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As it turns 30 years old, SXSW appears to be reviving its founding spirit

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros performed at last year’s South by Southwest Music Conference, the annual showcase in Austin, Texas. The number of performers in 2015 exceeded 2,200.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros performed at last year’s South by Southwest Music Conference, the annual showcase in Austin, Texas. The number of performers in 2015 exceeded 2,200. The Associated Press

The 2016 South by Southwest Music Conference turns 30 years old this week, and even after three decades, the conference is still able to present something newsworthy and even historic.

For the first time in the conference’s history, a sitting president and first lady are scheduled to participate. On Friday, President Barack Obama was set to deliver a keynote address at South by Southwest Interactive, the technology component of the overall festival; film is the third component.

On Wednesday, March 16, at the music conference, first lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to discuss Let Girls Learn, a program that promotes education in places around the world where 62 million young girls are not in school.

The list of past keynote speakers at SXSW is star-studded. It includes Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Quincy Jones, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Dave Grohl, Snoop Dogg and Pete Townshend. The first lady just jumped to the top of that list.

South by Southwest, which this year began Friday and runs through March 20, started in 1987 as a grassroots festival in one of the world’s best music cities. It brought together unsigned and unknown bands and artists, record labels and industry personnel, as well as the music media. It was founded as a means for artists to get exposure and, possibly, a recording deal.

Thirty years later, things are much different. The number of registrants has gone from 700 in 1987 to more than 30,000 in 2015. The number of performers in 2015 exceeded 2,200, out of nearly 8,000 applicants.

Over 30 years, the festival growth coincided with seismic changes in the record industry, starting in the early 2000s and the onset of Napster and file-sharing. As sales of recordings fell, even some of music’s biggest stars began to enlist SXSW as a means of promotion and attention-grabbing, performers such as Springsteen, Prince, Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, the Foo Fighters, Jack White and Metallica.

In 2015, SXSW seemed to retreat from showcasing multimillionaires and multi-Grammy winners. There were still plenty of big-name performers, such as Miley Cyrus, who delivered a surprise show, and rappers, such as J. Cole, Big Sean, T-Pain and Fetty Wap.

But last year’s music festival felt more like it used to. There were fewer blockbuster shows and more official sets from up-and-coming artists trying to make it to the next level.

It also showcased “buzz” bands and artists trying to break through: Courtney Barnett, Angel Olsen, Nikki Lane, Leon Bridges, Charles Bradley and the War on Drugs. Kansas City band Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear also got plenty of the spotlight, playing several showcases before large audiences five months after they’d signed with the independent label Glassnote Records.

This year, there are plenty of well-known acts — Loretta Lynn, Bloc Party, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, Jenny Lewis, Naughty by Nature. The headliners at the big, free outdoor show at Lady Bird Lake include Ray Lamontagne and Coheed and Cambria.

But even more than last year, this year’s festival seems to concede more of its schedule to smaller bands, signed and unsigned. This week, for the seventh year in a row, convoys of Kansas City musicians will invade Austin for the MidCoast Takeover at the Shangri-la, a venue east of the SXSW hubbub in Austin. More than 100 bands will perform on two stages over four days.

The event is sponsored by the local Midwest Music Foundation, and it is free — no badge, wristband or admission required. Every year, it puts mostly Kansas City and Lawrence bands in front of people who have never been exposed to our music community and its work.

Some of the best showcases occur during the day inside the Austin Convention Center, where the three or four stages feature a mix of well-known acts (like Jakob Dylan one year) and unsigned or small-label bands. The international stage, which features bands from all over the world playing all styles of music, is always a source of great, indelible discovery.

Therein lies the real charm of this festival: running into the unexpected and not spending so much attention on bands that tour regularly. I’ll be in Austin from Wednesday through Saturday, checking in on the MidCoast Takeover, sitting in on panel discussions that pertain to being a music consumer and fan and trolling venues and showcases for new bands to recommend. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@phinnagain and @kcstarrockville).

I’ll arrive too late to see the first lady speak, which means I’ll miss the person on this year’s agenda with the most star power.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain