This is based on my experiences at SXSW Music from the last two years. It may help you. It is by no means authoritative. Mostly, I’d advise skipping the fucking Strokes, the Fader Fort lines and the soul-crushing #VIPfest vibes and actually trying to catch some unknown new bands in weird bars on the edge of town.
* Get a hotel/couch/floor as close to downtown/the convention center as you can. Most of the concert action is there, particularly around Red River St. and the east side of town. If you are below the river and have to take cabs or the shuttle, this is a major bother and will interfere with your quality of life — you are going to be exhausted and want fast/easy access to your hotel room for nap breaks, not having to carry stuff, etc. Pay the extra money.
* Shuttles do, however, run as regularly as they can with the traffic. Get a pass.
* Wi-fi at the south-of-downtown hotels/motel is bad, at least at the Clarion and Courtyard Marriot. Pro-tip: walk over to the regular Marriot, it’s much faster.
* Once downtown, you can walk nearly anywhere in Austin. I suggest not going too far for a show because if you don’t get in, you’ll have to walk all the way back, but there are some fun venues over on the west side that you’ll be able to catch sparsely attended shows at. On a big day, you might walk four or five miles. Crossing the bridge to South Congress is worth your time for the food/stores alone.
* A cab in from the airport to the southern hotels is about $20.
* If you take a taxi to Ihop at three in the morning, it may be a serious walk to get to the freeway crossing to get back to your hotel. Plan accordingly.
GETTING INTO SHOWS:
* Wristbands will get you into almost everything. You’ll need a badge for panels and some of the night showcases. Or money, but it’ll generally come out even if you didn’t buy a wristband. (Buy a wristband.) The unofficial, blogger-run shows are free.
* Stuff starts to fill up, especially on Friday and Saturday, in the mid-afternoon until around midnight. The really late shows (where you can catch some big-name bands, like Spoon and Broken Social Scene) tend to empty out a bit, so it’s easier to walk into Stubbs at 12:30 a.m. then it is an hour earlier. Keep this in mind for your must-see bands. Any showcase or day party with a noteworthy buzz band is going to be pretty much impossible to get into unless you’re there early — in 2010, I tried three times unsuccessfully to see Cymbals Eat Guitars and barely made it in to see Local Natives. Generally, I opt for bands who are actually new and the super-late headliners, which makes for a pretty satisfying fest.
* Most of the bands play like 10 times. Don’t worry about missing a particular show. That said, see the ones you really want early in the week before the bands are exhausted and too hyped up.
* In 2011, attendance was up 40%. I recommend not bothering with 1) shows with a band on a major label 2) a venue with separate wristbands like PureVolume. As a new music festival, SXSW is still great. As a “see the Foo Fighters for free” festival, it’s the fucking worst.
* If you’re in line for longer than 10 minutes, for anything, go do something else.
* After seeing last year’s crowds, the best way to get into an SXSW party is to know the person throwing the party. Make sure you have your Twitter hook-up’s phone number. And your phone charger (your phone will die).
* Again, you’ll have multiple chances to see nearly every band. I suggest making a list with 2-3 options for any given hour — much easier than it sounds, believe me — so that if one place is full, you can catch something else or head over to get in line for the next band you want to see. You won’t regret spending a week on this list at 1 a.m. when you can’t get into the Gorila Vs. Bear party.
* The most popular stuff, obviously, is the Fader/Pitchfork-y stuff. Getting into the bigger/hipper Red River venues (Emo’s, though R.I.P., and Stubbs, etc.) is nightmarish during the aforementioned peak hours.
* Finding a venue with one great lineup, getting there early and camping out is the best thing you can do. I did this at the Aquarium Drunkard showcase in 2010 and saw 5 great bands in a row, including a pre-fame Warpaint. That said, half the fun is running around.
* (Unofficial, blogger-run) day parties run from around 11 or noon until around 6 or 7, with official showcases and more off the record stuff picking up directly after. This is a good time for a dinner break and maybe a nap before you stay out until 3 a.m.
THE CONVENTION CENTER:
There’s always fun, weird stuff happening in here even if you don’t have a badge, like a record fair or guitar exhibition. Sometimes there’s free snacks.
* This is as valuable as seeing any of the bands, of course. If you keep an eye on Twitter, you’ll get a feel for what bands are starting to get buzz or are tanking throughout the week as they play multiple shows. Tweet at people! Meet them! SXSW is basically music-nerd summer camp.
More hassle than it’s worth. If you’re going to do them, though, don’t schedule more than one per day. Always a logistical nightmare as the band races to play four shows and find 10 minutes to talk to you.
* My favorites: The Mohawk, The Parish and the Central Presbyterian Church (sometimes badge-only). Enjoy the dozens of weird dives and Lance Armstrong’s bike shop.
* The Ginger Man @ 301 Lavaca. Worth the walk, insane tap quantity: http://gingermanpub.com/
* Every party has free booze. All of them.
* Register, if you must, in advance for all the freebies via e-mail - PureVolume house, Fader Fort, Paste party, etc. Pick up your wristbands, if need be, on Tuesday/Wednesday morning. You can then drink at these places all weekend. IFC usually does a fun house with free coffee/snacks for badge and wristband-holders.
* Some parties are list-only though the vast majority are not. Better safe than sorry.
* Torchie’s Tacos and Homeslice Pizza are both essential.
* Frank, in downtown, makes interesting hot dogs.
* Avoid Spaghetti Warehouse. Please.
* Drink as much water as you can. Especially with the free beer.
Austinist does a pretty great job of rounding stuff up on their SXSWist site. Set times tend to change a lot so check in the morning before you head out. There’s also Sched.org and Do512.
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