SXSW 2012 Auditorium Shores. Photo by Extreme Airshots / courtesy of SXSW.
It's that time again, where the indie world converges in Texas for the South By Southwest festival. Start-ups will be hyped, bands will blow up, films will hit the stratosphere. (Or so they hope.) Tickets will be scalped, parties will be crashed, and kegs will be emptied. (Yep, that's a definite.) We turned to music festival veteran Maura Johnston for her hard-won tips on how to survive the awesome madness.
AUSTIN, Texas – The South by Southwest Festival could be called Spring Break for creatives, and it's grown exponentially since its humble late-'80s beginnings as a regional showcase for musicians from the lower-left corner of the United States. In recent years, it's not only been the epicenter of buzz for up-and-coming cutting-edge bands, it's hosted sets by the likes of Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen, and Metallica — to audiences the size that those marquee performers are accustomed to.
I've been to SXSW seven times. The first year I went, the days were for panels and the nights were for seeing up-and-coming bands. Since then, bloggers have turned into party promoters, bands play as many as a dozen shows in Austin, and a giant Doritos machine has been erected in the middle of downtown — a feat of branding that would have been unthinkable back in the day.
Can you survive the conference with your sanity and liver intact — and add a few great new bands to your mental iTunes library? Sure you can. This 12-step survival guide focuses primarily on the music portion of the conference, which runs from March 12-17, but lessons here can certainly be applied to the interactive (March 8-12) and film (March 8-16) portions.
BEFORE YOU GO
1. Buy a badge...
If you want to get into the official showcases and see some panels during the day, you'll need to buy a badge. Badges for the music conference are $795; a platinum badge, which allows you admittance to the exploding interactive conference as well as the film portion of SXSW, costs $1595. (The film portion often has excellent premieres and music documentaries.)
... or don't.
If you don't have a corporate benefactor or if shelling out $800-$1600 will knock out your budget for, say, a place to sleep, you can probably get around the badge requirement by hanging out at the many unofficial parties sponsored by magazines, blogs, labels, brands, countries, and wannabe music impresarios from around the world. This requires research in the pre-planning stages, which we'll get to shortly. (Pro tip: The more friends you make over the course of the week, the more laminates you'll be discreetly handed.)
2. Find a place to stay.
SXSW's housing stock sells out to those who register for the conference notoriously early, but there are many other ways to find lodging in Austin for the week you're there. The site SXSWBaby! started off as a way for people to find out about available rooms, and it still has room-share boards. AirBNB and Craigslist are handy ways to find people eager to make a little scratch on their apartments during the week.
If you want to give a little local flavor to your last-minute lodging search, the shared-lodging site Homeaway is based in Austin. And if you don't mind driving at the end of your night, you can stay in San Marcos, which is about half an hour south of downtown Austin. The Crystal River Inn is a 12-room complex that was built in 1883 and maintains its Hill Country charm to this day.
3. Give yourself a day to unwind.
Detoxing from all the free margaritas and micheladas will be a trick in itself. Most music attendees will be flying out on Sunday, but I've always found that giving yourself the Sunday to sleep in, wander around Austin, or trip around central Texas. The legendary smoked-meat emporium Kreuz Market in not-too-far-afield Lockhart, is closed on Sundays, but their formidable rival, Black's, is open. (Read more in Fathom's 72-Hour Food Tour of Austin.)
4. Pack right.
The weather in Austin can vary widely in March, although things have been heating up temperature-wise over the past few years. Still, spring won't officially spring until a couple of days after the conference ends, so it's probably best to bring sweaters and one really warm coat, as well as clothes that you don't mind getting wet. The promise of hot-tub parties also dictates that you throw a bathing suit into your suitcase; the promise of free margaritas and lots of cheese-based food products suggests that you also throw in hangover cures like E-Boost and Emergen-C, as well as portable, healthy foods like nuts and dried fruit. A portable phone charger is also essential, so you can access last-minute information on schedule changes and surprise events at any hour of the day or night.
5. Download apps and tunes.
Sched.org has a terrifyingly comprehensive look at all three subconference offerings, and you can customize what you see to the hilt. The official SXSW app, SXSW Go, will also be of assistance in case you're one of those people who has a badge and a hankering to see when registrant-only events are happening. The official SXSW music site has MP3s, but you can download the unofficial torrents if you're short on patience. If you really don't have time and want to give yourself over to the critics, just read music journalist Dave Greenwald's quick reactions to each band in the torrent.
6. Get into the parties.
Day parties have sprung up like kudzu around SXSW, and most of them require RSVPs because they offer free booze and have to assure that attendees are 21. Googling "SXSW party RSVP" will show you just how many parties you can attend, and which bands are playing where. (It's a lot.) The Fader Fort is the biggest and the most notorious, with free drinks, up-and-coming bands, super-major acts (Kanye West played in 2009), and other amusements sponsored by the music-and-style mag; RSVP is required, and following the magazine on Twitter is the best way to know when it opens up. It runs March 13-16, and because they do a live stream, you can catch the action even if you're nowhere near Austin.
Rdio and a couple of blogs are teaming up for The Rdio List, which lets you skip the line at some of the bigger day parties sponsored by sites like Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum. If you want to be super-prepared (or, let's face it, really lazy), RSVPster will register you for every unofficial event its spiders can find. You will not be able to attend them all.
7. Catch up on your sleep.
Days at SXSW can last from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. or longer, especially if you want to burn the candle at the "learning about the business" end and the "seeing people at shows" end. The acres of beer, tequila, and cheese made available can slow you down even further. Sleep anytime and anywhere you can in the days and hours before you arrive in Austin.
ONCE YOU'RE THERE
8. Get your bearings.
SXSW's purview has spread far and wide from its original home base on Sixth Street, with original Austin venues like Emo's moving from their cozy in-the-middle-of-it-all corner at Sixth and Red River to East Riverside Drive about two miles away. The panoply of venues both official and unofficial sprawls throughout the city, so making a map is helpful. Having a central landmark off of which to pivot is also a good plan, like the giant Doritos vending machine that served as a stage in 2012. (There's no word yet on whether it'll be back for a second year.)
9. Make a plan. Then make another one.
How much of your day do you want to schedule? You can be ambitious and try and hit four or five parties a day and multiple showcases at night, or you can figure out one homebase for each day and let the chips (and lineups) unfold as they may. Most of the bands in Austin will be playing multiple times, so if there's an act you really want to see, put all their appearances on your itinerary. This will allow you at least some flexibility as far as shows that are running late, lines that are getting long, or just running into an old pal on the street and adjourning to Casino el Camino for giant (if patience-requiring) hamburgers and beer.
Speaking of hamburgers, don't forget to plan time to do things like eat. (This happens to the best of us.)
A couple of SXSW showcasing artists to put on your list:
Charli XCX Creating pop drenched in pathos and laden with synth flutters, this British singer-songwriter is dragging the New Wave into the 21st century.
Torres Nashville resident Mackenzie Scott unspools uncomfortably intimate, yet absolutely riveting, confessions over the barest musical backup on her stunning debut. Her penchant for gut-punching understatement will probably make her stand out even more among the SXSW throngs.
Haim The "three sisters and a mister" from Southern California has been feted both here and abroad for their bubbly harmonies and callbacks to pop-radio staples from the early MTV era.
Marnie Stern The fleet-fingered guitarist doesn't let her musicianship stop at her ability to play blinding solos. She packs her giddy songs with arrestingly human lyrics that transform them into anthems for being alive.
Disclosure British brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence have been putting out club bangers from an early age. Their most recent single, "White Noise," takes some cues from flashy '90s clubpop and transports those sonic touchstones to the 21st century.
Ex-Cops This Brooklyn band takes simple elements — fuzzy guitars, male-female-harmonies — and elevates them to a state of bliss.
Andrew WK In 2011, his maximalist debut I Get Wet turned 10, but this party starter has hardly slowed down with age. Virtuosic at both the piano and at whipping even the most sedate crowd into a headbanging frenzy.
Photos, clockwise from top left: Andy Mueller / courtesy of Haim; courtesy of Torres; courtesy of Disclosure.
10. Be willing to experiment.
Unless you're a VVVIP, entrance is not guaranteed to any SXSW event, and you might be waiting on lines outside the hotter tickets during the day and the night, and especially outside those parties sponsored by big-name brands like Pitchfork and The Fader for as long as a showcase set, if not two or three. Fret not; walking around the main strip will always reveal at least one or two venues that, despite the promise of free booze and music, are sparsely attended. As a bonus, you just might wind up discovering your next favorite band.
11. Figure out just how badly you want to be downtown on the final day.
SXSW traditionally overlaps with spring break at nearby colleges, and many many students from the area forego partying at South Padre Island to check out the weekend offerings at SXSW. The festival's final night is also an occasion for a lot of unofficial blowouts — Perez Hilton's One Night in Austin bash, and The Fader Fort's biggest name. This year, the final Saturday of SXSW is March 16, and the critical mass of St. Patrick's Day partiers, spring breakers, and SXSW attendees looking to make the most out of their final 24 hours in Austin might be somewhat unpleasant to trip over. (Literally.) Maybe that convergence is your cue to head out of town for some barbecue, tubing, or remembering of the Alamo — or to at least check Twitter to see where the highest concentrations of tipsy sophomores might be waiting in line.
12. Be nice.
The music business, a wise veteran of the industry once told me, is all about relationships. There are thousands of them to be struck up at SXSW. Being a jerk about waiting in a line, or not being on a list, or getting the wrong brand of tequila in your complimentary margarita — all these things will result in you being stressed out by the heat and coming off like a jerk to people who might invite you to a fun afterparty or a chill-out session in a hotel room.