SXSW isn't just a music festival — it is the music festival. The event is so big that navigating it can take years to master. After a decade or so of lessons learned, the following tips should help you stay focused, have fun, and achieve more at this year's event than you ever thought possible.
In past years, SXSW's undisputed big unofficial party was FADER Fort. Since that event is invite-only this year, try subscribing to email alerts from SPIN, Filter, Paste, The Windish Agency, and IFC to attend their consistently great events. Rachael Ray's Feedback party always brings in big names as well, from Blondie to Green Day — keep an eye out for that RSVP as well.
One common rookie day party mistake is leaving a great party at 3 pm to catch a 20-minute set elsewhere, then returning to find a line of 200 people. Many of the best day shows fill to capacity early and stay full, so think carefully before leaving a solid party just because there's a lull. If you don't have VIP access or a SXSW badge, you may miss that great headliner because you ducked out. Stay the course.
Every year, ACL-TV uses the litany of great talent in Austin to tape an episode or two. In recent years, The Shins, Alabama Shakes and others have graced the stage. Watch for taping announcements and enter the free ticket drawings on the official site. Additionally, the same logic applies to other high-profile gigs; companies like Samsung and Dell often hold social media contests for tickets to their big shows, so it doesn't hurt to 'like' them and watch your Facebook page for opportunities.
For $30, startup Rsvpster.com will, well, RSVP you to everything open to the public. If you aren't sure what you'd like to do and don't wish to watch Twitter like a hawk, just hit the site, pay for a membership, and show up at the festival. They'll get you on as many lists as possible for your conference of choice for a pittance. Tip: Create a SXSW-specific email address before you register to avoid lots of spam.
A number of tech companies hire indie bands, hip-hop acts, and DJs to play their free parties, so keep an eye on the interactive RSVPs even if you're not attending the conference. Acts like Spoon, Real Estate, Future Islands and Courtney Barnett have already been announced at SXSWi parties — and many more will follow.
To help curb an overabundance of fans at Auditorium Shores, SXSW has moved to a guest pass system to allow locals free (limited) access to a range of programming and trade shows. SXSW typically programs big acts at the park shows (think Ice Cube, The Strokes or The Shins), so this is a strong bet for free fun.
Do you write for Rolling Stone? Is your last name McConaughey? If those answers are no, waiting in line for hours for that Jack White, Justin Timberlake or Lady Gaga show is very likely a futile exercise. When making a schedule, think about your level of access (cash, wristband or badge) and plan accordingly. Badges who arrive early at the big-name shows usually do fine, but even wristbands can have a tough time at Stubb's and Antone's. One big venue you can have luck with is ACL Live.
One often overlooked perk of SXSW Music badges: they include comedy and the music-related film selections. If you'd like a break from band discovery, use your badge to catch a podcast, comedy gig or convention center film and allow your self to enjoy air conditioning and a comfy seat. Wristbands have access to Esther's Follies, The North Door and The Hideout.
Parties in 78704 during SXSW often attract some of the best new acts and (while well attended) are a lot easier to get to and navigate than the Red River/East Sixth Street corridor. South by San Jose in the Jo's parking lot is a perennial favorite, as is Home Slice Pizza's Music By The Slice. There will also be a second iteration of Lucy's Fried Chicken's Americana-focused "Lucy's Revival" this year. A note to parents: All three of these are also more family-friendly than most SXSW parties.
The team behind qui has curated a food court near the Austin Convention Center for three years, and each year, the experience gets better. Chi'lantro, Burro Cheese Kitchen, East Side King, Kebabalicious, Micklethwait Craft Meats, Ms P's Electric Cock and Veracruz All Natural will all be on hand. Lest that not be enough, there will also be guest appearances from Houston's The Modular Unit and Washington, D.C.'s Toki Underground.
While badge lines on the first day of Interactive and Music can be harried, locals who can drop in a day early often find they're in and out in 15 minutes or less. Make life easy on yourself and schedule a convention center visit on the early side.
Sure, there is free Bud Light Lime-A-Rita or well vodka at many corporate parties and unofficial shows. Most bars are also happy to sell you whatever you'd like, meaning that you can smirk at the other folks while having a craft beer or whiskey rocks. Treat yourself: free booze is usually free for a reason. Please also tip your bartenders and servers all week. They're working insane hours while you have fun, so be generous.