March is a magical month in Texas. Hordes upon hordes of bands from around the world descend on our fine state for the little music festival that could: South by Southwest. It’s an amazing time to see bands you rarely have a chance to catch live and the perfect opportunity to discover tons of new bands to love. It’s like your birthday, Christmas morning and all your other favorite holidays rolled into one neat, tidy music fan gift.
But make no mistake about it: SXSW isn’t any ordinary music festival. No. Instead of one isolated area with a couple stages and 70,000 hot, sweaty music fans all jam packed in, listlessly shifting from band to band in a drunk haze all day, SXSW sprawls out across downtown Austin, taking up residence in every last nook and cranny that could be remotely construed as a music venue to host the thousands of bands that come to play. For every official showcase, there’s at least a dozen more venues hosting unofficial parties. There’s never a shortage of live music, making SXSW a totally different festival animal than you’ve ever experienced.
So where do you start? As a fellow good groupie, your mission in attending is to see and hear new music as well as catch a few faves you’ve never seen live. I’ve done SXSW a couple of times and, with some expert help in the form of two of my past South by Partners in Crime, Katie and Mel, here’s our guide to help you, the music fan, do SXSW the right way.
How to survive SXSW
Have a plan
“Know who’s there, where at and when,” says Mel. “You’ll want to catch all those bands you have been dying to see. However, you must prioritize. If you want to see someone big, be prepared to wait in lines and miss other stuff.”
The beauty of SXSW is that a band you want to see is always going to be playing. The crux of SXSW is that…a band you want to see if always going to be playing. So it’s important to have a plan. One of the very best tips I ever received was to pour through showlistaustin.com to make my SXSW “wish list”. This is a great spot for finding nearly every last show happening in Austin during this week. I print out the listings for the entire week of SXSW, highlight everything I wanted to see and then devise a game plan.
The great thing is that it’s rare for a band to play just one show. As you’re marathoning it, running from venue to venue to see band after band, the bands you want to check out at doing the same thing. (Only they’re having to haul their gear while doing it.) Carry your list with you so you know when you can see Band A later in the week because you want to sacrifice their set in 30 minutes to check out Bands B and C, both playing right now at a venue two blocks away.
Not a planner? Here’s Katie’s advice: “Make sure you bring a super detailed friend along. She will have a list of bands and the times they play planned out by day.”
But don’t be afraid to abandon the plan
For me, the point of SXSW has always been to find new bands to love…which means abandoning my meticulously laid out plan from time to time. (And if you know me, you know…that’s not always easy for me. I try to be easy going, but I do like my structure.) If you’re walking down the street and something catches your ear, follow it!
From Mel: “One of my best SXSW moments: We were wandering back to our car through the neighborhood after leaving an east side bar when we heard a really familiar sound. Luis swore that it was Ezra Furman and the Harpoons, but we didn’t know they were going to be there. We abandoned the plan, followed the music and ended up in someone’s backyard party listening to a band we rarely get to see. It’s still one of my favorite shows because it was such a great moment.”
Wear comfy shoes & plan for random weather
Downtown Austin isn’t nearly as small as it seems, kids. Trust me – I’ve walked most of it over my many, many visits during the past 12+ years. And you’re going to spend at least half your time at SXSW walking the streets to the next venue, so unless you want to call it a festival after just one day, be smart and wear comfortable shoes. I never love my Chucks more than I do at SXSW.
Weather in Texas in March is unpredictable. The first time I went to SXSW, I dressed in light layers anticipating it would get a little warmer during the day and the cool wind would die down. It never got to 50 degrees that day, which is how I unofficially ended up with frostbite while waiting to see She & Him at Auditorium Shores. Take the time to pack a bag with a few essentials – small umbrella, sunscreen, hat, sweater – so you’re prepared for anything. (Going in a group? Pack a backpack and take turns carrying it.) This little bit of planning will go a long way. Promise.
Don’t ruin your week with free booze
“If you are there for the music (not just the party), one day/night of overindulgence will put you out for the next day,” says Mel. (Trust her, she has experience.)
Yeah, one of the fun things about SXSW is there’s lots of free food and booze. But I’ve never let that be my motive for getting into a show and if you’re going as a music fan who wants to discover new music, it shouldn’t be your motive either. And unless you’re some sort of alcohol-drinking anomaly, I can’t imagine you want to spend the whole next day running around while powering through a hangover.
Katie’s tip for making it through the week without spending a fortune on drinks or food: “Try to hit up a grocery store and stock up with breakfast and lunches. It will save you money and eating out/drinking at night won’t be as expensive.” Granola bars and nuts have been lifesavers in our group! (And let me be your mother for a moment and tell you to drink some water now and again. I’m always amazed at how it perks me up when I’m starting to get dehydrated.)
When all else fails…just pick a random venue or bar
Lines get long. Freebies run out. You realize the band you want to see in five minutes is clear across downtown. When all else fails, you’re exhausted and just need a home base for an hour or two…”just walk in to a random bar,” says Katie. “No matter where you go there will be music.”
“Watch something new,” adds Mel. “SXSW is about discovering new music, so go find it.”
P.S. If you too have “been there, done that,” I’m about 1,000% sure you’ll enjoy Austin Bloggy Limit’s SXSW preview.