You’ve got your hotel reservations, your flight info, and your conference registration taken care of, so you’re all set for the annual South by Southwest music festival in Texas, right? Well, it’s a start. For newbies, SXSW can be daunting — there are about 2,000 bands playing at dozens of venues in downtown Austin over the course of five days and nights. What’s more, you’ll be among over 10,000 people there to see it all happen.
So how do you get a handle on everything and get through SXSW in one piece? Good planning, that’s how. You could just wing it and go with the flow but you’ll probably miss out on a lot of worthwhile things there. After over ten years of annual pilgrimages to Austin, we’ve picked up a couple of pointers for SXSW and how to get the most out of it. Our guide, for first-timers and seasoned attendees alike, is after the jump.
1. Pack for summer.
At this time of year, Austin temperatures average in the 70s. As such, you’ll want to have some sun block to slather on while you’re down there, unless you wanna look like John Boehner. But don’t pack the lotion in your carry-on bag, as airport security will tell you to toss it before you get on the plane: that little bottle of cream counts towards your allowance of 3.4 ounces of liquid that you can carry on your flight. Solution: stuff the lotion into the bag that you’re checking in beforehand. Also don’t forget to have shorts and T-shirts on hand. Temps dip into the low 50s at night sometimes, so take along a thin jacket, just in case.
2. Understand the registration shuffle and the badge/wristband hierarchy.
Your flight arrives in Austin, you get your bags, you head for downtown and check in at your hotel, but you also have to register — and so do thousands of other people. So how do you avoid the crush? Plan strategically. Most people aren’t going to take super-early-morning flights that get them to Austin before noon, and they also don’t want to miss the evening shows, so the bunch-up time is usually mid to late afternoon. If possible, avoid those times. For more registration info, visit SXSW’s website.
Registration is open at the convention center during the following hours:
Monday March 14th: 9am – 6pm
Tuesday March 15th: 9am – 9pm
Wednesday March 16th: 9am – Midnight
Thursday March 17th: 9am – 10pm
Friday March 18th: 10am – 7pm
Saturday March 19th: 11am – 4pm
Also, know the difference between badges and wristbands. If you’ve scored a conference badge, then congrats, you’re at the top of the SXSW food chain! You’ve got priority entrance at clubs that aren’t over capacity, plus you get to see the panels and other events at the convention center (more on that later). If you have a wristband, you have access to clubs only (behind the badge holders), but you miss out on access to events at the convention center. Truthfully, as long as you avoid the most hyped-up shows at SXSW, you may find you have little or no trouble getting into shows with a wristband. Read more about wristbands here.
3. Good shoes. Wear ‘em.
Seriously, you’ll need them unless you want your feet to become bloody stumps dangling at the end of your legs. One great thing about SXSW and Austin is that most of the clubs are on 6th Street. But unless you intend to plant yourself in the same club night after night, you’ll want to bounce around a lot for some variety, plus you’ll want to take an occasional excursion to other places off the main strip. One must-see venue west of many of the other clubs is roots mecca Antone’s, which is over-stuffed with history, including old show posters and memorabilia. Also out of the way but definitely worth seeing are Waterloo and End of an Ear, two great record stores which also have day shows scheduled during the festival. As such, when you do wander off that beaten path, you’ll be grateful for a good pair of sneakers. On the bright side, you’ll get lots of exercise to work off all of the BBQ and beer that you’ll be gulping down.
4. Plan your show schedule online.
So many bands to see, so little time… How can you find out what’s happening and where everything is? You might as well start out by going to the source, SXSW itself, and their handy schedule grid, where you can check off the bands you want to see and build your own schedule. For day parties and unofficial events (which there are lots of), this is a great guide.
5. Put your schedule on your phone.
Sure, you could print out pages and pages of your schedule to lug around with you and fumble through as you jump from one club to the next, but why bother? SXSW Go is the fest’s mobile app, so you can have your schedule right there on your iPhone, iPad, Android-powered phone, Blackberry, and Windows Phone 7 on the way. Best of all, if you’ve already set up your schedule on your computer, you can then sync it to your Go app and have everything copied to your phone.
6. Map out your venue route.
When you register, SXSW provides you with a convenient pocket guide that lists all the shows and has a nice mini-map of the area to help you find out where to go, which is especially helpful if downtown Austin is foreign territory for you. One thing you’ll notice right away is that not all of the venues are right on 6th Street or close to the bunch of clubs east of Congress Ave where most of the action is at. As such, when you plan out where you’re going and when you hope to be there, you’ll also need to figure out which clubs are close to each other so you can figure out how much time you’ll need to march from one place to another.
For instance, let’s say that you have an 8pm show at Austin Music Hall. From there, it’ll be easy to make a 9pm show at La Zona Rosa ’cause it’s just around the corner. But it’ll be tough to go from AMH to make a 9pm show at Club de Ville without leaving early or catching a ride — it’s about a half-hour walk. That’s when good shoes really come in handy.
7. Be careful of buzz band shows and have a Plan B.
You’re psyched to go see the most talked-up band of the festival, the Ironic Hipsters, and we can’t blame you — after all, Pitchfork actually extended their rating scale to 13.7 for their non-existent debut EP. The problem is that they’re so hot now, even their drummer has trouble getting into their gigs.
Alas, even with a badge, you might find yourself waiting on a mile-long line and still not get inside in time to see this year’s buzziest bands. In the meantime, you’ll miss out on a dozen other bands that you could have actually gotten in to see. The lesson here is that you might luck out sometimes, but don’t be too disappointed if you miss a buzz band unless you show up to the club an hour or so early to get in.
This brings us to the importance of having a Plan B. Any time you show up at a club and the line’s a lot longer than you hoped, check your schedule to see if the band is doing a day gig and maybe try to catch them there instead. In the meantime, have a back-up plan on your schedule for that time slot.
8. Carry around a few necessary items.
As you’re trotting around downtown Austin, there’s a couple of good things that you can load up into the SXSW tote bag you get at registration. First and foremost are earplugs, which are usually supplied in the tote. If not, you can always snag several pair at the convention center trade show. Plugs are necessary ’cause you’ll be wandering into several clubs with different sound systems and set-ups. Most likely, you’ll also be running around a lot and staying out late, so you probably won’t get enough sleep. That’s where eye drops and aspirin come in handy. Also, if you’re not used to full-strength BBQ, you might want to carry a few antacid tabs for your greenhorn tummy.
9. Pace yourself.
Once you have a festival badge or wristband, you’ll be tempted to gorge and see as many bands as you can. And why not? SXSW is like a musical smorgasbord. Just to make sure you don’t collapse, seek out seating now and then. Luckily, a number of the venues are very accommodating of your tired feet: Emo’s and Flamingo Cantina both have bleacher seating in the back, and Mohawk has living-room furniture to veg out in, plus an outdoor patio area with a separate stage. The downtown Hilton also has a great lobby where you’ll find other festival attendees chilling out and/or tapping away on their laptops. The Omni hotel has an even better lobby with a huge, beautiful atrium inside and a host of stores, including some where you can get nice Texas tchotchkes to take home. Also recommended for a pit stop: the rooftop at Maggie Mae’s, where you can gaze over 6th Street and people-watch.
10. Know how to get around.
SXSW has a deal with R&R Limo and Bus service to get SXSW attendees from their hotels to the convention center, which happens to be just down the street from many of the clubs on East 6th. For $50, you can get a five-day R&R Hotel Shuttle pass, covering the entire music festival and which serving about 40 hotels in the area. For more details, visit SXSW’s website.
Also, if you’re planning on going south of Town Lake (aka Lady Bird Lake), say, to the Auditorium Shores Stage or the Continental Club, it’s going to be about a mile-and-a-half hike back to the East 6th Street area. As such, if you can’t plan a ride with a friend or a bus isn’t coming by anytime soon (both the 1L and the 1M buses that go south of downtown), you’ll want to make alternative arrangements, preferably beforehand with a taxi service: Yellow Cab (512-452-9999) is the biggest one in the area. Austin bus schedules are available here.
11. Get me to the show on time!
A couple of other things to keep in mind to get you to your gig:
- Set times ain’t no joke: With the exception of one obnoxiously late show last year, almost every evening showcase we’ve seen at SXSW goes off like clockwork, so if they tell you a show’s at 9pm, you can pretty much bank on the band starting then.
- If you’re in a rush to get from show to show, try to avoid the east side of 6th Street and the huge crowds of people there. Try one of the side streets or a street that runs parallel to 6th.
- By all means, try out some of the quality BBQ places in Austin (Iron Works, Hoover’s, Lamberts, and Franklin Barbecue are all lip-smacking good), but if you have dinner plans plus a show that you definitely want to be at, you’ll want to start chowing down over an hour before the band goes on.
12. Miscellaneous pointers.
- ATM price shopping: Believe it or not, a few years ago, a number of ATMs in downtown Austin charged a whopping $5 withdrawal fee. Thankfully, they wised up and became more reasonable. A round of calls to the local banks there revealed these fees: Chase, IBC, Prosperity – $2; Sovereign, BB&T – $2.50; Wachovia, Citibank – $3; Frost – $1.50.
- Pedi cabs are another transport alternative: If you can’t get a cab or a bus, there’s the eager young gents who will peddle you around town on their bicycle-hitched rickshaws. They tend to be pretty nice and personable, but get a price quote first so you can really enjoy the ride.
- Beyond the bands: Skip a few day parties and see some of the dozens of panels at SXSW, covering everything from “The Rise Of The Music Vlogger” to “How Much Does Your App Suck?” to “A Woman’s Work: Changing the Music Industry” (disclosure: your author set up a hip hop panel this year). Also, check out Flatstock, which also takes place in the convention center, where you can see some eye-popping gig posters by well-known artists. If that isn’t enough, the Texas Guitar Show, where you can buy/sell/trade, is also conveniently located in the convention center.
- Be bold and try some unknown acts: If you go home from SXSW having only seen the same acts everyone else is talking up, you’ll be sorry. Why be unadventurous when you have so much to choose from? You don’t even have the weak excuse of saying “I don’t know what those other bands sound like.” Just listen to the Shoutcast SXSW station. If it helps, here are all the bands your author thinks are worth checking out, put together thanks to the SXSW scheduling tool.