SXSW is a war. Locals curse invading tourists. Business types attending the conference rub elbows with media-loving millennials. Downtown becomes choked with product placement, badge-only lounges and swarms of ads for tech startups. It’s madness.
It’s also a blast if you do it right. During SXSW Music, the eyes of an entire industry are focused on our fair city. Hopefuls trek thousands of miles to play 1 a.m. showcases, hoping a record exec attends their gig, digs their sound and changes their life forever. Dreams fuel the festival, and it’s that sense of discovery that makes SXSW Music special.
After covering SXSW Music last year, I’ve learned valuable lessons on how to ease your experience. Get prepared, valiant festival goer, and get ready for a fantastic SXSW!
Make a Schedule
Over 2,000 artists play SXSW Music. Unless you’re a superhero, you’ll need to get organized. The official SXSW artist list is the best resource for sponsored shows, and there are multiple resources available for the unofficial.
- Account for travel – If you’re checking out an 8:30 show at Buffalo Billiards and need to make a 9:30 at Container Bar, you’ll need 15 minutes to walk between the two venues. Make sure you account for that when figuring out your schedule.
- Don’t burn yourself out – Packing your itinerary with thirty shows sounds great whilst sitting in your PJ’s in the comfort of your home. Not so much when you’re on Day 4 of SXSW, walking through mobs of people. Leave breathing room for eating, drinking, snagging free swag, etc.
Be Prepared to Throw That Schedule Out the Window
While it’s important to have some structure, the real joy of SX is spontaneous discovery. Some of my favorite experiences from last year were thanks to pure chance. From discovering CAPYAC at Empire Garage, to walking into Lucille and catching a psychotic all-girl punk band, the best times are often the ones unplanned. If you leave SX without at least one new band on your Spotify rotation, you’ve done something wrong.
Avoid Walking Dirty Sixth
For those not in the know, Dirty Sixth is the stretch of Sixth Street between Brazos and I-35. Of the over 100 venues doing official showcases, about a quarter of them are situated on this strip. The rest are on surrounding streets, on Rainey or down Congress. Dirty Sixth can be avoided, especially during the weekend. If you must see a show at The Parish (which is a great venue), dip up and down the side streets to minimize the mayhem.
Unless you plan on spending big bucks on cars and pedi-cabs, you’ll be walking everywhere. Last year I did two nights and two full days of SXSW Music, and I walked 28 miles per my FitBit.
But that doesn’t mean you need to look destitute. Light, comfortable clothing is recommended, but don’t hesitate to bring a light jacket. As for shoes, anything broken in and comfy is perfectly acceptable. When you’re at a show, people will be staring at the stage, not your feet.
Eat, Drink, Hydrate
You’d be amazed how easy it is to forget to eat and stay hydrated. Last year, I spent many an evening staring at impossibly long food truck lines with a rumbling tummy. My approach is to eat at odd times. Late protein-filled breakfast, lunch around 2:30, final meal at 8 p.m. Packing your Bag O’ Essentials (see below) with protein bars is a smart idea, but it may not be allowed at certain venues. So do so at your own risk.
The Bag O’ Essentials
Per every stitch of SXSW documentation I can find, bringing a small bag into a SXSW Music showcase is up to the venue. I think it’s worth the risk, as I’ve never had a problem. Inside your bag, you should have the following:
- Phone charger
- Rain protection – Weather in Austin is unpredictable, especially in March, so be sure to bring a poncho or small umbrella with you.
- Water bottle – While some venues may not allow outside food or beverages (that’s up to the venue), I’ve never been hassled about a reusable water bottle.
- Earplugs – hen I was 12, my cousin had a sign on his bedroom door that read, “If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old.” Now that I’m in my mid-thirties, my fear is inner ear damage. Good concert ear plugs will run you about $20 and take the edge off blaring loudspeakers in poor acoustics. Remember, many SX venues are bars with makeshift stages, so don’t expect stellar sound systems.
- SXSW show schedule – While pen and paper may be considered antiquated, conserving cell phone battery is vital. The SXSW app works well, but if you can snag the official SXSW Music pocket schedule, your iPhone can take a breather. Last year, it was my go-to resource.
Have Fun at SXSW Music
Unlike ACL, Fun Fun Fun and other Austin festivals, SXSW is an event you need to lean into. Go with the flow. Get tossed around in the maelstrom of music-fueled mayhem, and see where you land. Whether you’re a badge-carrying industry type, a wristband-wearing music lover or a credential-less warrior searching the streets for swag and a song, the point is to enjoy yourself.
And, as always, listen local!
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
What are your tips for those attending SXSW Music for the first time?