I decided to write this article based on my past experiences attending South By Southwest (SXSW). I will be embarking to Austin, Texas for my tenth straight SXSW this year. I can safely say that I have seen and done a lot during my past few visits to one of the biggest music festivals in the world. This is my attempt to shed some light on how to do SXSW the right way.
I first attended SXSW in 2005, but was actually by accident. I went out to Austin to see some dear friends and to go see The Strokes at Stubbs that year, barely knowing that a few days later the actual festival was taking place. I only stuck around for the first day of the festival and knew then that this was possibly something I could attend annually. As each year passed I got familiar with the inner workings of how the festival operated, which is quite confusing at times. There is basically two ways to attend the festival: the "official" way by means of an official badge, or the "unofficial" way which has grown exponentially since the festivals inception. What's the difference, you ask? Official badges are usually obtained by industry types, giving them access to the official showcases, panels, parties and etc. These badges come at a hefty fee ($650 +) and go up in price as the festival nears. The unofficial way to enjoy SXSW is to partake in what are known as the day parties. These are usually held during the day in the venues along Sixth Street and outlying areas of downtown. Within the last few years we have seen these day parties become widely commercialized by huge companies such as Pandora, Doritos, Levi's, Samsung and more. From a marketing standpoint it's pure genius: bring in a few bands, offer free booze and food and BAM, you've hit your niche market. I have been fortunate to cover some amazing artist during these unofficial parties, acts like Lou Reed, N.E.R.D, Hole (Courtney Love), Kanye West, Odd Future, Nas, Elle Goulding, Imagine Dragons, Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend and many more. The unofficial showcases almost out-rival their official counterparts. The thing with these showcases is that you never know who will show up and perform, it's best to be on your feet and ready for anything.
It comes down to a science with RSVP'ing to a majority of these parties nowadays. Don't ever make a schedule; it is certain that by the time you get to the third band you want to see it will be thrown into a flux. The secret to seeing bands you want to see is to compromise. You will wait in long lines, you will eventually get into the venue, you will get free booze and you will get to see your band. If you plan on going with a group, be prepared to not see them for the duration of the week. Always designate a meeting place at 2 a.m. to meet up (food trucks, historical landmarks, local food spots, etc..).
The thing about attending a festival like this is to choose one place and stay there, its almost guaranteed that the band you want to see will probably be playing 12 more times during the fest (word of advice: choose the venue in which they will take the stage the earliest). Take the chance to discover new venues as well! I can say I have probably seen a show in almost every venue on Sixth Street, the festival's main drag. Some offer intimate experiences and great lines of sight such as The Parish, Red 7, and The Blind Pig. Other venues usually pop up only during the festival and are gone by Sunday morning after the festival ends. Anyone remember when Fader Fort was so small you could literally walk in and out without waiting in line?
If this is your first SXSW, here's a survival guide list of what to carry with you:
- Backup battery chargers (like the Mophie Juice Packs) I usually carry 2
- Sunscreen (it is March, and usually pretty hot)
- Cash (You get to drink for free in many venues, but don't forget to tip your bartenders)
- Toilet paper or napkins (...don't ask...)
- Paper copies of schedules (Your phone battery will die even quicker if you keep trying to look up set-times and venues, especially with the terrible cell reception)
- A light sweater (One year it got so cold I was even freezing [and I live in Denver])
- Gold Bond Medicated for the fellas (Just trust me on this one)
- Hydrate (With so much booze flowing take a minute to treat your body to some H2O)
- Band Aids (You will get blisters if you do not wear the appropriate footwear)
- Hand sanitizer (Austin is weird, you don't want to bring the weird back with you)
- Ear plugs (You don't want to go deaf after the first day)
- Sunglasses (Leave those expensive Ray Ban aviators at home, you will end up with 24 pairs of sunglasses when all is said and done)