Lite + Brite’s Guide to SxSW 2024 for Austin Residents

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 because it feels very overwhelming, and we’re aiming to make it easier to digest. So here are some tools to help.

SXSW is a music, film, tech, 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), which usually happen at night, and “unofficial” events (basically anything else that any other venue or promoter decides to do in Austin during March 8-16) that most often–but not always–take place during the day. 

Badges are super expensive and irrelevant to most of us. There are a dizzying number of badgeholder-only SXSW sessions, panels, showcases, and events. These are mostly held at the convention center and geared toward industry types and if that describes you, you probably know all this. So let’s move on…

Resident wristbands
Fortunately, for Austin residents there is the option to purchase resident wristbands. These cost a fraction of the industry badges: they’re currently $150 for film + TV screenings; $189 for music showcases. (They cost even less a few weeks ago, so hopefully you were listening when we first told you about wristbands in our weekly newsletters.) This is not an insignificant amount of money, but think of it like getting a 3-day pass to ACL, which costs more.

Unless an event is extremely popular &/or at a very small venue, wristbands will get you in to see almost any show. 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—and you’ll still be waiting in line less than folks who don’t have wristbands.

Wristbands are usually worth it if you’re willing to commit to going pretty hard at SxSW, especially at nighttime showcases, but less so if you just want to take in a handful of shows, especially if those shows fall during the day. 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 lived in Austin and is 100% doable), daytime showcases will be your bread and butter. Pack in as much as you can before 7pm, when just about 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 sacrifice your email address to the RSVP gods in advance (though often they don’t check to see if you actually did so). After 7pm, you’ll usually get to…

Cover charge
Nighttime shows, which are mostly “official” shows, very frequently have an option for folks without credentials. You’ll need to pay cover (it’s usually $10-20 range), and more importantly you’ll need to get in a line, while 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.

Dates and times: SXSW Film + TV Festival runs March 8-16. SXSW Music Festival runs March 11-16. 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, whose doors usually open in the early evening, usually require showing credentials (badge or wristband) or paying cover at the door. Some venues however are unofficial throughout the entire festival, like Cheer Up Charlies, and many a downtown bar will book some live music at night that is unofficial, but most of the typical venues are official.

Location: SXSW music showcases happen all over town but are centered around 6th St. both West and East of I-35, 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 than out of towners, even though the performers may come from all over the globe.

Transportation: 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 if you’re not staying out too late—CapMetro’s late-night bus service last year left something to be desired. 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.

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, with some big names at the top of the bill. SXSW is a decentralized festival with something like 1,500 bands, and there’s a good chance you’ve heard of 1% of them, though they do usually have a handful of big names, like New Order last year and the Black Keys this year. Traditional festivals are for seeing bands you already like; SXSW is more 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:

  1. Check out the SXSW bands that we link to in each issue of our weekly newsletter.
  2. 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 promoter, it’s a good chance you’ll also like them.
  3. SXSW has playlists of most attending bands on Spotify and YouTube, but because there are SO many bands of SO many genres, this can be a lot to wade through. (For example, Leila has been steadily working her way through the YouTube playlist and has only gotten up to band #331.)
  4. You can filter every SXSW artist by genre, which is a good way to start to whittle it down. 
  5. If there are specific promoters or labels you respect, see whom they’re sending to SXSW. (You can sort by presenter here.) For example, Tiger Bomb (local to Austin), Italians Do It Better, and Fierce Panda are all hosting artists, and we already know that we have some overlap between what we like and what those promoters/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:

  1. The Austin Chronicle maintains a very good list (perhaps even the best list?) of unofficial showcases.
  2. Both Leila and Brian make spreadsheets of every showcase that interests us, and we will include the links to those spreadsheets in our March 8 issue of the weekly newsletter. We put way too much effort into our spreadsheets even before we started sharing 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Bands that are playing will post all their gigs (official and unofficial) to social media.

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 13-15), which exhibits concert posters and other screen printing. (Leila got a T-shirt of an astronaut cat there last year. We did not buy any concert posters, but only because the last thing L+B HQ needs is yet more concert posters.) The other is Austin Industries Day at the Creative Industries Expo (March 15) which has a lot of new-tech exhibitors showing off their wares (and sometimes giving away samples). Which leads us to…

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. All the free swag and experiences tend to flow more freely during the Tech portion of SxSW, for what it’s worth. The Dirty Team is the best 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. Are any of you getting one? If so, do you want to volunteer to write a paragraph of guidance for your fellow L+B readers? Let us know.

Interactive fest: There is so much “networking” among “innovators” going on at SXSW and we are not really experts on it, given that we are neither “angel investors” nor “CMOs,” and Lite + Brite—while an excellent newsletter that we are very proud of—is not a “unicorn.” But! The SXSW tech events are often where the $$ is, which can mean lots of free stuff, “activations,” and especially good drinks and food and vibes. (And if you’re trying to get your startup funded, this is where you want to be.) Here’s a good guide created by Marc Nathan to SXSW Interactive.

We know it’s a lot and sometimes you don’t want to click on a zillion links to find the answers to your questions. Feel free to just post ’em in the L+B Discord. Leila + Brian don’t know everything, but as a community, our subscribers’ combined Austin events intelligence is pretty close to comprehensive.