Back in 1986, a few people in Austin, Texas were looking for a way to keep the local music venues filled with people the week that all the college kids took off for Spring Break, while also showcasing musical talent across the city. By March of 1987, their plan for a festival started to come to fruition, with expectations that maybe 150 people would register for their new music conference. Spread out over 15 participating venues, more than 700 people attended, and — after going strong for 32 years — SXSW has never stopped growing.
Today, SXSW is one of the biggest, most diverse festivals out there — drawing talent from all over the world to showcase their music, movies, and technology, along with hundreds of thousands of attendees. This means it can be a little confusing when trying to make sense of how it all works 9and fits together). Even if you’ve attended before, it can still be difficult to effectively navigate everything that’s going on.
With that in mind, here’s a complete rundown on what to expect if you’re attending SXSW, and how you can make the most out of your time in Austin.
Breaking Down The Basics
There are a lot of components to SXSW, with more events added every year. Before getting into the specifics, here’s a quick look at the schedule of exactly what happens when:
SXSW Music is still what SXSW is best known for, which starts on Monday, March 12th and goes through that Saturday the 17th. The official showcases are held at venues all across the downtown area starting around 8:00 pm and go until the bars close at 2:00 AM.
You can check out a comprehensive list of who’s playing here.
SXSW Film is unlike the rest of the conferences since it runs the entirety of the festival, starting on Friday, March 9th and going until Saturday the 17th. While there are about 400 movies being shown, there are only a handful of theaters that show them, and all but one is in the downtown area.
SXSW Interactive happens during the first half of SXSW, starting on March 9th and wrapping up Tuesday, March 13th. It’s big on networking, awards, and product demos where companies show off their latest tech.
You can find out more about SXSW Interactive by clicking here.
SXSW Gaming runs the last few days of the festival, starting on Thursday, March 15th and wrapping up on Saturday the 17th. It includes a massive gaming expo, competitions, panels, and awards.
For more information on SXSW Gaming, click here to get a rundown of what’s in store.
The SXSW Marketplace is held downtown inside the Austin Convention Center (the epicenter of SXSW) and is open to badge-holders as well as the general public. It runs in conjunction with SXSW Gaming (March 15th-17th), and is more-or-less a giant pop-up store featuring local and international vendors selling everything from clothing, art, music, and just about everything in-between.
To get a better idea of what to expect from the SXSW Marketplace, click here.
What Gets You In Where
Admission to most SXSW events is based on a tiered system, and at the top of that tier are the badges. Music, Film, and Interactive all have their own badges that grant you first access to those specific events. As of last year, these badges also allow secondary access to events held by other branches of SXSW. So, if you have a Music badge, you can go check out a movie once everyone with a Film badge gets in.
For those who really want to devour what’s offered, there’s also a Platinum Badge, which grants you first access to every branch of the festival. All info about buying badges can be found here
If badges are too pricey for you, wristbands are a more affordable option. They’re available for Music, Film, and Gaming, and grant you secondary access to those specific events only. So, a Film wristband will get you into a screening, but it won’t help you get you into a Music showcase. Info about wristbands can be found here.
However, you can still have a good time at SXSW without a badge or a wristband. Many of the Music & Film events allow you to pay for a ticket or cover charge with cash at the door. That all depends on that venue’s capacity, and remember that anyone with a badge or a wristband will get priority admission. So, without those official credentials, you’re probably not going to be able to see any of the hot ticket events. Still, when you consider the fact that over 1600 bands and 400 movies are screening, you’ll definitely be able to find something to do. Not to mention all the miscellaneous events that pop up all over downtown that are free and open to the public.
How To Get Around
For those in the market for a badge or a wristband, there are some package deals that include discounted rates on hotel rooms, but they go fast as SXSW gets closer. If a hotel room downtown feels a little out of reach, try looking further away from the downtown area, and check on what Air BnB has available.
Once you’ve figured out where you’re staying, getting around is its own challenge. Austin’s traffic is already pretty bad, and if you have a car available, parking in the downtown area ranges from very expensive to downright impossible. However, despite the much-ballyhooed incident where Uber and Lyft left the city, they’ve since returned and are both available in Austin. There are also a few local options like RideAustin, as well as the usual taxis and buses.
Once you’re downtown, you can rent a bicycle for the day, or there’s a small fleet of pedicabs to help get you where you need to go.
Get Used To Standing In Line
Standing in line is probably what you’ll end up spending the most time doing at SXSW, honestly. Think of it as part of the experience. Even with a badge, you could find yourself waiting for quite a while to get into one of the festival’s big events, so plan accordingly. If you want to see one of the hot-ticket films, for example, you’ll want to get down at least an hour or more in advance just to be safe. Once you’re in line, the festival volunteers usually keep everyone in the know, so you should have a good idea if you’ll make it in or not pretty early on.
The music showcases are a little different. With most of them going on at night, and a new band playing every hour, the crowds are way less static. So, if you’re bound and determined to catch the Finnish ska band that’s playing a show at 11, show up around 9 or 9:30. There’s a chance you may have to stand in line, but with a higher crowd turnover, you’re more likely to make it inside in time. Also, if it’s not crowded when you arrive, once you’re in, you’re in. Which gives you the perfect opportunity to check out a band or two that you might not have heard of — and that’s really the true spirit of SXSW.
As far as the Interactive events and scores of speakers and panels go, it’s a little harder to predict. Depending on the room your event is held in, the number of the attendees it’s drawing, and the type of event itself, it’s best to show up early and get a feel for how things are shaking out. If you have any questions, there are always volunteers on site to help you as best they can.
Seize The Days
If you’re not too wiped out when you wake up in the morning early afternoon, there’s a whole side of the festival that goes on when the sun’s out. These events are also more likely to be open to the public. Music venues often have their own showcases during the day that aren’t tied directly to the festival at all, which means many of them are free to attend.
There are also all sorts of shenanigans happening at bars, retailers, and parks all over the downtown area that won’t require any SXSW credentials.
Stay In The Know
Saying there’s a lot to do at SXSW is a complete and total understatement, and if you’ve never been before it can seem a little overwhelming. Luckily, the SXSW mobile app (which you can download here) is a fairly comprehensive and easy-to-use way to navigate through your time at the fest.
Also, do a little research and find some venues to follow on Twitter and Instagram. That’ll help keep you updated about special events, last-minute schedule changes, and all the other surprises that spring up.
Keep An Open Mind
Don’t get hung up on any one thing. Even with a badge or a wristband, some things are going to be impossible to get into unless you dedicate your day to waiting in line. Granted, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it will keep you from exploring everything else that SXSW has to offer. You can absolutely have a great time at SXSW without any agenda whatsoever.
Go see a movie you’ve never heard of, or go check out a few bands you know nothing about. Or just wander around and take in what’s happening. There’s no real wrong way to enjoy your time at SXSW.
Charge Your Phone
At the end of the day, make sure you charge your phone before going to sleep. Power outlets can be scarce at SXSW — some places might have them, but it all depends on the venue. You might even consider investing in a portable battery to take with you if you want to keep your phone alive and kicking through the duration. Make sure you keep that charged up, too.
Most Importantly: Be Cool
SXSW is a big, wild, unpredictable 9 days — which close to a half-million people attended in an official capacity last year. That also means that even more came down to Austin to be a part of it. And that’s great! Locals are glad to have you. But that also means the city’s population swells up by at least 25% in a very short window of time. Naturally, this puts a strain on everyone, but none more so than the service industry. For those who work in restaurants or bars, SXSW means longer hours and a more grueling schedule.
Also, every venue is going to have different rules on what’s okay. If someone who works there tells you to not take your drink outside or to stop playing air guitar while hanging from the ceiling fan, it’s best to listen to them. These are the people that help keep the city running. Be cool to them.
Also, if you have questions, there’s usually a small army of volunteers at every official event. Note: They’re also putting in long hours that make the festival possible — all without pay. They’re on hand to help. Be cool to them, too.
And that’s pretty much it. Remember, there’s no wrong way to do SXSW, (except the being cool part, that’s mandatory), so feel free to take in the festival and everything it has to offer. Here’s hoping you get through it in one piece.