AUSTIN, TEXAS--South by Southwest, Austin's annual music conference that
usually showcases the  best new artists coming down the pike, kicked
off, oddly enough, with a plea to go back.

                The call came from Robbie Robertson. The onetime leader
of the Band expressed mild alarm at the  state of the music business
during his keynote address Thursday morning. Go back, he suggested, to
that  first moment of musical discovery.

               "Music took us on a journey, and we're still on that
journey," he told a packed ballroom at the Austin  Convention Center,
noting that his own first impressions came during childhood visits to
the Six Nations Indian Reservation. "Everybody sang or danced or played
an instrument," said Robertson, now a solo artist and occasional actor.
"I had to find my niche in this thing, too."

               Robertson's SXSW address comes at a contentious time in
the recording industry. Though calling himself  "not a keynote kind of
guy," he pointedly touched on many huge issues facing the music biz as
it enters a  new century: online distribution, piracy, label
consolidation and contracts battles between artists and their labels.

               Robertson also lamented the current climate that favors
the "cheap thrill" of quick radio hits over artist  development. "In
these times I don't know what would have happened with a Bruce
Springsteen or a Bob Dylan. It took a while for people to become aware
of what they were doing."

               All of which makes this year's normally amicable SXSW
music industry confab a potential flashpoint in  the growing tension
between major labels and artists. Immediately after the keynote came a
speech by  Hillary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry
Association of America, the leading lobbyist for recording labels. And
on Saturday, artist and activist Courtney Love will be interviewed
onstage by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chuck Philips.

               "It's our job to address the needs of the music
community, and obviously these are big issues important to everyone,"
said Brett Grulke, creative director of SXSW, which kicked off Wednesday
and runs through Sunday. "Depending on how these issues play out, we
will possibly see a very different music business in our lifetime."

               Grulke notes that the role of the music conference is not
to set an agenda, but to provide a forum for  these and other issues to
be debated.
Other panels this week will explore the growing jam-band
movement, new technologies, performance anxiety and the astonishing (and
perhaps telling) success of the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art
Thou? soundtrack--which suggested that music buyers have a taste for
roots music in numbers that rival teen-pop sales.

               In addition to his keynote speech, Robertson is also set
to be the subject of an onstage interview Friday conducted by former
Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, who will focus on the lasting
impact of the Band and MGM's upcoming DVD release of The Last Waltz,
Martin Scorcese's classic documentary on the group. (The DVD will
include previously unreleased footage.)

               "The Band was extremely significant in helping bridge
rock and roll with American roots music," said  Fong-Torres, an author
of four books and a curator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "They
did it in an  intelligent way that was completely natural. It's amazing
how soulful [Robertson's] songs were."

               But the main attraction for fans and industry veterans
alike at SXSW remains the music, spread across dozens of venues across
Austin, and which will include live performances by the likes of the
Eels, UK critical favorites Starsailor and young guitar wizard Jonny