance that didn’t double as some kind of product roll-out: Prince fans were subjected to a wild goose chase on their smartphones to secure a limited number of tickets to the showcase, which was sponsored by Samsung Galaxy, while anyone walking down Red River Street had to behold the sorry sight of the Doritos #BoldStage.
Brands or bands? It wasn’t always clear which one people were here to experience.
Until, that is, you found yourself in front of an act — Ashley Monroe singing her perfectly realized country songs, or England’s Disclosure spinning out silky dance beats — that made you forget about the business at hand. An act, in other words, that seemed to be living out the words Prince uttered near the climax of the long, beautiful version of “Purple Rain” he played Saturday night.
“I love,” he said simply, “being a musician.”