By Chris Baltimore
AUSTIN, Tex. (Reuters) - Twenty-five years after the South by Southwest Music festival emerged as a showcase for new bands, it has become as big and eclectic as pop culture itself with spotlights on movies and, increasingly, high-tech.
Fans flocked to this college town for the event known as SXSW to catch performances by some of music's biggest acts -- Kanye West, the Strokes and the Foo Fighters -- and to hear legends like Yoko Ono and Bob Geldof reflect on their careers.
In an around-the-clock, beer and barbeque-fueled frenzy of "showcase" performances, fans jammed into bars, restaurants, churches, hair salons and Lance Armstrong's bike shop to hear over 2,000 acts from around the world perform. They saw a movie about Conan O'Brien's renaissance and caught a glimpse of Mel Gibson's dark side in Jodie Foster's film drama "The Beaver."
But for the industry executives and sponsors that descended on the 10-day music, film, and media marathon that ended on Sunday, it was a chance to walk the digital edge of technology and give advertising strategies the street test, literally.
PepsiCo Inc took over a vacant lot in downtown Austin and converted it to the Pepsi MAX Lot, where fans could sip Pepsi products, soak up free wi-fi and catch performances from big-name acts like Big Boi and Snoop Dogg.
Live performances were "streamed" on the Internet, and fans could share pictures and comments via Instagram, Twitter and foursquare, and PepsiCo offered a real-time "Zeitgeist" ticker to take the "digital pulse" of the event.
THE DIGITAL DAVOS
"It's a unique opportunity for us to see the innovations that are going to change the way we connect with our consumers for the next six to 18 months," said Bonin Bough, PepsiCo's global director of digital and social media.
The festival has become a sort of "Digital Davos," Bough said, a nod to the annual high-profile networking event in Switzerland. "Where else do all the minds from the digital space converge in one space at one time?"
French-based game company Ubisoft Entertainment SA chose SXSW to unveil its yet-to-be-released "Rocksmith" music video game, the first to allow musicians to plug their electric guitar directly into an Xbox 360, PlayStation-3 or PC.
In a tour bus parked in front of the La Zona Rosa club, attendees could strap on a guitar and learn riffs from songs by artists like The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Nirvana.
"South by Southwest was kind of a no-brainer for a place to kick this off," said Shane Bierwith, Rocksmith's brand manager, showing off a riff from "Satisfaction." "These are the opinion leaders -- the influencers. We want to start with them."
For music industry mainstays like MTV and AOL Music, SXSW was a chance to create "buzz" with potential listeners and wrestle back a degree of control from bloggers and social media sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter that are playing a growing role in setting the audience agenda.
Executives from MTV and AOL Music both described their role as "curators" to steer fans toward top emerging talent.
"There's this massive, incoherent conversation going on right now and it's getting worse," said Dermot McCormak, executive vice president of digital media for the MTV Networks Music. "It's very difficult to separate the chatter from the scatter. We want to bring products out that solve that."
In December MTV launched its "Music Meter," an online tool that showcases the top 100 "trending" bands, and recently launched MTV Hive (www.mtvhive.com), where fans can go to hear music, concerts and read interviews and special content.
"A thousand artists a day come into our world -- and we can shoot them, we can talk to them and we can get them to do things," McCormak said.
To create its own version of buzz, AOL Music sponsored "Pop Up" concerts that were broadcast on the Internet, including one by Indie-rock phenom Bright Eyes, and an official showcase performance by Brooklyn rock group TV on The Radio.
"AOL Music at its core is about music discovery and curating the chaos," said Jeff Bronikowski, formerly head of Yahoo Inc.'s music arm, and now vice president and head of music at AOL. "There is a lot going on and it is fragmented."
(Reporting by Chris Baltimore; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)