A music fest survival guide for newbies and visitors
Every year in March, Austin says, “Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses of music fans trying to get into as many shows as they possibly can.” South by Southwest Music Festival runs March 11-17, and it’s going to be a jungle out there. Free shows? Secret shows? Unofficial parties? Discovering your new favorite band? It can be hard to stay on top of things.
We like to stay prepared. Here are our tips for doing SXSW like a pro, whether you're new in town or you're an Austinite heading out to the fest for the first time.
TIP NO. 1: ALWAYS BE BUZZING
Gather round, children, and I’ll tell you a tale filled with magic, wonder and a free Kanye West show at a defunct power plant.
In 2011, I went to Port Aransas during spring break, because I was in college, and we all let ourselves down sometimes. Between loading up a gas station cooler with Miller High Life and getting food poisoning from softshell crab on my birthday, I caught a tweet on my phone that would change my life. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but it contained the words “show,” “SXSW,” “West,” “secret” and “Kanye.”
Also in that tweet? A phone number to RSVP via text.
That SXSW show, where Kanye took over the Seaholm Power Plant fresh off the hype of instant-classic album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” remains one of the best nights of my life. That’s why it’s important to check in every now and then on social media. Stay ahead of the rumor mill, find out what shows aren’t too crowded, find out what shows should be more crowded, and RSVP to any parties that pop up along the way.
Join the hive: You must become a bloodhound who only sniffs out festival rumors. Are you up to the challenge?
There are a few Twitter hashtags worth following (and using) for official and unofficial event tips: #SXSW, #SXSW2019, #SXlines, #SXSWtips, #SXnoms, #SXdrinks, #SXwin. And Twitter is also home to some reliable fest experts, like @rsvpster, @SXSWMF, @MissKrisSxSW, @OpenBarATX, @TheFreeNoms, @WhoaCo, @SXSWHIPHOP, @SXSWmafia, @CameronatSX and @ChrisKeegan. On Instagram, @whenwhatwhereaustin is a valuable year-round follow, and for Reddit, keeping an eye on the r/Austin and r/SXSW subreddits is a good idea.
Go straight to the source: Have a band you’re particularly invested in? Follow them on social. Looking for surprises? (When is Beyoncé going to make an appearance at P. Terry's? Literally never.) Keep an eye on Twitter accounts for brands and companies that you know have a presence at SXSW this year. You can always unfollow later.
Make friends: But of course, there’s always safety in numbers. As you pick up acquaintances through the week (and you will, unless you are actively antagonistic), make sure to grab those digits. Remember the part in “The Dark Knight” when Batman and Morgan Freeman activate the surveillance network of Gotham City’s cellphones to find the Joker? Be Batman. Create a SXSW text chain. You can only be in one place at a time, after all. Your friends’ knowledge can be your knowledge. That way, you’ll be able to say “I was there” the next time a superstar rapper commandeers a hollowed-out utility building.
TIP NO. 2: DON WE NOW OUR FEST APPAREL
Those shoes (you know the ones) are cute. They're not for a punk showcase.
Remember the phrase “dress for the occasion.” This ain’t opera night. SXSW is a sprawling gantlet of club-hopping, pedicab-mounting, taco-scarfing madness. If you can’t do parkour in it, it’s not the right outfit.
Hoofin' it: Every article of clothing from head to toe could be on point, but if you were wearing the wrong shoes, if would all be for naught. You will become the avatar of human misery if your feet are not happy walking around SXSW.
If you plan on covering any kind of ground during the fest, a comfortable closed-toe shoe with good arch support is the way to go. Hot, cold, wet, dry: Your feet will be covered. You can still style based on what shows you’re catching: colorful kicks for a rap turn-up, trusty black-and-whites for a mosh pit, etc. Stay away from those canvas high-tops if you plan on walking great distances. But if you must, maybe bring some pedicab cash, too.
Sandals? Only for nonmoshing environments, and only if you know the weather is staying warm. (That is impossible to know.) Boots? A rainy day's best friend, but invest in some Epsom salts for later. Don't wear flip-flops on these streets.
Whatever the weather: This one is for visitors. Here in Austin, meteorologists are just performance artists very committed to a sick joke. In the past, we’ve had weeks that started with chipping ice off our windshields and ended in playing sand volleyball in our swimsuits. It’s like we offended some vengeful spirit. So the travel advice you normally follow about preparing for any type of weather? Follow it doubly so, especially in March. Throw a cardigan in your backpack, and keep both the jean shorts and the down-filled jacket handy.
My festival must-have? A lightweight rain jacket with pockets and a hood. You're not going to get your umbrella into every venue.
People-watch till your eyes fall out: The best part of all this? No one will follow any of these tips. SXSW is like Fashion Week, and you’re Anna Wintour in the front row. Make sure to snap pics of the best (and best-in-the-worst-way) outfits at the fest, and tag them #austin360festies on Instagram. Yes, you can show off your own style. Your photo might make it into our Fashion Festies photo gallery at austin360.com.
TIP NO. 3: GEAR UP
Think of SXSW as a real-life game of "Oregon Trail." You’ll need to pack goods with you to survive the long, arduous journey (and something to barter with at the trading post when you need a liniment, or perhaps a poultice).
It goes without saying that you should approach any event like SXSW as prepared as possible. On the same note, you want to be as unfettered as possible so that you can glide from event to event with aerodynamic ease.
Here’s a list of equipment worthy of your tote bag. Mix and match at your leisure, but pack light: Bring only what's essential for you. Note that restrictions on what you can bring inside a venue vary (umbrellas and tablets don't fly everywhere), so check ahead of time. You might just want to leave the bag at home.
• Phone charger (this one is non-negotiable)
• At least one fully charged spare phone battery with the necessary cord
• Some type of rain solution: small umbrella, plastic poncho or rain jacket
• A light sweater, like a cardigan
• Pain reliever
• Photo ID
• Cash (friends don’t let friends pay ATM fees)
• Light snacks (no melty foods, and nothing that gets your hands messy)
• Water bottle (refillable)
• Glasses/spare contacts (for those of the non-20/20 persuasion)
• Travel-size deodorant, breath mints, and other personal freshening supplies
• A book to read while waiting in lines (it’s not all nonstop raging)
• Bandanna (bonus dual utility: catches sweat and looks cool)
• Some combination of a printed-out schedule, a map and directions to where you’re going (when your phone dies, you might need to become both Lewis and Clark)
• Bandages for the inevitable blisters
• Lip balm
• Extra socks (nothing is more demoralizing than slogging around in wet socks after it rains)
• Wet wipes (aka the "festival bath")
• Toilet paper or tissues (you never know)
• Stamina the likes of which the world has never seen
TIP NO. 4: THE MORE YOU KNOW ...
Even if you don’t want to sketch out an itinerary, it would help to know where showcases are actually happening. The official SXSW schedule is overwhelming to be sure, but at least you'll get a sense of who’s on the lineup and where they’re playing. If you’re open to suggestions, we have those: Find Austin360's critics' picks every day on austin360.com and our social media channels. Need a more in-depth sampling of acts for a specific genre? We've got those, too.
Plot your course: You can’t really do SXSW unless you know where to go for SXSW. Whether you’re hitting up official showcases or popping into side parties, you have to know where the action is, or else you might end up curled in the fetal position behind a downtown dumpster.
You'll be relying on GPS, so charge up that phone often. That's where those portable phone batteries come in handy. It’s still a good idea to print out some directions or a map, especially if you're new in town. When in doubt, ask a local where you’re going. We are theoretically friendly, and there’s no prize for getting lost.
Get a move on: The only reason for you to drive into the maelstrom of SXSW traffic is if you don’t know better. (How did the cars that did find parking spaces get there? It’s a mystery for the ages.) Parking garages will cost a mint, but if you've got the cash flow, more power to you.
The best ways to get downtown? Have some kind soul drop you off and pick you up. Take a bus, and buy a day pass. Biking is a great option that will keep you continuously mobile. Take advantage of a pedicab, the unofficial mode of transportation for Austin festivals. You won’t need our help finding one. There are always ride-hailing services. Austin is home to Ride Austin, the city’s homegrown, nonprofit app. We've also got the usual suspects, like Lyft and Uber. But be warned — SXSW surge prices are sky-high, and good luck getting a ride in a timely manner.
Oh. You've probably seen those motorized rental scooters strewn about town, like Bird and Lime. If you're eyeing one of those, know that they're banned from Sixth, Rainey and Red River streets during the festival, and they're always banned on most public park trails.
Line up: Yeah. You'll have to wait in some lines. For official SXSW events, there's help: The official SXSW Go mobile app uses a color-coded system to let you know how crowded a venue is, and you can also use the app to request SXXpress Passes for shows you're worried about getting into. Sign-ups open at 9 a.m the day before an event.
TIP NO. 5: THE BADGE ISN'T EVERYTHING
Not all of us can spring for a SXSW badge. Times are tough. Student loans, man! Luckily, there are some advantages to having your entire city turn into a giant party every year.
SXSW has inspired an entire subculture of parties and shows all across the city. “No badge? No problem” isn’t just a catchphrase. It’s a mantra to live by.
Side to side: For the badgeless masses, the official SXSW schedule can feel like a cruel taunt. Austin360′s SXSW Side Party Guide, however, is here to embrace all in its loving arms. Search through hundreds of listings for unofficial events going on every day of the official fest. You can sort parties by entry fee (almost all are free), availability of free food or drink, and whether an RSVP is required. Find it at austin360.com/SXSWparties.
Let them know you're coming: It might be too late for many free shows, but if you haven’t already, RSVP for everything that you can. The gorgeous thing about RSVPs? They are nonbinding, nonlegal documents. RSVP for things you're sure about, as well as things about which you're on the fence. Better to be on the list than not. And a tip for next year: Follow all the companies that sponsor side parties on Twitter and mailing lists early in the lead-up to SXSW season. You’ll be among the first to get on the list for the big parties.
Best bets: While many of the side parties around town attract lesser-known acts (not that there’s anything wrong with that), there are a few tried-and-true free events that promise big-name appeal every year. The concert series at Waterloo Records is a whole mini-festival by itself, usually booking well-known bands also playing official showcases for SXSW. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon. Rachael Ray's annual Feedback party and South by San Jose at Hotel San Jose are also Austin faves.
For early birds, there are always a few gems from local radio stations in the wee hours of the morning. ACL Radio and KUTX both host live broadcasts super early. In years past, the broadcasts have featured solid lineups and intimate settings. These broadcasts are like early-morning breakfast samplers.
Looking for something more official but without a price tag? Go to Auditorium Shores! SXSW hosts gigantic, open-air concerts the last weekend of the fest; get there with plenty of time to make it inside the gate. It’s free. F-R-E-E. This year's acts include X Ambassadors, Big Boi and Patty Griffin.
Do as the nomads do: As always, stay connected and you might learn about a show that’s letting people in without an RSVP or one that popped up out of nowhere. And remember, SXSWers: Just because there’s a line doesn’t mean you’re not getting in. Clear eyes, no badge, can’t lose.
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