Well, it’s that time again, the time of year some of us Austinites cherish and others loathe so deeply that they simply leave town. Yup, South By Southwest (SXSW) is upon us and there’s nothing you can do about it. For many residents of Austin, the week of SXSW inspires the kind of dread that comes from your town being invaded by just about every band, celebrity, tech bro and really anyone who’s worth a shit in the cultural universe (and plenty who aren’t). Oh yeah, and the traffic is gets pretty bad. As someone who has lived in Austin for ten years and attended SXSW for every one of those, I can bluntly tell you that those people suck. For most of us locals, SXSW is a celebration of everything that has always made the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World so amazing, and so “weird”. You can use any number of arguments about SXSW’s growth and corporatization as a metaphor for that of Austin, but we’ll save that for another time. The bottom line is that SXSW one of the best weeks of the year, whether you live in Austin or not.
Now, there are many right ways and wrong ways to properly navigate SXSW. Ask anyone who has “attended” and you will receive a wide array of tips on doing the festival the “right” way. Just like chili, everyone has their own recipe for surviving the festival. A few of those people will probably even dispute some of the tips offered here. That’s fine with me. Regardless, whether you’re traveling into Austin or you’re a local looking to get in on the action, here is my personal recipe for making the best out of your SXSW experience:
Photo via Twitter user @BelieveBobRoss
Don’t Buy a Music Wristband!
Every year I talk to loads of people who are stressed because they couldn’t get a SXSW wristband for whatever reason. There is so much free and “unofficial” stuff happening at SXSW that, chances are, many of the shows and parties you want to see don’t even require a wristband. Basically every single day party requires no credentials and will feature all of the bands playing official showcases. Having a wristband means you will still have to wait in line, and in many cases you still won’t get into that official showcase. You’re better off making friends with a door guy or climbing a fence. Plus, wristbands cost a whopping $189, which will be much better spent on booze and other party favors.
Unofficial day party with a kick ass rock and roll band
That’s right, I said it. Supporting the festival is great, but by attending mostly “unofficial” events you are still supporting the musicians and the companies that make this festival possible. At SXSW there are almost as many “unofficial” events as there are official. The majority of these events are day parties sponsored by various companies, and where much of the SXSW magic usually happens. Don’t just assume that Auditorium Shores is the only place to see music during the day, because if you turn over a rock anywhere in Austin there’s a damn good chance you will find a sweet party happening. I suggest checking out ShowlistAustin.com, a website that lists ONLY “unofficial” events, or local party gurus Do512, who have a comprehensive guide.
Random SXSW picture on Sixth Street
RSVPing is Overrated!
Yes, it’s true. Many of you will disagree with me on this but I have always found it to be true when it comes to parties during the music portion of the festival (see disclaimer below). Every year people get themselves into a frenzy and spend countless hours RSVPing to parties that they probably won’t even make it to, or that won’t even be checking the list. And if the assholes at the door are actually checking a list, there are a million other parties happening that are probably better. If you do feel like drinking the kool-aid, the folks at RSVPster will handle all of those pesky RSVPs for you for a fee of $30. I’ve heard lots of people say this is worth it, but in my personal experience it is not at all necessary.
Disclaimer: this advice goes for the music portion of the fest only. Interactive and film parties tend to be a little more serious about checking RSVPs, because tech bros like to feel all exclusive and shit.
Chasing Free Stuff Ain’t Worth It!
To be clear, this is one of the hallmarks of SXSW, and who doesn’t love free booze and food? When you’re waiting in line at the Hype Hotel or Fader Fort with a gaggle of other tools just to much on cold taco filled with meat caulk washed down by dirt cheap vodka and lemonade, remember that first and foremost, SXSW is about the bands. My advice is to embrace freeness when it comes, but if you make it your mission you’re clearly missing the point of the festival. Also, remember this: free stuff usually equals massive lines (more on that later).
Major Acts Are Not What SXSW is About!
At SXSW you can safely assume that pretty much any band still making music will be there. For better or worse, this has come to include mainstream crud like Coldplay, Lady Gaga and, in the case of this year, CHVRCHES (to name a few). There is a novelty to seeing those acts in much smaller venues than they will ever play and getting to brag about it all over social media, but is it worth the hassle and do you really think you will never have a chance to see them again? This leads me to my next point…
SXSW is all about discovering new music, new films, new people, new EVERYTHING! It’s definitely a smart idea to make a game plan and have a schedule, but just keep in mind that everything is subject to change on the slightest whim. To say it’s a sensory overload is an understatement. One of the things that makes SXSW so magical is that moment when you walk into a random bar in the middle of a sunny afternoon and stumble on one of the best musical acts you’ve ever seen and have never heard of. I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve discovered over the years and fallen in love with as the result of this very experience. Think of SXSW as a choose-your-own-adventure novel and be spontaneous, take chances, and think for yourself.
Traffic = bad
Ride Your Bike!
There’s nothing more frustrating than SXSW traffic. This year President Obama is coming to speak in Austin on the first day of the festival. Just wrap your head around that clusterfuck for a second. The high volume of people in town seems to create a ripple effect, and even if you aren’t driving downtown you will still hit traffic. Good luck with a bus or an Uber (surge pricing anyone?). Your best bet during SXSW is to ride your bike. Austin is easy to bike around and you can cruise right into all of the action without having to deal with looking for parking or sitting in endless lines of traffic. Also, every one car that is not on the road makes it that much easier (and safer) for your favorite band to make it to their gig on time!
If you are traveling into Austin for SXSW, Bicycle Austin has some good resources for renting a bike.
Lines Are For Suckers and Tools
Yup, I said it. I may sound like an elitist asshole, but I don’t believe in waiting in line. This is the reason why I will most likely never return to Franklin Barbecue or Hopdoddy (Google them) and why you won’t find me grazing with the sheep at ACL Festival. At SXSW there are loads of events that have the type of lineups to make even the average music lover salivate, but is it really worth it when you spend half your day waiting in line only to see some shitty synth-pop group play a 20 minute set while standing in a tight, sweaty crowd? Next time you find yourself waiting in line for whatever overly hyped event, think about the endless amount of parties and amazing bands happening all around you at that very moment. There are more than enough great experiences to be had at SXSW that don’t involve wasting your day in a line.
SXSW is where Twitter first took off, and for good reason. Twitter is basically made for SXSW. There’s a large portion of events and last minute changes that you will only hear about through Twitter. It allows you to take your SXSW experience to 11. If you’re wondering who to follow here is a short list of SXSW-related accounts that may be helpful: @ChronSXSW, @AusChronMusic, @sxswparty, @360sxsw, @rsvpforyourlife, @SXSWbaby, @SXSWPartyList, @Do512, @FreeatSXSW, @SXSWMF. If you don’t have a Twitter account, get one! Even if this is the only time you ever use it, you will be thankful for the up-to-date live feed about all the cool stuff going on.
Don’t be this guy (photo source: ‘6th Street Fails Facebook group)
You will hear this from every band, professional and serious partier who has every attended SXSW, and it can’t be stressed enough. The sometimes endless flow of parties, shows and free booze is alluring and overwhelming, but keep in mind that they are happening almost 24 hours a day for 5 days straight (that’s just the music portion). If you show up at that first party and start guzzling free whiskey at noon, chances are you will not be making it to see that band playing at midnight that you have been looking forward to for months. Make sure you take the time to eat, drink water and do whatever else you do to stay stimulated. SXSW is a marathon, not a sprint, and nobody wants to be that guy puking in the middle of Sixth Street at three in the afternoon.
Neil Ferguson will be hitting the pavement all week at SXSW. For live updates, drunk tweets, and snarky commentary of the madness, make sure you follow him on Twitter: @musicjournzo
Stay tuned to Glide Magazine for more coverage of SXSW 2016!