A Survival Guide to SXSW Festival

By: Shelley Seale

February 18, 2014

It’s here, and it’s big. SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival, held every March in Austin, draws more than 32,000 registrants and tens of thousands more guests overall. Started in 1987 as a way to connect the Austin music scene to the rest of the world, SXSW has grown to include film and high-tech/interactive components. With high-profile speakers and official events, the festival is just as popular for the unofficial parties, the free “after-SXSW” shows that many of the performers put on, and the general upbeat atmosphere that invades Austin over those ten days in March.

If you’re planning a trip to Austin’s biggest date in the calendar, take a look at our survival guide to SXSW festival.

What to Expect


Crowds. Lots of them. And don’t expect parking – it’s practically non-existent in downtown Austin anyway, and definitely not during a huge festival like this. Hotels provide shuttles, much of the area is walkable or on a bus route, bikes are big in Austin, and there are always companies like car2go. Allow plenty of extra time for getting to your panel or event, getting through queues to get inside, and navigating the crowded streets and venues. And, wear comfortable shoes.


Opening Party | A Survival Guide to Austin's SXSW Festival

SXSW Interactive Opening Party Presented by frog design © JoJo Marion


Also expect an incredibly well organized event with many top name performers, presenters, and movers and shakers from all over the world in attendance. It’s a great place to network, which is in fact a prime reason why many people attend. The expos and exhibitor markets should not be overlooked, and remember that there will be plenty of people around who aren’t official SXSW badge-holders, there for the free shows and unofficial events that surround the festival.


Choosing Your Music Concerts


As mentioned, there are both the official as well as dozens of unofficial live music shows during SXSW. For the after-parties and other non-official performances, you usually must RSVP even if the event is free. Planning and getting on the guest list in advance is vital for most shows.


Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids | A Survival Guide to Austin's SXSW Festival

Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids © Jason Kempin


It also makes sense to focus on lesser known, up-and-coming performers. Think twice about attending the biggest shows for well-known musicians and bands, and keep in mind that the crowds will be the worst for these events. And, that sort of defeats the original purpose of SXSW, which was to discover new bands. When you go to the smaller shows that are generating buzz, you may be first in line to hear the new Vampire Weekend. Nearly 2,000 bands are registered to play, so there are lots of different acts to choose from.


Pack the Essentials


You want to have a well-prepared bag with you during your days at SXSW – and one that zips or closes well. The event is safe, with very little crime, but crowds always bring pickpockets when there’s easy access. Austin can be very warm and sunny in March, so bring sun cream and plenty of water; a big bottle should do it, as there are numerous refill stations and most venues will let you bring in a bottle (which beats paying $5 a time).


Cory Booker | A Survival Guide to Austin's SXSW Festival

The New Media Politician, Featured Speaker Cory Booker (Mayor, Newark NJ) © Amanda Stronza


Of course, most everyone will have their smart phones, tablets and cameras – and make sure you have your chargers and extra batteries with you. Mobile charging devices are set up in many locations; take advantage of them when there’s a free outlet. Lots of events have scan codes and hash tags, which makes enjoying and sharing your experience easier and more fun – and you can keep up with the latest events as they’re added.


Absolutely make sure to have your I.D. on you at all times, and bring plenty of cash. Many vendors only accept cash, and the portable ATM fees are outrageous. Don’t count on being able to use plastic, but keep that cash stored in a safe place or two.


Buy a Film Pass


Closing Night Film | The East | A Survival Guide to Austin's SXSW Festival

Zal Batmanglij, Ellen Page, Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard at Closing Night Film The East © Michael Buckner


Many people, both badge-holders or not, opt out of the music wristband because there are so many free shows to be had, and many of them by the same acts that play the official SXSW shows. But the films are another story. At $80, a film pass is definitely worth it, especially since each film is about $10. Many films screen several times, and lines usually get shorter in the second half of the festival. Passes can be bought at Alamo Drafthouse and Waterloo Records, but keep in mind that SXSW badge-holders get priority entrance and the pass holders are admitted second.


Do Some Good


The SXSW Festival is unveiling a new initiative for 2014, the Social Good Hub. Building on its theme of cultivating creativity and innovation, doing so to bring about social change is the focus of the Social Good Hub.


Music Gear Expo | A Survival Guide to Austin's SXSW Festival

Music Gear Expo © Merrick Ales


Events are being held at two downtown locations and are presented by the United Nations Foundation and Aimed at bringing together entrepreneurs, digital creatives, filmmakers and other attendees to improve our communities, the Social Good Hub will feature presentations, mentor sessions, group discussions and networking.


See Some of Austin


Austin | A Survival Guide to Austin's SXSW Festival

Get out and see some of Austin © CleftClips/flickr


This can be a bit tricky, since there is so much going on at the festival and it often seems hard to fit it all in as it is. But if you’ve never been to Austin before, it would be a shame to not get out of the downtown world and see a little more of what weird Austin has to offer – even if it’s just for one day or a few hours. Head off across the bridge to check out Zilker Park and Barton Springs Pool, and venture farther into the East Side to experience one of Austin’s hippest, most happening neighbourhoods.


Festival Highlights


Q&A Session | A Survival Guide to Austin's SXSW Festival

Much Ado About Much Ado Panel with Joss Whedon and cast © Hutton Supancic


While there are literally thousands of acts and events to catch, some inevitably attract more hype than others. Girls lovers are guaranteed to turn out in force for Lena Dunham’s keynote speech, while a Q&A with Wes Anderson (and a screening of his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is sure to be swarmed. On the music side, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp will give a talk on songwriting (a documentary on Pulp’s last show, Sheffield: Sex City will also make its premiere), while artists ranging from hardcore rap group Mobb Deep and laptop electronic act East India Youth to up-and-coming folk star Angel Olsen and trip hop trio London Grammar have been garnering heaps of publicity.


Header photo © Ben Ramirez/flickr



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Do you have any tips to add to our guide to SXSW festival. Share your recommendations with us in the comments below.


Written by Shelly Seale


Shelley Seale

Shelley Seale is a professional freelance writer, editor and author based out of cool and creative Austin, Texas. When not there, she can be found vagabonding in any part of the world whenever possible. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, CNN, The Guardian, The New York Daily News, Yahoo and Travel+Escape, among others; and is also the author or a contributing author of six books.

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