Even after you read about the virtual presence of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, or the TV networks peddling shows like it’s sweeps week, or the possibility of consuming a computer-generated meal, nothing can really prepare you for the three-ring circus that is South by Southwest (SXSW). The annual conference is currently just starting up now in Austin, Texas and will run through Sunday, March 17 (although the majority of the shows end on the 16th). For anyone who’s already touched down in the Lone Star state before for the big party (what one “Spin” writer called “spring break for adults”), you’re probably kind of jaded about how huge and commercial it’s become since its tiny late-’80s beginnings, but then again, the UK’s Glastonbury Festival isn’t a bunch of hippies in the mud anymore either (Prince Charles visited last time). If you’ve never touched down there before, it’s kind of a culture shock.
First thing you notice there is that Austin isn’t Texas, per se. For anyone outside of the area, Texas seems like a bunch of gun-toting yahoos who are ready to electrocute anyone for jaywalking, and there are definitely large parts of the state like that. Austin is a weird anomaly though — it’s the state capital but it’s also a haven for artists, hippies and all sorts of colorful characters, hence the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign. It’s also an incredible hub of musical talent and even the governor’s office there is all on board with supporting the scene there. Other than Nashville, New Orleans and Memphis, you’ll find few large cities in the States that do it so well (NYC, LA and Boston are totally pathetic in comparison). I was also amazed the first time I went there in Bush II’s first term to hear local bands calling out W in very unflattering terms, on stage, in front of large crowds, and receiving cheers. Nowadays, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear them flip off Rick Perry and Ted Cruz. That’s Austin.
As for SXSW itself, it’s the thing that eats Austin in the middle of every March. Starting out in one hotel with a handful of bands in 1987, it’s now a multimedia juggernaut, including not just a music week but also a big-premiere film festival and an interactive (tech) component where a service called Twitter was once introduced and quickly caught fire. Last year, there were about 30,000 people who attended and according to stats collected by Mashable, the crowd was eventually split gender-wise and in terms of age, between Gen X and the younger tail end of the younger crowd.
So when you come out to SXSW, it’s best to be prepared so you’re not overwhelmed, not just by the thousands of people crowding the downtown area, but also the thousands of bands playing there. As a seasoned vet, I can share some helpful tips.
1. COME PREPARED. We’re not just talking about having your flight/hotel material on hand, but also having your registration with you and your schedule for panels, day shows and evening showcases. There’s a lot going on and you can easily miss out on a lot of good stuff just because you didn’t check the site to see what’s happening every day there. Luckily, they lay it out for you not only with their own online schedule (I suggest signing up so you can save all your favorites), but also a phone app.
2. GET READY TO HIKE. The good news about Austin is that most of the club action is centered around a few blocks on Sixth Street there, making it easy to pop in and out of clubs. The bad news is that the streets are packed with people doing the same thing, plus some of the good stuff is in East Austin or South Austin, which is a bit of a hike from the downtown area. There are pedi-cabs, taxis and even a train shuttle service to take you to East Austin. BUT … there’s gonna be lots of other people running around just like you, so plan out your routes. Related to that…
3. SET TIMES AIN’T NO JOKE. Unlike most clubs that keep you waiting and waiting for bands, hoping you’ll buy more drinks in the meantime, set times are actually happening when they’re scheduled at SXSW. It’s truly remarkable clockwork there. When a band is going on at 9 p.m., they mean it, even if there are three to four bands before them, so plan accordingly.
4. DON’T WEAR YOURSELF OUT. SXSW is kind of a musical smorgasbord where you can pig out on band after band, but it can get tiring, especially after a few days. That’s why it’s important to pace yourself so that you can survive. Try to center your activity around a smaller area of clubs as it gets later in the night so you can actually make it back to your hotel in one piece.
5. SEE SOME SMALLER ACTS. If you don’t mind standing in line for hours, you MIGHT (no guarantee) get to see the biggest-name acts that invade the festival — in the past, they’ve had Springsteen and Prince; this year it’s Lady Gaga. That’s why it’s a good idea to check out the thousands (yes, thousands) of other acts that are also playing there. You’d be surprised by the variety (everything from folk and classical to punk and death metal) that’s offered up there. There will inevitably be some chaff, but there are also a bunch of really good acts that you should see, some of which don’t make it around the country and you wouldn’t see otherwise.
6. SEE SOME SIGHTS IN AUSTIN TOO. The BBQ there is justly famous and you’d be a fool to pass it up. Try Hoovers, Iron Works, Franklin and Salt Lick for starters. There are also some really nice, funky coffee shops to settle down in and rest and recharge.
7. BRING NECESSITIES ALONG. Since you’ll be running around a lot, it’s good to have a lil prep bag with you, including earplugs (it can get pretty loud at some clubs), antacid (if you’re not used to hardcore BBQ), power bar (if you don’t have time to eat), aspirin (since you’re running around without sleep), eye drops (ditto), etc. Think of it as a survival kit.