SxSW for Dummies (who live in Austin)
SXSW can be kinda overwhelming, so we’ve tried to write a guide that is as approachable as possible. SXSW is one of our favorite weeks of the year; unfortunately, a lot of Austinites opt out of it because they have no idea how to even start. So here are some tools to help.
WHAT IT IS
SXSW is a music, film, and ideas festival and conference that happens at venues of every variety throughout Austin. It includes “official” events (anything listed on SXSW’s website and app) and “unofficial” events (basically anything else that any other venue or promoter decides to do in Austin during the week of March 10-18).
HOW TO ATTEND: CREDENTIALS
There are a dizzying number of badgeholder-only SXSW sessions, panels, showcases, and events. These are mostly geared toward industry types and if that describes you, you probably know all this. So let’s move on…
Fortunately, for Austin residents there is the option to purchase resident wristbands. These cost a fraction of the industry badges: they’re $120 for film + TV screenings; $160 for music showcases. Usually, unless an event is extremely popular, wristbands will get you in to see a show. Last year, for example, our wristbands got us in everywhere we wanted to go except for one Wet Leg show at a particularly small venue. Sometimes you’ll play second fiddle to badgeholders and have to wait in line a little longer than them, but it doesn’t come up a whole lot. Wristbands are usually worth it if you’re willing to commit to going pretty hard at SxSW, but less so if you just want to take in a handful of shows. Since every show is free with a wristband, you have the flexibility to jump around from venue to venue to see the bands you want, but not everyone wants to get that intense (unsurprisingly, we do.)
The free approach
If you’re trying to enjoy SXSW for free (which we used to do before we moved here and is 100% doable), daytime showcases will be your bread and butter. Pack in as much as you can between noon and 7pm, when pretty much everything is free and open to all. You can jump around to different showcases to catch different acts, no credentials required. Some showcases require you to RSVP in advance with an email. Often they don’t check but sometimes they do and will be sticklers, so be warned.
Nighttime shows, which are mostly “official” shows, most often have an option for folks without credentials. You’ll need to pay cover (it’s usually cheap), and more importantly you’ll need to get in a line, and folks with a badge or wristband get to jump ahead of you. This can be a tough route for popular shows, so if you want to do this we recommend you get to the venue right as doors open or even before.
HOW TO ATTEND: LOGISTICS
Dates and times: SXSW Film + TV Festival runs March 10-18. SXSW Music Festival runs March 13-18. We know a lot more about music than film, so that’s what we can tell you about. Most daytime music showcases (roughly noon to 7pm) are “unofficial” and therefore open to everyone (though some will still be easier to get into if you have credentials). The nighttime music showcases usually require showing credentials or paying cover at the door.
Location: SXSW music showcases happen all over town but are centered around 6th St., Rainey St., and Red River, because that’s where the bulk of the venues are. Much of the business-y conference-y part of SXSW happens inside the convention center, but again this is probably not relevant to you unless you have a badge. You can just imagine that the convention center is the central point of the festival and everything else radiates out from it. You’ll sometimes find further-flung events at places like End of an Ear and Breakaway Records, and often these will be way more chill and populated more with Austinites, even though the performers may come from far afield.
Transportation: Yeah, it’s a hassle. This alone is why many local folks opt out of SXSW. Brian likes to drive, park far enough east and south of East 6th St. that he’s gotten past metered parking, and then walk to shows. Leila prefers to bike in, since that allows her to get from one venue to the next quickly and never worry about parking, but even she will admit that biking home after ten hours of shows is a bitch. Public buses are a good option! You can also park somewhere along the Red Line and take the train straight to the heart of the action. Download the CapMetro app for public transit passes. Once you are downtown, you can get around via pedicabs (which are everywhere), scooters, or good old-fashioned walking. Ride shares are always an option but they will be more expensive and harder to come by than usual. You do you, Ms. Moneybags.
WHAT TO DO: MUSIC
Who’s playing: A traditional festival like ACL has around 100 bands and there’s a good chance you’ve heard of half of them. SXSW is a decentralized festival with around 1,500 bands, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard of 1% of them. Traditional festivals are for seeing bands you already like; SXSW is for discovering new bands. It requires a different perspective and approach.
How to pick bands to see: So, if you’ve never heard of the vast majority of bands playing, how do you know which of the 1,500 of them to try to see? This is another place where SXSW can feel so overwhelming that people just opt out. Here are our tips:
- Check out the SXSW bands that we link to in each issue of our weekly newsletter.
- If you find a band you like, see who else is sharing a bill with them, then listen to those other bands and see if you like them as well. If they’re connected to bands you know you like via a record label or something like that, it’s a good chance you’ll also like them.
- SXSW has playlists of all attending bands on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, but because there are SO many bands of SO many genres, this can be a lot to wade through.
- You can view every SXSW artist by genre, which is a good way to start to whittle it down.
- If there are specific promoters or labels you respect, see whom they’re sending to SXSW. (You can sort by presenter on the SXSW app.) For example, Tiger Bomb (local to Austin), Dance to the Radio, and Captured Tracks are all hosting artists, and we know that we have some overlap between what we like and what those promoters and labels like.
How to find showcases: The SXSW app and website are excellent at listing every official event. They do not list unofficial events—which, again, are the things you’re most likely to get into if you don’t have a badge. So, where do you find the unofficial, free, daytime showcases? Some tips:
- Both Leila and Brian make spreadsheets of every showcase that interests us, and we will include the links to those spreadsheets in our March 10 issue of the weekly newsletter. We put way too much effort into our spreadsheets even before we shared them with the world, so looking at ours is an easy, low-effort (for you) way to find showcases. But it’s not comprehensive, and it will only work for you if your taste in music is similar enough to ours.
- Venues and promoters will list set times for all their showcases on their Instagram accounts and will often create Facebook or Eventbrite events for them.
- Bands that are playing will post all their gigs (official and unofficial) to social media.
- The Austin Chronicle maintains a very good list of unofficial showcases.
WHAT TO DO: NOT MUSIC
The Convention Center: Any panels, speakers, or keynotes at the convention center are for badges only. However, there are two convention center exhibit halls that are open to the public. One is Flatstock (March 15-17), which exhibits concert posters and other screen printing. The other is “Austin Industries Day at the Creative Industries Expo” (March 15) which is new this year and we’ll definitely be checking it out.
Free shit: If you are truly focused, you can go all SXSWeek without paying for a single drink or meal. In past years we’ve also collected free makeup and free flower crowns. We’ve pet goats and puppies for free, and one time we almost got to jump off a ladder onto a giant inflatable landing pad for free but then we weren’t allowed because we don’t smoke cigarettes. The Dirty Team is a stellar resource for finding out about all of this sort of stuff. It’s run by the When Where What folks, and they work extremely hard. Their spreadsheet is full of events (including details on which offer free food and free drinks), and their Discord is sort of like drinking from a firehose but is quite useful when you need real-time intel on where to find a free taco or how long the line at Hotel Vegas is.
Film and TV fest: We have never gotten a film + TV wristband so we can’t really advise on this. Maybe next year we’ll harass a filmy friend for some help but we’re already exhausted so we’re quitting while we’re sorta ahead.