Geek’s Survival Guide to SXSW Music 2011

This is the fourth year I’m attending the South by Southwest festival and conference (SXSW). This is a multi-faceted conference, with separate Music, Film and (ever since somewhere between 1994 and 1999) “Interactive” components. It’s the latter part that draws us technology geeks to town and, indeed, has turned into what could be a standalone trade show by itself (given the logistical concerns due to the Austin Convention Center’s wacky design, perhaps the Interactive portion should break off — and move locations — but I digress).

Many fellow technology geeks are also music geeks or simply fans of live music and, as such, have plans to stick around for the remainder of the week and attend the SXSW Music portion of the conference and festival. And well they — and perhaps you — should.

In the course of just four days, SXSW Music hosts performances from literally thousands of bands, most of which perform within walking distance of each other in clubs along Austin’s 6th Street downtown. If you’re here for the Interactive festival and also love seeing live music, it’s well worth your time (and money) to stick around the extra four days for something special.

That said, attending — and making the most of — the music festival is not easy work. Heck, just seeing 30 bands in 4 days takes its own toll, let alone getting from place to place. As such, I’ve compiled a list of tips and advice for you to make it through as easily — and enjoyably — as possible. Some of the tips here are new, some are old, and even if you’ve done it before it’s worth a refresher. I always re-learn stuff just writing this article each year! On to the tips:

  1. Get The Badge — As I have said in previous years, getting a badge is the single biggest key to enjoying the music festival. With standalone pricing at US$595 (for pre-September 24th early-birds) and $750 (walk-up rate today) or $450 or $500 to upgrade your SXSW Interactive badge to “Platinum”, this allows you to see all the sessions during the day as well as get priority access to the clubs at night.

    At the clubs there are now 4 levels of priority: from least to most that is cash customers (who simply pay a cover at the door), wristband wearers (possibly available today or tomorrow for $200), and badge-holders. At popular showcases, the cash line usually has NO hope of getting in, wristband-wearers may wait an hour or more, and often badge-holders just walk right in.

    If you’re traveling in from out of town and are already spending money on airfare and lodging, the $300-$400 you save by risking it and going with a wristband is a dicey move. Get the badge and lower your stress level, giving yourself the freedom to move from venue to venue. Plus, the badge now gives you the ability to get into an even higher priority line called SXXpress.

  2. SXXpress — Introduced last year for the film and music festivals is something called SXXpress. The idea is this: if there’s a band you just must see, and you don’t want to risk waiting in a long line, badge-holders can go to the convention center on the day of the show and, based on availability, request a SXXpress pass for a particular venue (Music badge-holders can request one per day, Platinum badge-holders can do two).

    Badge-holders with a SXXpress pass can go straight to the front of all of the lines and enter the venue (assuming there’s room). SXXpress passes are given out first-come, first-served starting at 10:00 AM each morning on the 4th floor of the convention center. Lines start well before that, so if there’s something on your “must-see” list that’s likely to be popular, get there at least 30 minutes early to increase your chances of getting the pass. This added benefit makes getting a badge very worthwhile, and can really assist in planning your evenings out.

  3. Earplugs — Venues on 6th street (and the surrounding area) are mostly smaller, club-style places. This is fantastic because you have the opportunity to see all these acts — some pretty popular — in very intimate settings. The problem is that, for SXSW, they mic everything and crank it up to get a loud, clear sound (and they usually succeed — kudos to all the overworked sound-personnel!).

    If you go all four days — likely seeing 20-30 bands in total — and do so without earplugs you’ll be subjecting yourself to hearing fatigue, wearing yourself out or, even worse, causing permanent damage to your hearing. I recommend Etymotic’s ER-20 (about $12) over the foam kind, since the ER-20 gives you a clearer sound.

    In the past, the schwag bags given to badgeholders usually included a set of earplugs, but that’s not the case this year. There is a CVS at 500 Congress (half a block south of the pop-up Apple Store) that will definitely have the foam kind, and perhaps others, and is well-within walking distance of everything downtown.

    A cool aside: the Simple SPL Meter iPhone app is a great “sanity check” to help you know when you should use earplugs or not. I always wear them when watching a band, but any time the SPLs are over 85 everyone should wear them. The US government published guidelines as to the maximum time you can be safely exposed at different levels.

  4. Keep Double Calendars — One of the toughest things about SXSW Music (and this holds for Interactive, too) is managing your calendar. Using either SXSW’s own calendar builder or the excellent third-party, you’ll definitely want to invest some time in advance picking the showcases and other events you want to attend.

    I recommend building your calendar without regard for what times things are scheduled. Look at the events you want to attend (alphabetically works!) and add all of them to your calendar. Yes, you’ll wind up being double- or triple-booked for many time-slots, and this is what you want. Having multiple options for any given time slot is a key to enjoying SXSW Music. You want to be able to go with the flow while simultaneously managing where, exactly, that flow takes you.

    Typically venues run on-time (which is an impressive feat), and you can rely on the schedules to keep pretty much to their stated order. Once you’ve added everything to your schedule and then imported it into iCal or BusyCal, that’s when the fun begins.

    Now you can start looking at things, get a visual sense of what’s going to work logistically, and plan your days and nights. I recommend picking a favorite for each time slot and then having alternates. This way if something happens and you can’t make it from one venue to another in time, you’ve got a backup plan. However, looking at 3 options for each time slot on a small screen (even one as nice as the iPhone) can be blinding.

    To solve this, I create two SXSW calendars. One into which I import everything from my online schedule-builder of choice, and the other — of a different color — to which I move my “preferred” events. That way I can easily glance at my schedule and quickly identify those “must-see” events amongst the sea of “if it works” stuff. This plan can help keep you from missing something that was important to you.

  5. Stay Downtown — Getting in and out of downtown during the music festival is difficult, at best. Traffic is a nightmare and parking can be even worse. Staying downtown gives you easy access to all the clubs without worrying about all that, and has the added benefit of giving you a quick “home base” if you want to grab/leave a sweatshirt, change your shoes, etc.

    It is, of course, cheaper to stay outside of downtown, and SXSW has arranged to have R&R shuttles run nearly round-the-clock service (8:30am until 2:30am) to a lot of these outer hotels. For just US$50, you get a wristband that permits you unlimited access to the shuttles. This isn’t quite the same as staying downtown (especially in that you have no “home base” near the venue), but it can help save you quite a bit of money.

    If you are going to drive in and out, there is one lot with which I’ve had great success. I posted about it last year and was still able to get in, so I’m doing so again this year: the Convention Center lot on Brazos between 1st and 2nd has, thus far, not been full. It will likely fill up after about 6pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It’s $11 for the entire day for the week days, and $8 for the weekend.

  6. Take Care Of Yourself — I know, I know, mentioning health in an article about going to see rock and roll should be illegal. Still, I’ll do it anyway. You have to remember, you’re going to be expending a good bit of energy just moving from club-to-club and even just standing in each club. That can take a toll on your body in a number of ways, including dehydrating you and also stiffening up your back (without fail, by night number three my back is always stiff).

    Do some stretching, stay well-hydrated, get plenty of sleep (when you can!) and, yes, be aware of your alcohol consumption. Thankfully, for me, I’m not someone who likes to get completely inebriated when I watch bands. I’m a music geek, after all, and I enjoy witnessing the performances.

    But still, a beer here or there can be just fine. Just be aware that you’ll likely be doing it again the next night (and the next night). Overdo it too early in the week and you won’t last to the end (and that’s usually when the good stuff gets cooking!).

  7. Talk to people — The sets at SXSW showcases are short — about 40 minutes — and between them you’ll find yourself in the company of those with similar musical preferences, waiting to see the same band you are. Chances are, they’ll know about other shows you might want to see, and you them. Talk to your neighbor. Your week will be better because of it. I have made some lasting friendships this way and gone to see some shows I never would have known to attend.

And, I just can’t bring myself to write this article without trying to help out those of you Austin residents. My plea to you: If you like seeing live music, attend the festival. I lived in Austin for six years and got caught up in the “South by Southwest is evil” mentality and never attended until after I had moved away.

Yes, the additional crowds definitely put downtown Austin on overload, and if you’re NOT going to the festival, you want to avoid downtown like the plague. That said, I can’t believe I lived only a few miles from this event each year and never went. If you’re a live-music lover, take a few days off from work and immerse yourself in the experience. I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed, regardless of what all your neighbors might say. They’re wrong, and you can prove it.