13 Rules For Having Fun At SXSW

Crowded, overbooked, and overwhelming, SXSW is what you make of it. Here are a few tips.
Fri March 15, 2013 10:00 am
Fans at the Fader Fort, one of SXSW's historic clusterf***s
Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP

It's the fourth day of SXSW Music. It's crowded. The schedule app is overwhelming. And badge or no badge, you can’t get into everything you want to. But the festival is what you make of it. Here are a few of my personal coping strategies for getting through it all.

1. Pay for all of your own food and drink  
Look, I get it. Everybody loves free stuff. But how much is your time worth? Get out of line, eat the food you actually want (which is better than the free food) and go see another band.

(This does not apply to expense accounts, of course, in which case it is okay to miss bands for Barley Swine or Uchi.)

2. Don’t wait in line for anything
Do you really need to see Foxygen (or whoever) that badly? The set’s going to be over by the time you get into the venue. They’re probably playing two more times. And there’s 100 other bands you could be seeing.

(I still plan to see Foxygen, even though I’m running out of chances).

3. Break rule number 2
For the John Mueller Meat Company or Franklin Barbecue. Those lines exist for a good reason.

4. Pick your spot...and keep it
No question, SXSW was more user-friendly 15 years ago. You could walk into one club at 9 pm, watch a band for 40 minutes, walk to the next club seven blocks away, watch another band for forty minutes, etc. You could even see two bands per hour. And wristband owners had a better shot at any given venue.

Today, some shows are “one in, one out” before they even start, either because of a big headliner, or because the venue’s a 200-seater and 300 people still want in. So find a club you like, with three bands out of six you like, and stay put.

(Jeremyjohnson, Instagram )

5. Or: Don’t go to the crowded shows
Sometimes the nightmare SXSW showcase—horrible venue, horrible time slot, only 11 people in the audience, including the roadie, the tour manager, and a writer for the hometown paper—can still be great. Some bands are professional, and give their all, while others are just so pissed off that energy becomes what fuels the show.

(Also: Go see your friend’s band. Or the band on your friend’s label. Or the band managed by your sister’s boyfriend’s cousin. It’s a mitzvah.) 

6. Go see bands you haven’t heard of
Self-explanatory. I hope. But also:

7. Break rule #6 and see what makes you happy  
Local bands, because it’s fun to watch them play for out-of-towners. Reunited bands you played when you were a DJ on college radio, because you’re as a big a sucker for nostalgia as anyone. (And Camper Van Beethoven are still great!) And bands you’ve seen eight times, because there’s a reason you have done that. I will almost certainly catch Thee Oh Sees, who play in Austin three or four times a year, because there’s scarcely a better live band in America.

8. Take your friends’ calls
Because they might be dialing from across the street, and can totally see you hit “decline.” I actually saw this happen on Red River. Or someone told me that it did. Either way, the memory’s vivid.

9. Or: turn off the damn phone
Just once. For, say, 35 minutes. See what it feels like. You’ll save battery charge!

Seriously, as someone who spent years taking notes during rock shows, I don’t find the “if you’re tweeting at a show you aren’t watching it” complaint compelling, but that doesn’t mean I ever liked taking the notes. It’s nice to try and leave your phone in your pocket for as long as possible. Be in the moment. Make your neighbor happy.

(This means you, Only Guy Who Thought It Was Okay To Shoot Three Minutes of Video In An Episcopalian Church Just Because Billy Bragg Played “Greetings to the New Brunette.”)

10. Go to Beerland
This rule helps you follow nearly every other rule, as this Red River bar is not an actual SXSW venue. That means for the nightime shows, they charge a cover. That means you’re getting in. And that everybody in the room actually wants to be there.

Also, the club’s all-day, all-night line-up Sunday is as good as any punk/indie bill this week. 

11. Compression socks
Ever wear these things for sports? Or maybe on a plane? They also rule for being on your feet (and walking) 14 hours.

12. Go out to dinner between 9 and 10 pm
You need the break. And you can probably get a table at Parkside, Swift’s Attic, or Second. It may actually be harder to do that during normal weekend nights.

13. Don’t call it South By
I know I said your time is valuable, but you can manage the few seconds that it takes to say the name. Do we call the TED Conference “TE?” Ever go to Utah and get asked, “What movies are you excited to see at ‘Sun’?”
And while we’re on the subject, what’s up with writing “‘Stros” for “Astros.” It doesn’t even save a character! 

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