(Billboard) -- Despite -- or perhaps because of -- continued turbulence in the music industry, the highest number of attendees in years is headed to Austin for the South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW), set for March 17-21.
The confab's creative boom during the past couple of years ---Grammy winner Norah Jones and British rock band the Darkness broke big after performing at showcases in 2002 and 2003, respectively -- is spurring conference registrants to think creatively about doing business.
Actual artist signings are traditionally rare at SXSW and will be especially so in the current atmosphere, conference-goers believe. But attendees say that key conversations can be struck with attractive unsigned acts, evaluations can be made on buzz bands and partnerships can be fortified at the event.
Roland Swenson, managing director of SXSW, is projecting that 7,000 people will make the trek to Austin this year. That is 800 more than last year and will be the best attendance count since 2000.
A total of 1,100 bands will be showcasing, which required organizers to add eight new SXSW venues to accommodate the additional 120 acts than there were in 2003.
DEALS WELCOME, BUT RARE
"Making deals on the spot rarely happens, but relationships are built, introductions are made and the process begins," Swenson says. "That's an ongoing part of SXSW."
Chris Castle, an attorney at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld, says he would obviously be open to any major-label offers made to his indie clients, including Endochine and Failsafe, that are showcasing this year.
"Getting a band signed is not the easiest thing in the world now. People do showcase to get signed. But it is education for labels and booking agents to see new artists," Castle says. " if there may not be a deal on the cocktail napkin."
About 30% of the showcasing acts are unsigned, about 50% are on indie labels and 10% to 15% are major-label acts, Swenson says.
Andy Karp, senior VP of A&R at Lava Records, says he normally uses SXSW to network with people and assess each year's crop of buzz bands.
A majority of the A&R people are aware of most of the acts and have already started negotiations with the ones they like -- sometimes well before the conference hits, he admits.
Yet, "I go to rule out lots of bands," explains Karp, who did sign one act, New American Shame, at SXSW in the late 1990s. "If you wait for SXSW to pursue a band, you'll have a bit of a derby on your hands."
Perry Watts-Russell, senior VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Records and another SXSW vet, has never signed an act at the conference but says he definitely came out of recent SXSW fests a wiser man.
"Two of the most successful acts over the last couple of years Norah Jones and the Darkness. throw out normal criteria in the decision-making process in the A&R world," he says.
Jones was deemed too soft-spoken for a market largely driven by harder acts at the time. And "most of the A&R world felt that the Darkness would not suit American tastes," Watts-Russell adds.
PLENTY OF AGENDAS AT CONFAB
While talk of signing freezes still swirls at financially strapped major labels, Watts-Russell says that "the job never changes. You're out to find artists that blow you away, no matter what the climate of the industry is. Any time you walk into a club in L.A., New York SXSW, you always go hoping to find the new Beatles or Bob Dylan -- hope springs eternal in A&R."
David Levine, an agent at William Morris Agency, recalls wanting to see Polyphonic Spree at the 2003 SXSW because he had "a need to stay in touch with what's out there and new." The Hollywood Records band, slated to play again at this year's event, is booked by Little Big Man.
Levine says that everyone comes to SXSW with different agendas, "where some people just go to hang out or see it as a vacation. But some do see it as a true opportunity to see new bands."
Though WMA has signed only a few acts at SXSW over the years, the agency typically keeps itself busy, he says. "We'll make a list of the bands that don't have agents. We'll send multiple people to showcases."
Because of the United States' favorable reception to British import the Darkness -- coupled by the weak American dollar -- international participation at SXSW is expected to leap this year.
Current projections from SXSW organizers estimate a 30% jump in foreign attendees largely from Europe, Australia and Japan. International showcasing acts will number 68 more than last year.
Also, BBC Radio is covering SXSW for the first time, and "they're sending quite a force -- about 30 people -- and they are set to produce 15 hours of programing for SXSW," Swenson says.
Many of those attending SXSW believe indie record companies could reap the benefits in 2004.
"There was a time when you weren't sure if an A&R would be at the label by the time was delivered," attorney Castle says. "Now you're not sure if the label will be there. So this is a great time for independent labels. Artists are going to be a lot more interested in being on an indie label than they were before."