SXSW Music Festival Survival Guide

This year I’m attending the South by Southwest festival & conference (SXSW) for the third time. The interactive portion is over (and I have a few more things to say about that in an upcoming post or two), but today I wanted to revisit my SXSW Music survival and enjoyment tips. Some of these things have remained the same, but some are new.

  1. Get The Badge — I still think this is the biggest key to enjoying the music festival. Priced between US$595 (for pre-September 25th early-birds) and $750 (walk-up rate today), 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 3 level of priority (actually, there’s 4, more on this below): from least to most that is cash customers (who simply pay a cover at the door), wristband wearers (available for $165 last night), and badge-holders. With so many acts happening simultaneously at so many different venues, the last thing you want to have to plan to do is spend time in the cash or wristband line for 30 or 40 minutes just to get in to see a 45-minute set of one of your must-see bands — and if the club is full, there’s no guarantee of you getting in (with any of those options), so the badge is the best way to hedge your bets at getting in, and getting in quickly.
  2. SXXpress — New this 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). This added benefit makes getting a badge very worthwhile, and can really assist in planning your evenings out.
  3. Earplugs — Most of the places you’ll be seeing bands are small venues. This is fantastic because you have the opportunity to see some pretty popular acts in some 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!). 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. If you get the badge, your schwag bag usually will include one or more sets of pretty decent earphones, but to be on the safe side I recommend bringing your own. 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. 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 3:00am) to a lot of these outer hotels. For just US$40, 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 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 even hesitate to post about it but, hey, I do what I can for you: the Convention Center lot on Brazos between 1st and 2nd has, thus far, not been full. It’s only $7 for the entire day, and you can come back and return 2 times for no extra charge (space-permitting, of course).
  5. Stretch — Yeah yeah, I know, two things about your health in a row. That’s not what rock and roll is about! But, well, taking care of yourself is a good thing, and here’s the deal: if you’re attending the music festival properly, you’re going to be doing a lot of standing around in crowded clubs, then walking to other crowded clubs. It doesn’t take long for this to exact its toll on your lower back. By doing some simple yoga or really just any safe stretching each morning and again just before you go out at night can make for a much more enjoyable (and long-lasting) evening!
  6. 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.

Again I plead my case to Austin residents: Attend the festival. I lived there for six years and got caught up in the “South by Southwest is evil” mentality. To be fair, the attendance definitely puts 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.