"If there's a recession, you wouldn't know about it at SXSW," said Jonathan McHugh, the music supervisor and movie producer most prominently connected to the "Saw" series. He was at the Saturday showcase for Chop Shop, the music supervising company, watching a packed tent of about 200 people go apeshit for the futurist funk of Atlantic's Janelle Monae.

He was right. I don't know what SXSW's official numbers will show, but SXSW was buzzing - with people, with great music, and with the possibility that keeps industry sorts and music fans alike energized. The streets and clubs and restaurants appeared as crowded as ever, according to those who have been coming for years. It's a remarkable feat in an economy where typical conferences and events in any industry are regularly down 15 - 20 percent - and those are the numbers that organizers are willing to admit.

But then, much of the crowd at SXSW events didn't appear to be industry, or at least it wasn't comprised of The Suits.

SX makes clear that there are really two music industries, working side by side-one of administrators who do their best to make money from music, and another of the lucky souls who more or less make the music, either as artists, A&R types, producers, etc. There are plenty of companies that employ both, of course. I'll not name names, but I enjoyed a drink with a pretty senior guy at one major, and he oozed passion about bands, peppering me about what I'd seen and what I liked and why, and offering 20 minutes of his own incisive take. The next day I bumped into someone who worked for the same company, placing synchs; this person literally couldn't name a band he was excited to see, and in some instances, couldn't tell me anything about acts on his own label.

If you go to Midem, you mostly see the latter type, although the above description is an extreme version; you can spend five days at Midem and have a successful conference without hearing a note of music. Weave down 6th street-SXSW's main drag-at any time of day and you literally can't take a step with out hearing bands booming from clubs, usually three or four at a time, and this stretches on for blocks and blocks. I love being at Midem as much as I love being at SXSW; the former is as dynamic and opportunity-laced as the latter. But it makes me wonder if maybe the business of music shouldn't happen - as it often does - removed from the near-mystical qualities of the music itself. Perhaps this speaks to the steadily growing market share of independent labels, where there are few, if any, folks employed who don't live and breath for the music they are working?

I didn't find there to be any one theme of the festival. If there was a buzz topic, it was probably Twitter and/or the proliferation of hand-held wireless devices. It was impossible to stroll 6th St and not be walked into, again and again, by masses of people, head down and thumb-typing. I opted not to go to the Fader fort to hear Kanye's "secret" show because I didn't want to risk scheduling my whole last day around a gig I could easily see not happening; I learned from a tweet by Todd Martens, Billboard's former indie reporter who now works for the LA Times, that I had made a terrible mistake. ("Kanye is taking it back to "Late Registration'" read the message, and my heart sunk.)

There were plenty of those heart-sinking moments where you realize you've missed something great. If you care about music, you had no choice but to be heartbroken with some of the choices that had to be made for one band versus another at the same time slot. I desperately wanted to see Universal Republic's Steel Panther, a hilarious and talented send up of '80s hair metal on Thursday night, but ended up at a remarkable Jane’s Addiction show instead. On Friday night, I missed Metallica, but saw the first-ever real gig for Tinted Windows at the Billboard.com showcase. Our house was packed with lines out the door for a peek at this supergroup - Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne on bass, James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins on guitar, Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos and frontman Taylor Hanson. Folks came for the curiosity factor, but they stayed for the great, radio-ready pop rock songs. How strong were the hooks? Some of the fans in front were singing along to choruses they first heard minutes earlier. That album drops on Steve Greenberg's S-Curve records next month and the single is already on YouTube.

Conventional wisdom says that today, the music industry is broken, but music is as healthy as ever. Indeed, the currency of SX isn't the industry, but the music itself, and the thankfully never-ending stream of ambitious, talented musicians. As I heard it during the last few days, that stream is as strong as ever. I felt grateful to have a few days to immerse myself in it, to reconnect with the great, new songs and bands that form the essence of everything we all do. I'm already counting down until next year. I hope more of The Suits will join me and the crowds on 6th street next year. Leave the spreadsheets, and bring your ears.
- Bill Werde is Billboard Magazine's editorial director.

My personal SXSW awards:

Best Band I Didn't Really Know Before I Got to SXSW: Those Darlins. All the press reports Ive since read talk about their "sexuality," and raucousness. They basically sound like Patsy Cline for the punk era. Possibly my new favorite band. Honorable mentions: Deer Tick. Americana folk rock with an upright bass, distinctive singer and great songs.

Best Names of Bands I Didn't See: Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Natalie Portman's Shaved Head, Tokyo Sex Destruction.

Band That Best Met Pre-Conference Hype/Hope: (Tie) Rye Rye and Cage the Elephant. The former is a teenage female MC from Baltimore, signed through MIA to Interscope; still no publishing deal. Google her and the track "Shake It To the Ground" to check out her sassy, catchy, minimalist take on hip-hop on YouTube. I've been obsessed with that track for months now, but I went to the showcase with high hopes and low expectations. Afterall, seasoned hip-hop pros with big production budgets can have a hard time making hip-hop really come alive on stage. Rye Rye has enough charisma and talent that there were times during her set when, alone with a DJ on a bare stage she absolutely mesmerized a packed house. And when her two dancers would come out, the three of them turned the energy in the room up to 11.

Cage the Elephant is just a pretty awesome rock band from Kentucky, managed by Q Prime and just signed to Jive. I thought they reminded me of the Vines at first, but honestly, Cage has more and better songs. They are still young and finding themselves, but I heard at least three hits during their set, and this band has more commercial potential than any act I saw.

Best Barbecue I Ate: Sam's (2000 E 12th St.). Tiny, beatdown shack in East Austin. Mixed plate. Hot damn.

Best Celebrity Sighting: Michael Cera at Cage the Elephant

Best Performance I Don't Have Another Reason to Write About: Melissa Auf der Maur. No one could tell me if she's on a label, but she played some really great new material: huge riffs, angry in a good way.

Oddest News I Learned: Bumped into Grammy-winning producer (Linda Ronstadt), manager and Apple records man Peter Asher, always the most nattily attired gentleman at any function. He told me he's now managing Pamela Anderson.

Best Musician: The drummer for Blk Jks. Holy crap. Blk Jks are four young men from South Africa, and each of them could have been the best musician I saw. I went with Tshepang Ramoba, from Soweto for the raw physicality he used to anchor Blk Jks sprawling rock fusion jams. These dudes have serious chops.

Favorite Non-Show Moment Not Involving Alcohol or Meat: Seeing Devo at the table next to mine at a lunch at the Radisson, with Mark Mothersbaugh looking nondescript in a button-down and khakis. Halfway through lunch I looked up and he had the red Devo hat on, and left it on while he finished his meal and then walked out of the restaurant.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboardbiz

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