When newcomers to Austin ask if you’re “going to SXSW,” it’s hard to know what they’re even talking about. Do they mean “are you buying a wristband?” A film pass? They’d probably know if you were going to have a badge – do they just mean “hang out somewhere that’ll have music”?
The way SXSW completely takes over so much of Austin means that it’s possible to experience the city this week in totally different ways, depending on your level of engagement. But no matter how into it you get, there’s loads of fun to be had. Here are some best bets for every type of person.
For the full-time festival freeloader:
If you haven’t got any credentials, but you’re really into SXSW, and want to have as much fun listening/watching/eating/drinking — this can be a blast of a week even if you’ve lost your wallet. Follow @SXShhh on Twitter for updated party/RSVP info; @southbyfreenoms for a steady stream of info about who’s got pizza/tacos/brisket left at their day party; and turn to showlistaustin.com for a searchable (CTRL+F style, anyway) guide to day parties in an easy-reader format.
You can pretty effectively plan your entire day around seeing the exact bands you want to see, getting free drinks, and not paying for lunch. Daytime SXSW, if you feel like running around and adhering to a firm schedule, can be just as great as night-time, badgeholding SXSW — but totally for free, with the opportunity to get into bed at a reasonable hour (or to just continue the fun at, say, the PureVolume House at night).
For the SXSW dabbler:
If all that sounds super stressful, cool — it kind of is. If you just want to check out some of the fun going on this week without printing out spreadsheets, you can take it pretty easy. Auditorium Shores continues to offer free nightly concerts with big-name headliners like Counting Crows and The Shins, and you can do it family-style — pack up the kids and some blankets and eat elephant ears and stuff.
If you’re not ready to strap on the fanny pack yet, give a thought to Transmission’s Mess With Texas. It’s an all-day pseudo-festival in one location, with multiple stages, that – if it happened any other week – would be worth paying a fair amount of money for. It’s cooler than Auditorium Shores, the food (warning: not free) is better, and you can camp in one location all day and still get three pretty great days of music.
For the wristband buyer:
Wristbands are a mixed bag at SXSW: They get you access to all of the night shows, technically speaking, but most of the marquee events get packed with badgeholders, who get priority. To make the most of it, look at the list of who’s playing each night, and cross a lot of the big-names off — you’re not getting in to Fiona Apple at the Central Presbyterian Church.
The best bet is to start lining up early, if there’s something you’re desperate to see — and to highlight a handful of options for every given timeslot, so you can bounce from venue to venue as necessary. You have to commit to one of two courses of action: Either you pick a venue, line up early, and camp for the entire evening, or you select a bunch of lower-hype acts and run around to catch as many as possible.
For the first-time badgeholder:
The best-kept secret at SXSW for badgeholders may be the Radio Day Stage on the 4th Floor of the Austin Convention Center. Check it — the lineups include rising acts like Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr., and Michael Kiwanuka, but there’s almost never a line, and the low-lit lounge makes for intimate performances.
If you can get over the cognitive dissonance that it’s bright and sunny outside (or, hell, maybe dull and rainy – this is a weird year), then you can convince yourself you’re catching on early for a club date by somebody awesome, even if they’re going to be playing a packed venue later that evening.
Don’t drive your car downtown, that’s ridiculous. Especially with the new street parking laws, it’s just going to break your heart. Every lot/garage/etc seems to double their prices this week, and if you’re going to be drinking for fifteen straight hours, driving home is never a great idea anyway.
If you absolutely must master your own destiny, Car2Go that ride home; otherwise, late-night buses, bikes, taxis, those free electric cabs with big ads on them, various shuttles — whatever, just don’t add to the nightmarish traffic jam that is downtown during SXSW unless you absolutely must.