How to Navigate South By Southwest

Mar 9, 2018

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Overwhelming is the adjective which best describes the annual music, film and interactive conference South By Southwest, which boosts the already booming Austin economy exponentially every March. South By, which was once a quiet, little festival, has morphed since the late 1980s. The same can be said for Austin, which was a sleepy town a generation ago. Both SXSW and Austin are now Texas big. The latter is full of traffic jams and corporate headquarters. The former attracts a myriad of music industry types and fans from around the world. Austin’s famous Sixth Street, which is closed to walking traffic, was as gridlocked as nearby I-35 during last year’s South By. It’s not easy but it’s more than possible to navigate South By Southwest, which is slated for March 9 to 18.

Getting To Austin

It’s not too late to book a flight to the capital of Texas. American Airlines and Southwest are the dominant carriers there. Don’t be afraid to burn points if need be.

Staying in Austin

This is where it gets tricky. Most downtown hotels and those on the city’s periphery have been long sold out. However, Airbnb is the way to go. It’s affordable and you’re not going to be holed up where you’re lodged for very long anyway. South By fun typically starts at 11am and runs through the wee hours of the morning. However, good location helps. Try to avoid rental car distance. It’s difficult not to imbibe at South By since alcohol, much of it free at the endless array of parties, flows like the Rio Grande. Check on lodging opportunities around nearby University of Texas, since it’s spring break for the Longhorns and some students procrastinate when it comes to renting out their apartments.

Getting Around

As noted, avoid driving downtown. Parking is expensive and limited. There are plenty of cabs, Ubers, Lyfts and pedi-cabs. You’ll gain more ground walking in Austin.

Parties are Ubiquitous

“Day parties” are free events featuring recording artists, which perform during the evening. Most bands that play South By showcase about nine times during a four-day span. Alcohol and food are often on the house; all you need is an ID to enter most of the events. Once upon a time, SXSW icon Cary Baker took care of the voluminous party list but it’s just way too much for one man to tackle — now it’s a constantly updated site. You will never want for parties at this festival.

Check the Weather

The weather can change dramatically in Austin just before Spring arrives; the mercury once dipped from 78 to 36 degrees within four hours at South By. A tornado hit 10 miles out of town as the sun disappeared and rain dropped in near-biblical fashion. Yes, it’s usually summer-hot during mid-March — but you never know what might happen in tornado country. Make sure you’re coated with suntan lotion and hydrated. During last year’s Rachael Ray party, a SXSW newbie collapsed since he had been drinking beer exclusively for three days.

What to Wear and Bring

Suntan lotion, perhaps a sun hat, a reusable water bottle, extended battery pack and charging cords for all of your devices and a backpack. The latter is for the surprising amount of swag (t-shirts, posters, guitar picks, etc), you’ll score. Sure, you’ll want to look as hip as possible but go with sensible shoes. Also, don’t forget ear plugs since you’re going to be bludgeoned aurally for a few days.

Who to Catch

One of the finest SXSW performances I ever caught was The Fugees in 1995. Bluegrass prodigy Billy Strings, the sexy Sharkmuffin, who combine glam and garage and London’s poppy but powerful Superorganism are among the can’t-miss acts. If you have a badge and are attending the conference, don’t miss the Breeders Kim Deal interview Steve Albini, who is one of the most provocative producers alive. It will be worth it just to catch anecdotes drawn from Albini’s experiences producing Nirvana, the Pixies and Superchunk.

Also, always be on the lookout for the next big thing. You may find out years from now that you were one of a few dozen people in the audience for a band of nobodies who then became rock stars. (Hey, it happened to me — nine years ago I was one of just 30 people who caught a set from a then-unknown Mumford & Sons playing an Austin pizza shop.)

Be Ready to Call an Audible

Unannounced shows happen at South By. Two years ago, Garth Brooks popped into the charming but tiny Broken Spoke, where he debuted more than three decades ago as a virtual unknown. Brooks shocked patrons by playing a set. The SXSW app, which you can download from the festival’s official site, has updates for shows. However, for some pop-up events the only way to find out is to keep your ear to the ground.

Post Fest BBQ

South By is capped by a softball tournament on March 18 at Krieg Softball Complex. Have one last round of BBQ and Shiner Bock before leaving the live music capital of the world.

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

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