SXSW is the massive amorphous festival monster that takes the city of Austin every year, whether we like it or not. With non-stop parties, new music, and (often ill-advised) brand activations, it’s either your dream come true or your nightmare. The only thing that can make it a more daunting experience for a festival navigator is not knowing the lay of the land or the unofficial rules of the event.
Thankfully, y’all have me to help you out. Having spent more than a decade stumbling through the streets as a festivalgoer as well as working in music marketing and the creative agency world, I’ve learned a few key survival tips. They won’t help you blend in with the local tribes, but they will save you from going hungry, getting lost and looking like a total dweeb.
1) Hand Sanitizer: Every bar and venue will run out of paper towels and hand soap within 15 minutes of opening their doors. Bring some hand sanitizer with you. Not only will it keep your beer-holding mitts clean, but you can drink it for a buzz if you are really in a pinch. *Bakery does not officially recommend you to drink hand sanitizer.
2) Driving: Do. Not. Drive. There are a million options other than getting behind a wheel. Use them, fool! Beyond the crippling traffic –which threatens to be much worse this year with the President in town– SXSW and drinking go hand in hand. Whatever surge pricing you will pay is a small price to keep yourself and the people around you safe. If you must drive, do so completely sober and use services like car2go to travel short distances around the main festival area, never through it. By using insta-rent car services, you’ll avoid spending half your time parking or paying next month’s rent to the handful of lots around Austin.
3) AM vs PM: SXSW Music has no pause button. You should prepare to juggle day and night events. Day parties are generally free (some require an RSVP, see the RSVP section) and evening showcases; the majority of which require badges or wristbands. Check out the official SXSW website, Showlist Austin, or DO512 for individual show deetz.
4) Buying your way in: If you aren’t among the lucky or wealthy ones who scored a badge or wristband, you CAN still buy your way into an official showcase. It’s just a question of how early you want to show up and how much you are willing to pay. If you show up early enough to wait in line, and if there isn’t a significant showing of badge holders, you can pay at the door to get in. The number of people admitted as well as the price is dictated by SXSW in real time. It is totally possible, just be patient. Ask a door person or SXSW attendant. They’ll point you in the right direction. Pro tip: For those flush with coin, most doormen will take a bribe. Just be ready to pay a premium.
5) RSVPs: Sure, RSVP to as much as you possibly can. RSVP to things you know you aren’t even going to show up to. You are just looking to give yourself options. There are services out there that will do this for you, at a price. Don’t give these people your money. I know we live in a disruptive (i.e. lazy) marketplace where you can pay any struggling grad student to pick up your Pringles from the gas station, but this is one thing you are fully capable of doing for yourself. Just make sure you open a SXSW-only Gmail account because those same friendly people hosting a free concert or party today will become email trolling piece of sith later on.
6) The Early Nerd Gets The Worm: RSVPs are a way for promoters and brands to get the word out about their party. They do not ensure entrance. At some point people started to think that an event RSVP was their goddam all-access pass to life. Sadly, this isn’t the case. All venues are subject to capacity. No one cares about your RSVP if you showed up at the event 5 minutes before your favorite band and there is a 200 person line in front you. This is SXSW. The name of the game is show up early, be prepared to wait, and have your ID ready.
7) Style: Do not wear flip flops/sandals. ESPECIALLY man-dals. You’re going to be neck deep in dirt, sweat, drunken missteppers, and overflowing port-a-potties all day. Your feet WILL get stepped on. You could go ankle deep into human waste. You may have to run from the security guard at that venue you just jumped the fence at. Be a damn adult and have some respect for yourself. Put on some real shoes.
8) Tipping: I shouldn’t need to say this. Tip your bartenders. The drinks or the party might be free, but the labor isn’t.
Bartenders may stare you down and appear to want to punch you, but let’s be honest, you and the intoxicated mob around you probably earned that. You take care of them; best believe they’ll take care of you.
9) See something new. See something local: While it might be cool to see Kanye or Snoop, that isn’t really in the true spirit of the fest. This whole thing started as a music discovery tool. So get out there and see something new. See something local.
10) Interact with the pretty people: SXSW is riddled with almost-famous bands, film directors, and tech entrepreneurs. If you attend a show, a screening, or a panel that you end up liking, go up to the talent and let them know. Buy them a beer. Trust me, you may end up inspired by these folks, and at the very least it could make for a cool story down the road.
11) Don’t stink: This is true for your pits as well as your attitude. We are all in this to have a good time and see some incredible music. Yeah, it can get exhausting. Yeah, you might get cranky. But don’t take it out on the people around you. I guarantee, the more polite you are, the more fun you will have.