Can you feel it? Under the rattle of jackhammers and construction, there's a rumbling of sorts. Publicists scurry around, and every email becomes an emergency situation. Venues send in orders for vast amounts of alcohol and hire extra help, while musicians line up last-minute showcases. Austinites stress over the impending traffic and pump up their bicycle tires. Meanwhile, out-of-towners panic over what outfits to pack for our turbulent weather situation. We're witnessing the scurry before the storm: SXSW is almost here.
For locals, SXSW is an ever-evolving experience. What does the fest mean to us? SXSW can be an enlightening 10 days filled with new ideas and experiences, but it can also leave you dead-eyed and lost by the final Sunday. Each year, the festival experience changes for me. I’ve sworn it off multiple times, but I always come back. So now, I sit here in the calm, ignoring the flurry of life or death emails, and reflecting on my evolving SXSW experience — free booze, little sleep and lots of music included.
The first year
I lived in Los Angeles and worked for The Fader during my first SXSW experience. The magazine brought some of us down to Austin to help put on The Fort and, confession time, attach flyers to every single non-living artifact in the downtown area. Full disclosure: It. Was. Awesome. We got a free pair of jeans and some meal vouchers, which, as a 20-something, is practically all you need. We slapped stickers and posters on everything. We gave out CDs for bands that no longer exist and put up banners for MP3 players that are now prehistoric technology (remember Zune?).
That year, I saw Leslie for the first time. I met Swizz Beatz. I shaved my head because it was so hot. I took every mix-tape I was handed and there was no such thing as too much free swag. I drank all the Jäger, threw up outside the Austin Children’s Museum and never drank Jäger again. It was a wonderful experience.
The music year
Much older and wiser, and having lived in Austin for almost a year, this was the SXSW that was about seeing all the bands. My other newbie friends and I wrote our must-see band lists on legal-size sheets of paper. We got on our bikes and insisted on catching every show possible — literally, every show. "So we will all meet up at the French Legation for the XX, but just for 20 minutes." "We have to see Dr. Dog at the Rachael Ray Party." "Never mind. Morning Benders at the East Side Drive In!"
"I have zero reception." "My battery is dead." "Here, fill up this Nalgene with all this alcohol!" "Okay, let's bike way up north to see Pictureplane, then down to Rainey for the Broken Bells show we can’t get into and then back east for a band you’ve never heard of." "Meet up at 9 am tomorrow at La Zona Rosa. Don’t be late!"
The let everyone stay with you year
"We want to come to SXSW! Can we stay with you?" I had just moved into a great house on the east side. We filled every bed, sofa, air mattress and floor space with friends and random people coming and going. No one heeded my advice about wearing comfortable shoes, bringing snacks and drinking water. It was complete insanity. Basically, I spent my time picking people up, tracking others down, and never sleeping. I barely remember that year. It was a lot of, "You left my bike where?" followed by, "Don’t do that in my bed."
The free alcohol year
Lineups were disregarded in favor of the venues we could actually get into — and the ones with free booze. Bonus food was cool, too, but not necessary. I think a bag of Doritos was launched at my head out of a cannon at one point. That may have been all I ate. The theme that year was mainly a lot of Jack Daniels whiskey pineapple smash with Diet Mountain Dew, Heineken out of a light bulb-shaped plastic can, or Tito's and water because that was all the bar had left. I actually saw some great bands I had never heard of in 2012. I just don’t remember them.
The free-flow year
I made zero plans in 2013. And I think it was my favorite SXSW so far. Having been here long enough to know a lot of people, I felt like there were endless options. On weekday evenings, I would pop out on my bike and see a couple of shows or go to a friend’s party. The weekend was a leisurely affair of brunches, outdoor shows, day parties and popping backstage at venues were I knew somebody. I balanced sleeping, drinking, eating and hydration. There were some wild nights and fuzzy parts, and at one point a Taco Loco may have brought me back to life. In all, it felt balanced. 2013 was music-oriented again, but this time, it was laid-back.
The complete mystery
SXSW 2014 remains a complete mystery. Who knows? Humble brag alert: I lucked out and got a badge this year. After all those years laughing at the people with lanyards and laminate proudly dangling around their necks, I’m officially a "Badge," too. But with all the access this year, I especially don’t know what to expect. And I’m fine with it. There are still lot of bands I want to see. There are opportunities to meet new people. And there's lots I want to cover.
I love Austin. I'd say it a million times. And I also love SXSW, even when it exhausts me, makes me cry and swear I’ll never do it again. But what does the festival mean to you? Share your stories in the comments section below. Tell us what you’re looking forward to. And if you see me out, say hello!