- 1,476 miles
- $150 in gas
- 22 hours
- 42 radio dial changes
- 8 million construction cones (in Texas alone).
Those are some roundtrip stats to Austin, Texas, from Kansas City. For the first time, I made the journey to the hipster capital of the world to attend the one of the largest indie music festivals in the world: SXSW.
Below is a guide for anyone planning on going to SXSW in the future, especially if you’re going to do a road trip. Not much unlike any other first-time experience, you are sure to do things you shouldn’t and neglect to do things that you should. Often times what you heard about is not what you will experience, so I’ll describe the scene as well. Hopefully, this will leave you better prepared for your first SXSW experience, thus, allowing you to enjoy it as much as possible.
In order to get into the official SXSW events, you need to purchase a badge…for nearly $1,000 a piece! Tickets for Game 7 of the 2014 World Series were cheaper, and that happens in Kansas City once every 30 years! And that only includes the music portion of the festival. Full access for music, film and interactive events will run you closer to $2,000. This is both fucking absurd and indicative of where SXSW has gone over the years. The good news is you don’t need one. In fact, buying one reveals one of two things: 1) You have too much disposable income and/or 2) You’re an idiot.
You might also feel compelled to pay for a service like rsvpster.com, which automatically RSVPs you to every unofficial SXSW party. For about $60 for two people, they will RSVP you to damn near every unofficial event and send you an email for each one. The email will include an e-ticket, time, place, etc. For a first-timer, this sounds perfect: no worries about getting into shows PLUS you know what is taking place where. Pro tip: Save yourself some money, and do not subscribe. I’ll explain why later.
Assuming you’re driving down there, the last order of business before you leave is lodging. DO NOT SKIMP ON A HOTEL ROOM. My goal was to spend as less money as possible, so when I explored various travel websites for hotels in or near Austin, I went the cheapest route. After all, it doesn’t matter how shitty your hotel room is if you spend every waking moment at SXSW. As long as room service cleans up the cum stains before you arrive, whatever.
One thing I didn’t consider: Price isn’t always dependent on quality. Location is key in hotel pricing. My $320 (including tax) for the week got me a stay in Eldgin, Texas, which is about 30 minutes outside of Austin. Neither Uber nor Lyft go there, and any taxi service from that distance will cost more than $100 roundtrip to and from hotel to SXSW (if you plan on drinking, you better cab it to the festival). The money you’ll save on cab fares by spending a little more on a hotel INSIDE Austin is significant. Don’t make that same mistake.
Alright! Gas tank is full, time off at work is approved, and a hotel INSIDE Austin is booked…let’s go to SXSW.
SXSW takes place on 6th St. for a few blocks that are sectioned off. Along this street are a bunch of bars and shops, all of which at least appear to be local. There’s a store that sells nothing but hot sauce! That’s it. Nothing else. The local commerce rhetoric that Austinians (?) tout is legit.
The scene outside the venues is just as entertaining as anything going on inside: street musicians, artists, food trucks, people trying to give you their CD for free then after talking to you ask for “donations” for said CD (you’ll get this a lot). You’ve already hit party status and you haven’t walked inside any venue or paid a single dime, let alone $1,000.
Like the guy selling his CD, be mindful of things that appear to be free. For example: You see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles running around over there? Quick! Let’s get a picture with them! Go ahead, but they’ll point to the “donation” jar nearby. At a festival this large, this is to be expected. For a festival this large, I was surprised how few of these bait-and-switch artists were around.
Dueling saxophonists playing contemporary hits, dueling percussionists beating on 5-gallon buckets, an artist quickly painting an amazing picture of Tupac, and even a guy standing on a bucket with American flag spandex playing the violin wearing…a werewolf mask. You get all of this, and you just stepped foot onto 6th St.
Okay, let’s a grab a bite to eat at any of these food trucks (or a GIANT slice of pizza at Death Metal Pizza) and explore the venues.
(Note: I didn’t see a single magician doing street magic. The fuck is this shit?)
When I say “inside SXSW,” I’m referring to all of the places you can get into without an official badge. You know, the places for commoners/peasants/people that came to discover indie bands rather than pay $1,000 to hear Snoop Dogg give a keynote speech about god knows what.
How do you know which bars to go into? It’s actually really easy: Walk up and down the street until you hear something that intrigues you and…walk right in (after showing your ID). That’s it. That’s SXSW in a nutshell.
The 512 on 6th St. featured the Colorado Music Party, which features bands from…Colorado. You’ll get your overcharged beers’ worth at this place; everything from folk music to hard rock to a variety band of aging accountants. If that isn’t your scene, you can leave and walk into another bar.
Wander over to Shakespeare’s and watch a three-piece punk band play on the steps that lead to the deck and the bathrooms, forcing you to walk through and around the band while they’re playing. If it’s too crowded in there, venture over to the Dirty Dog Bar where a rap-metal band is playing in front of seven people. Even at SXSW, venues in the heart of the action can be bare at times.
A nice “hidden” secret are the parties away from the main artery on 6th St. Most notably everything on 6th St. east of I-35. For a short walk or chariot ride via bicycle, you can get into a whole new set of parties. Again, there are typically no covers.
After all of this bar hopping and navigating, your day will be finished before you know it. Either you’ll be too tired, drunk or closing time is approaching. Go back to your hotel, get some rest, rinse and repeat. Even though you will be going to the same places, the next day will be completely different and go by just as fast.
Based on what I have heard from people who went to SXSW years ago, it’s not the same. Back in the day, a famous musician would show up at a random bar and start playing. Today, it’s such a huge business operation; such sightings are extremely rare if they happen at all. Celebrities stay within the confines of the official SXSW venues and any outside appearance would probably need to be approved so that the organizers have enough time to plan a way to capitalize on it.
With that said, if you go to SXSW for the chance to see some people you have heard of, you better shell out the $1,000 for your official badge. Besides, SXSW was never about those people in the first place. You should go to the festival to see artists from around the world congregating into a small area and showing off their work…for free! After all, SXSW is in the hipster mecca of the world and what’s more hipster than saying you saw the next big thing in a small bar with 12 other people at SXSW?
One thing I observed is that a good percentage of people attending the festival are people promoting themselves. Musicians, artists, podcasters, YouTubers, filmmakers, you name it. The number of GoPros-on-a-stick per square foot is astounding. Even the struggling, “poor” artists were carrying around video/sound equipment that costs more than my entire podcast setup. Like any other prominent festival, expect a large “media” presence.
Get a hotel nearby, don’t pay for badges/RSVP services, and expect to see relatively unknown bands from across the world. Checkmark that list and you’re guaranteed to have a great time.