Are you calm under pressure with the ability to multi-task? Consider yourself skilled at project management? An excellent researcher with a ‘can-do’ attitude? Then you are perfect South by Southwest material. This Austin based multi-media festival (abbreviated to SXSW) which began solely as a music conference is a 28 year old institution and can somewhat institutionalize you too.  With savvy planning though, you can gain an advantage in getting the most out of this two week Interactive, Film and Music extravaganza.  Festival goers range from industry professionals to serial music/film lovers, all with various ways of attending that could be through invitation but is usually through acquisition of a badge, setting you back $1325 for the platinum all-in option or individually, with a music pass at around $650.  Big numbers but the whole event is B-I-G, with thousands of visitors taking up temporary residency, contributing to the increasing road and human traffic that the Texas Capitol has had to get used to over the years.

The entrance to infamous Sixth Street

Austin Locals keep it weird

Local residents are divided by those choosing to avoid the bedlam, to those who revel amidst the different sounds and smells that the event brings and its easy to understand why.   Where else can you share a joke with Billy Crystal in a bathroom queue, brush shoulders with Bill Murray whilst watching friends play at a local venue or hug Kate Tempest after a speech imploring the crowd to show more empathy and less greed? Yes, these are all typical SXSW interactions, mixing those from far away with the everyday, which is what gives the festival its unusual sparkle. When hosting the world’s largest music festival that provides a stage for over 2000 artists, there will always be debates on what the entire thing is (an incredible networking event? Niche conference? Commercial monetization of Art?) but you must come to your own conclusions.


Kate Tempest stunned at the GSD&M party



Gary Clark Jnr closes out GDS&M party (photo by Damon Garcia)

Back in 2009, I volunteered for SXSW and it’s definitely something I would encourage if you have the time and resource to spare (you do not have to be an Austin resident either). As a volunteer you get insider access, opportunities to increase your skills by learning from the inspiring organizers and participants and usually end up enjoying the event you’re at so it never really feels like ‘work’. After a 40-hour week, you would have earned a platinum level badge too (for less working hours you get a more specific music or film badge) so can enjoy the chance to saunter around knowing you have priority over the non-paying masses. Another opportunity to gain a wristband is hosting a SXSW artist/band at your home, which also helps the musicians budget as hotel prices peak even with a discount from the festival.  This year though, I was one of the non-paying masses without the coveted lanyard of badges, so armed solely with my darling companion, a seasoned SXSW-er himself, I decided to attempt the RSVP/free options and see what an experience we could have at a minimal fee.

The coveted wristbands

Coveted wristbands for an exclusive party.

'Get Hard' Premiere crowd

The most complicated task is having to decide which bands and parties you want to be at.  Indeed, this is the part that will test your planning skills and endurance as shows can start from 7am where you can witness a live radio appearance to a midnight show where that one singer you want to hear comes on last.  There are of course multiple Apps to inform your decision making, as well as friends who are more in the ‘know’ and can glean for suggestions. And needless to say, SXSW will be talked about, with content shared upon all Social Media channels, so be sure to ‘Like’ and Follow all recommended Pages and Twitter handles. Spreadsheets are created, tailored favorites are chosen, Spotify playlists are skimmed through and articles on ‘Hot Tips’ are read. There is a world of dedicated SXSW tools at your Googling fingertips. RVSPster for example, a $30 service that signs you up to every free event/party during the fest is useful, but you still have to decide which ones to attend. Due to this dizzying array of events, I am certain there will be a coveted SXSW personal assistant App in the near future, to curate the experience so you avoid the unnecessary suffering of #FOMO (‘Fear of missing out’. And yes, there does seem to be an acronym for everything these days).

So to prepare the curious and encourage nods from more seasoned folks, here are some personal ‘lessons learned’ from my own 2015 SXSW experience, to add to the existing digital knowledge pool for future generations.

Day 1: Wednesday

Artists seen: Broncho, Natalie Prass, Laura Marling, Dorothy, Public Service Broadcasting, James Vincent McMorrow

LESSON LEARNED – Balance out your food and alcohol consumption

The first day of our musical outings and like many other individuals, work and life balance will be tested throughout this period so remember to plan ahead (if you can afford time off work, do it).  Accept that less sleep will be had and non-typical food/beverage choices will be made.   Food stalls pepper the city but remember prices will sting you so pack a nutrition bar for a quick pep (no-one likes to be hangry) and consume diligently.  Part of the attraction of SXSW day shows are the free provisions; generally the earlier you get somewhere, the higher the probability to access gratis consumption.  Otherwise it is normal to see paying bars so pack some cash.  And the rookie mistake is to over indulge in delicious alcohol that will tempt you from every bartender’s lair so stand firm and balance out with the plentiful free water available too.  The Austin day shows can get quite heated, especially outdoors so heed this advice or be that guy bent over puking on the sidewalk in the early afternoon.  And don’t be arrogant, it always happens.

Broncho at the Billy Reid Shindig

Broncho at the Billy Reid Shindig

Laura Marling

Laura Marling

Dorothy struts and steams up Red 7

Dorothy steams up Red 7 with raw rock sounds

James Vincent McMorrow (photo by Damon Garcia)

James Vincent McMorrow (photo by Damon Garcia)

Day 2: Thursday

Artists seen: Cathedrals, Senaibo Sey, Songhoy Blues, Courtney Barnett

LESSON LEARNED: Be prepared to Walk or Pedal

Sounds logical to wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk around, but its not until you build blisters from one show to another that you remember how far SXSW spreads out.  With over 100 venues to go between, a one way trip between Hotel Vegas for Songhoy Blues to Cedar Street Courtyard to catch Courtney Barnett covered 1.5 miles. When you have to park 2 miles from Downtown Austin (to avoid the evil parking fees inflicted during this time) and attend even just 4 shows, you can easily rack up 10 miles on foot within the space of mere hours.  Bicycles are a wise choice however parking stations can be as hard to find for two wheels, let alone four. Austin has started adapting more to a cycling culture though by integrating a bike hire scheme with B-Cycle, so this is another option.  There are also the more expensive pedicabs that whilst quite entertaining with their boomboxes and eclectic decor, may set you back $20 for a one block ride.  So exercise vanity at your peril and pack some cushioned soles just in case.

Cathedrals at Red Eyed Fly

Cathedrals stirred the crowd at Red Eyed Fly with great energy

The darling Seinabo Sey continues Sweden's great contribution to music.

The darling Seinabo Sey continues Sweden’s great contribution to music.

Courtney Barnett drawing the crowds at Cedar Street Courtyard

Courtney Barnett drew the crowds out at Cedar Street Courtyard (photo by Damon Garcia)

Day 3: Friday

Artists Seen: Ibeyi, Stones Throw 56 DJs set, Silk Rhodes, Homeboy Sandman

LESSON LEARNED: Don’t fear missing out

Touched upon earlier, there is always that moment during SXSW or after when someone says ‘Did you see XYZ?” and you have NO idea who they’re talking about.  They could be making up the name of course (it happens, amusing videos have been made on this subject) but if you are confronted with a list of artists and the impossibility of seeing everyone, LET IT GO!  Show times will clash, you may be refused entry due to capacity limits and the paying customer (particularly this year) WILL get priority so do not mourn these common situations.  There are opportunities to pay at the door (usually around $12) if you have no plastic or paper prerequisites but as in life, nothing is guaranteed.  SXSW is in many ways a maze of interaction that will test your ability to manipulate it, making you want to win at the game but its meant to be fun, not a challenge.  So dust off your ego and instead, look up the said artist’s site to book a ticket for a gig another time.  Live music should be supported regardless of the festival so it’s a great chance to remember that musicians need to be paid too.

Lisa from the impressive Ibeyi

The lovely Lisa from the impressive sister act Ibeyi


Day 4: Saturday

Artist Seen: A-Town Getdown, Daddy Long Legs

LESSON LEARNED: Check out the Local Talent

If you’re not from Austin, its even more reason to see a local band. One of the downsides of SXSW is the reality that local bands generally do not get paid during this period, based on a combination of competition and circumstance. Even locals may say ‘but they’re from Austin, I can see them any time’ but its probable you will still have another event to attend than their gig (regardless of the social media reminders).  So why do they perform for free? LOVE. Aside from income, musicians are passionate about their work so seize the chance to see them for free and appreciate the community that you walk amongst. Local bands such as new funk sensations A-Town Getdown stirred up a Saturday brunch, soulful songwriter Drew Davis continued her residency with band at the Whip-In and legends such as Dale Watson provide home-grown talent, breaking up the increased perception of commercialism during the festival.  Therefore if you’re visiting, take the opportunity to see the locals that won’t be leaving after the party banners get taken down.

Funk X Funk Fest featuring Austin locals A-Town Getdown (above)

Funk X Funk Fest featuring Austin locals A-Town Getdown (above)

Austin locals Drew Davis & Band (above) and local legend Dale Watson (below)

Austin locals Drew Davis & Band (above) and local legend Dale Watson (below)

Day 5: Sunday

LESSON LEARNED – Get some sleep and look forward to next year

Whilst the remnants of power bars and energy drinks will provide temporary stimulation, give in to your weary body and begin to resume normal service.  There will always be another party or another event to check out, but if you did the festival properly then sleep will be what your body truly needs.  Enjoying a day watching sports then sharing a brunch with friends were simple, lovely pleasures and as I reflected on the week that had passed, I took comfort from all the new music absorbed and faces I had a chance to see.  Seinabo Sey summed it up before she ended her Red Eyed Fly set, explaining how she came from a tiny place in Sweden and there she was in Austin, sharing her gratitude with the crowd on how anything is possible and how happy she was to be there.  So be grateful for the opportunities that you had to see some of the finest musicians that may (or may not) grace your shores and revel in the recuperation you can now explore.

CHEERS to another year of SXSW, when all of Austin’s a stage… And a fine one at that!

Art imitating life - by Sue Zola

Art imitating life – by Sue Zola