Before you get tripped up on the clashing consonants above, get in the know: SXSW stands for South By South West, America’s most diverse and innovative multimedia festival, and a Bushwick Daily favorite. Endearingly called “South By” by fans and veterans, the festival brings great minds and talent together in Austin, Texas for over a week of entertainment, learning and discussion in the realms of music, technology and film. The official festival events require a pricey badge (costing upwards of $1000), so you may be wondering how some of your party animal friends manage to make the yearly pilgrimage. Well, we’ll let you in on a little secret: you don’t have to buy a badge; in fact, once you’re there, you really won’t have to spend any money at all. No, we’re not exaggerating. You can see all of your favorite indie bands, all whilst drinking and eating as a guest of Austin without paying a dime. How, you ask?
Enjoy SXSW like a badge holder for free
To clarify the above statements, you really can go and enjoy the music portion of SXSW for free. The festival, which is in its 28th year, attracts over 30,000 official badge holders to Austin. Unofficially, there’s an additional 30,000 band members and fans who flock to SXSW to experience the biggest indie music event in the US. For musicians, performing at SXSW is about getting as much exposure as humanly possible. It’s the one time per year that bands are willing (and able) to play several shows a day, for 4+ days in a row. That means that if a band is doing SXSW right they will be playing as many unofficial shows as they can. Unofficial shows are free 95% of the time and require no badge, although you might be waiting in line for a while to get in. If a band is lucky or on the verge of blowing up, the might score an official show, but there are hundreds of bands who will have a large SXSW presence without being an official lineup artist.
SXSW = Sponsors’ playground
But how do all of these “unofficial” showcases come about? Besides house shows/bookstore parties (which are so unique to SXSW and totally worth checking out if you’re able to find them), everyone wants to get their name associated with the cool stuff going down during the fest. After all, this is where all of the trendy music and tech apps make their professional debuts. That means sponsors in all shapes and sizes – food, drink, publication, blog, clothing – are eager to fund parties to get in the mix with musicians, venues, and fans alike. SXSW is basically a corporate playground, with massive sponsors willing to foot the bill to be associated with some of the best parties this side of Tennessee.
To give you an idea of who’s behind this free madness, some of the biggest unofficial parties of last year’s SXSW, there were food/drink sponsors like Taco Bell, Zico, Heinekin, Tito’s Vodka, Red Bull, Sweet Tea, and at least 100 more. Clothing brands such as Vans, Dickies, American Apparel, and American Rag have hopped aboard. Music sites, publications and blogs like Filter Magazine (who is a front-runner for best talent booking at SXSW), Rolling Stone, Slacker Radio, Spin, The Hype Machine, Brooklyn Vegan, Noise Pop, Portals, Gorilla vs. Bear, Yourstru.ly, Paste, Pitchfork, and The Deli are the curators of these showcases. And this is only skimming the surface. Other types of sponsors, like HGTV, Seagate, Sennheisser, and Newport Folk Fest, are providing some bucks to get involved, too. So basically, if you’re willing to trade your consumer attendance to go on a roller-coaster ride fueled by free drink, food, and amazing music that’s completely dictated by which sponsors spat where, you’re ready for SXSW.
Flying + Lodging
So now you know how set you’ll be once you get down there, if indeed, you’re ready for it. Want to go to SXSW and experience all of this nonstop craziness for 4+ days straight? Logistically, the first thing you’ll have to do is get organized with your travel options while in Texas. Flying down is the most efficient, unless you can take more than a week off of work and feel like road tripping with a friend’s band. Flights run between $300-600 depending when you buy them (I got mine two months ago for $299). San Antonio is nearby (1.5 hours driving) and flights can run significantly cheaper ($300-400) if you can find a ride or take the bus to Austin from there. Once you’re down there you’ll need somewhere to stay. If you’re lucky, you have a Best Friend in Austin (shout out to Morgane!), or a friend of a friend whose floor you can crash on, or a van that’s not too stiff. If none of those are an option, you can get a hotel, although renting a house on Craigslist or finding a room or apt on Air B’n’B will offer a much more authentic Austin experience, though the affordable options get picked over early on. Great places to stay are either in North Austin, which is where U of T lies, or in East Austin, which is closer to the city and full of houses. Austin is a very friendly (and warm!!) city, so if you go without a lodging plan, you may still be able to figure it out…
Snoop Dog at SXSW 2011
Transportation in Austin
Sounds expensive so far, but once you get to the South, you will spend very little money; there is free food and drink galore. Transportation can be a bitch, so get some comfortable cowboy boots, sandals, or running shows because you are going to be huffing it A LOT. Venues are spread all over downtown, the East Side, South of the city, and closer to the University of Texas. If you’re not staying right downtown, be sure to investigate bus schedules – you will need them to get to and from the city. Keep those schedules handy on your mobile app and beware of the nighttime express buses! If you’re feeling responsible enough to bike drunk, you can rent a bike, but be careful – many are stolen during SXSW. Don’t expect to rely on cabs, this ain’t New York – there are far too few for the SXSW demand and you’ll be trying to hail one for hours. Pedicabs, on the other hand, are readily available for short distances, but pricey.
RSVP! RSVP! RSVP! Make a spreadsheet if you need to!
Now that you’ve got it all figured out logistically (hopefully a month or more ahead of time), you have to sit tight and wait patiently for the parties to roll in. And they will. Even days before the events you will need to be paying attention to shows popping up. Once they do, you’ll have to dedicate a chunk of hours to what I like to call “stalking SXSW,” or RSVPing for every single thing you see popping up on the internet that’s free. There will be the showcases with the best bands (2013) that you really want to go to – these will be hard to get into, require an early RSVP, and might involve a lot of waiting in line, so get there early. Then there are the parties that feature less popular bands and you could care less about a random line-up from Scotland, or whatever this “Midwest Takeover” (2013) promises. These are the best parties to hit up in the meantime, to fill up on food and drink, expand your musical horizons, and enjoy what you hear. Then you head to your next spot. There are showcases happening literally everywhere. You may find yourself stopping by 10+ shows a day so please pace yourself. Or you might end up tired like these guys.
As far as finding out which shows/parties to attend, there are a million resources on the web for you to peruse. Here are some of our favorites, and recommendations from The Examiner:
SXSFree – Blog-style listing site with graphics that make it easy to work your way through.
Do512 – Do512 is the go-to RSVP for many parties and showcases, plus you can do batch RSVPs. The attendance numbers will give you a good idea of how popular a show is.
Showlist Austin – A no-nonsense resource for most of the shows going on. Unlike many others this one often includes house parties.
RSVPster – Pay them $30-$40 and they’ll do all the work for you, by RSVPing you to basically everything unofficial. A good option, but it seems too easy.
It’s also easy and informative to follow a few specific twitter handles who churn out the parties as they get them. They feature some smaller or more under the radar parties that are really worth the click. Although be careful – some parties listed are during Interactive and may be before you arrive. Some of our recommendations:
South By Free NOMS – Keeps you posted on where the free food is at all times.
Eventually, once you RSVP to enough things, you’ll have an excellent spreadsheet that looks like this so your friends can keep in the loop and you’ll all be able to get into the same parties.
Brooklyn Will be There
Worried you’ll be lonely if you decide to go solo or without a crew? Brooklyn will be heavily represented in bands, blogs, fans and networkers. 1 in 3 of the people I have met in Texas lives in NYC, and 1 in 10 lives on my block. You’ll be surprised at the tight-knit community that populates the indie music scene across the US. Bushwick Daily will also be in Austin, rocking out and blogging while we do so, representing SXSW three ways, thanks to writers Loren DiBlasi, Samantha Smerconish, and yours truly, Maria Gotay. Let us know if you’re going, too, and maybe we can rock out together at a Pizza Underground Show.
Are you Ready?
So that’s SXSW, done unofficially, in a nutshell. Seem like a lot of work? Not worth all the hype? Don’t want to spend hours fretting, RSVPing, and then dealing with tedious lines, crowds, and drunk masses once you’re down there? You just might not love the music festival scene enough. It takes a lot out of you and may be the hardest you’ll ever party, but there is truly no better place for a music lover. Want more info? Check out the coverage we did at the fest last year – our best of music round up, and an all-fest photo essay, and keep your eyes out for our 2014 coverage, coming soon. See you there!