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Man...or Astroman?, the last attraction I saw at the 1999 edition of Austin's South by Southwest, the country's largest music conference, seemed to epitomize its current state. The band, which appeared early March 21 at a venue called La Zona Rosa, cheekily pretends to be futuristic, but almost everything about it is a reference to the past: The musicians wear Flash Gordon-style duds and play a souped-up variation on Sixties surf instrumentals against a backdrop of faux mainframes from a computer era that ended a long, long time ago. Even the film projected while they were setting up looked backward, albeit amusingly: The fifteen-minute opus told the story of Star Wars using toys and action figures. I laughed at the flick and enjoyed much of Astroman's energetic shtick, but when I walked away, I felt hungry for something new, something fresh, something surprising. And I'm still hungry.

SXSW got its start in the mid-Eighties, and its early mission was to provide an opportunity for underground rock and punk performers, as well as practitioners of the roots music that flourishes in Texas, to be heard by imprint titans. Soon thereafter, the event mushroomed to mammoth proportions, in part because Austin is ideally designed for such a confab: Oodles of performance spaces are on or near the main drag, Sixth Street, making it possible for listeners to check out group after group without having to trade in their sneakers for a cab. But in many ways, the booking policies have not kept up with the times. Today, hip-hop, Nineties soul and electronic music are booming elsewhere on the planet, but SXSW '99 all but shrugged off these forms. Instead, participants were innundated with alterna-sounds, indie-rock and roots efforts, just like always. At one point I asked my beloved, who accompanied me on my brief journey into the heart of darkness, if she wouldn't mind popping into a certain club, and she responded by asking why we should bother, since odds were strong that the combo on stage would be no different from the one we'd just seen or the one we'd see next.

This comment is a bit hyperbolic, but it cuts to the crux of the matter quite nicely. I was unable to see every act on the SXSW bill, or to even come close: With more than 800 scheduled, I would have needed a Star Trek-style transporter and a barrelful of amphetamines to keep up, and I was clean out of both. But I did sample 85 selectees over the course of three jam-packed days and nights, and I can count the groups that caught me completely off-guard on one hand--and without using all of my digits, either.

The same can be said of SXSW's daytime panel discussions, which mainly confirmed that the music business can be mighty scary. Not surprisingly, sessions that dealt with modern sounds, such as March 18's "Is Rock Music Becoming Dance Music? (Is Dance Music Becoming Rock Music?)," attracted crowds that could have fit comfortably inside a Volkswagen Beetle, while seminars concerning the quickest way to get as rich as a Saudi Arabian sultan were packed with folks eager to fatten their wallets. Typical of the latter was "Downloading on the Upswing: Trouble for the Music Industry?" during which a batch of prosperous-looking Web-heads described ways in which the Internet can be transformed into an automatic teller machine. For instance, one suit took great pleasure in explaining how a free download of an unreleased Alanis Morissette tune wasn't exactly free after all. The song was available for just 24 hours, he said, and because it was programmed to deteriorate unless fans bought a copy of Morissette's latest disc within that span, its presence gave a significant boost to CD sales and caused the lagging demand for her concert tickets to improve. As a bonus, record-company executives wound up with around 200,000 e-mail addresses that they can now use to specifically target Alanis aficionados--meaning that people who thought they were getting something for nothing will be receiving Morissette press releases and other assorted cyber-hustles until they're in the grave. What a bargain.

March 22 yak-a-thons such as "The Politics of Soundtracks" also espoused a greed-is-good mentality, but other offerings provided a few modest consolations. "Artists: How We Make Records" became a charming platform for, of all people, Richard Fairbrass of Right Said Fred, whose sole claim to fame is "I'm Too Sexy," a silly but infectious salvo that made him piles of loot as a hit single and a television commercial. He argued that musicians shouldn't play without being compensated for the same reasons that plasterers don't pass up paychecks for the chance to work in a really nice house. A later debate, "Bored of the Chairman? Rethinking Frank Sinatra," failed to live up to its controversial concept: Instead of arguing over whether Sinatra was overrated, the participants all agreed that--hold the presses--he was a rare talent. But Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau got the chance to underline a seldom-made point: that great artists are frequently reprehensible on a personal level. And you thought they gave all that dough to good causes out of the goodness of their hearts?

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