It’s a safe bet that a sizeable portion of Treble’s North American readership will be spending next week in Austin, Texas, gnawing on smoked meat, keeping the Lone Stars flowing, and potentially chasing Insane Clown Posse at SXSW. And there’s also an outside chance that some of Treble’s readers outside of the United States or Canada also plan to make the pilgrimage to the Lone Star State in the hopes of cramming as much music and debauchery into five days. I will not be there; while I’ve gone before, and I plan to return next year, I needed a break this year. I might even get some sleep.
Yet while some know what to expect from SXSW, either because they go every year as a result of working in the music industry or press, or they’re just raging party animals, I know quite well that an equally sizeable portion reading this are curious about what to expect, or even entertaining the idea of blowing off school or work and making a road trip to Texas. I’m going to save you the trouble: it’s already too late for this year. The hotels are booked. The floors are occupied. You might be able to nap at the convention center in the morning, though, if you find an empty corner and tape together a blanket of flyers (cozy!). So making the last minute decision to go next week is probably a bad idea. Sounds fun, sure, but more of a pain in the ass than you’re probably anticipating. Godspeed. For the rest of you, who have to endure the dreadful week of people flooding social networks about how BAND X is “KILLING IT!!!!!!” onstage, and are determined to be on the other side of the obnoxious live-tweeting next year, then this handy little roadmap is for you.
Next Year’s Model
If you want to attend SXSW 2013, it’s probably best to start planning now. You think I’m kidding. I’m not. I may exaggerate. I may embellish. I might even say some things that aren’t entirely true. But I don’t kid. The earlier you begin to plan for SXSW, the less of a hassle it is once you get there… for the most part. There are still going to be long lines, sunburns, hangovers, technological malfunctions, WiFi made slow by 1,000 bloggers clogging the internet, not to mention the $5 ATM fees during that week, and that week only. Those will all happen like clockwork. But there are some things you can plan for, and it’s best not to put those off until later.
Starting at the very beginning, before you register, before you book your flight, and even before you ask for time off work, book a hotel. Or, if you’re lucky enough to know someone who lives there, make sure you reserve their couch space before anyone else does. The farther away you’re staying from the central downtown area surrounding Sixth Street, the longer and later into the evening you’ll be walking back to it. And if, god forbid, you’re staying far enough to have to get on the freeway, you’ll have to take a shuttle downtown. That said, they’re pretty fast, convenient, clean and reliable. And frankly, almost as entertaining as the music. Last year we booked late and became part of the shuttle crowd, along with some surly Scottish 50-somethings, some infectiously enthusiastic first-timers, and a dude who yelled to the driver, “Hey, this guy’s breathing on me.” Come to think of it, the shuttle’s worth every penny. But so is the convenience of having to walk only a few blocks before you finally call it quits for the night… er, morning, as the case may sometimes be.
Okay, so you have your hotel booked, right? (Right???) Good. Next you’ll want to register. The earlier you do it, the less you’ll pay. Badges are pretty pricey, so it’s worth thinking long and hard over whether you need one. The benefits of having a badge are, essentially, you get first entry into all showcases, and you can get into all of the panels held at the convention center. A lot of blogs and magazines gloss over the fact that there are actual discussions happening over industry-related topics, and there’s a keynote address, which, this year, is being delivered by Bruce Springsteen. Now, that might be worth a badge… it might. But if you’re in it for the music, and let’s be honest, most people are, you should be able to make due with a wristband. It’ll get you into everything you want to see, barring some super high profile events. And on the off chance that, say, Foo Fighters are playing a super secret show at Stubb’s, it won’t really matter. You’re not getting in with a badge, a wristband, or a $20 bill. And the time you wasted waiting to get in kept you from eating, getting drunker, or seeing another band you will inevitably regret not seeing when they become huge in a couple months. Missed opportunities.
Alright, you have a place to crash. And you have your wristband or badge. Now you need a plan of attack. SXSW is helpful enough to post the full performance schedule on its website ahead of time. And when you inevitably lose that printout, you can just pick up one of the official showcase pamphlets stacked up at the convention center. Trying to plan the perfect schedule to ensure all your must-see acts are covered is tricky, and probably futile. Schedule conflicts are going to happen, and you’re going to have to be okay with that. But the upside is that a lot of bands play a ton of shows that week. By the time we made our way to the Merge Records showcase last year, both Wye Oak and Wild Flag were each on their seventh or eighth show of the week. Any band you’d like to see that has only one or two shows scheduled should be the ones you’re least flexible on. From there, the rest will probably fall into place. And if at any point you ever get bored, you can always move on to the next show, see an opening band you wouldn’t have otherwise, or get a Best Wurst (you’ll want to get a Best Wurst).
So, you’ve got a schedule, and you’ve got a wristband, because you’re not spending spring break in Austin to navel-gaze about the economics of the music industry, I’m guessing. So, assuming you can roll yourself out of bed by noon, how does one spend the daylight hours at SXSW? More shows, of course. Free, unofficial, non-SXSW-sanctioned parties sponsored by blogs and energy drinks, promising all your favorite bands, taco bars and free beer. You can’t lose, right?! Funny thing, that: after blowing $1,000 on the week’s travel accommodations, lodging and entry, you’d be surprised how quick people flock to free food or drink. And if it’s free BBQ, forget it. You have a better chance of seeing Foo Fighters at Stubb’s. That said, a free day party is still worth going to for the sake of hearing more music. If not for these free shows, I might not have discovered Austra or Liturgy, who released two of my favorite albums last year. That’s probably not true, but I already warned you about that. But keep this in mind: if you have a wristband, and you’re wasting the afternoon in line to see a band that’s playing three or four official showcases, you’ll probably have better odds at those. Try something different during the day. Go to an international music showcase, see some hardcore or metal. Or just stroll into the nearest dive with the best sounding noise emanating out of it. It’s not that hard to find good music during SXSW. And if you fail to do so, then it’s your own damn fault, really.
Beyond that, it’s really up to the individual to plan his or her own plan. But here are a few more suggestions, anyhow. Be curious, don’t stick to bands you’ve already seen. Keep an open mind. Don’t get caught up with big-time festival headliners; that’s what Coachella is for. Drink lots of water. Take a couple hours to chill at an actual restaurant (and maybe make reservations). Watch the bats at dusk. Talk to people. Make friends. Talk to musicians. Don’t stress out. Stay flexible. Keep your ears open for weird, unofficial, possibly illegal shows.
But no matter how much “business” is involved, and how industry-centric it gets, remember to have some fun. This is the only business conference in the world that involves five days of loud music and booze.