In a few days I'll travel to our state's capital city to take in my ninth South by Southwest music fest. Folks ask me why I still do it after eight years of lost sleep, over-scheduled days and marketing-fueled overstimulation.
My answer: Can't stop, won't stop. Addicted to the chase.
What you hear about the exhaustion brought by SXSW's music schedule is totally true: By the end of the four- or five-day frenzy, attendees find themselves moving like slugs and questioning everything. But the annual Austin extravaganza has given me some of my most memorable musical moments.
I've seen R.E.M., the Pretenders and Lady Gaga in the fairly intimate environs of Stubb's BBQ. I've watched a Midlake showcase segue into a surprise headlining performance by the Flaming Lips. I've taken in a Hold Steady show while nibbling on hors d'oeuvres conceived by Rachael Ray. Those only make a dent, but the good memories always outweigh the struggles.
Even if you can't shell out the bucks for an official SXSW badge or wristband, you can still see the best of the fest with a little research and planning. Since we're mere days away (the fest's music action kicks off March 17 and continues through March 22; see sxsw.com for all the details), here are some tips that might make your SXSW trip cheap and meaningful.
So you are going badgeless and bandless in Austin, but still want to see buzzy acts (TV on the Radio, Rae Sremmurd and Will Butler are a few among hundreds). While time is running out to R.S.V.P. to some of the hotter daytime events, you should still visit Showlist Austin (showlistaustin.com) and map out unofficial soirees that are free and accessible. Lots of sites list SXSW events, but this one is by far the most comprehensive and easiest to understand. The SXSW site has gotten in on the free-event action as well: If you visit sxsw.com/free you'll find lists of shows and panels that anyone can attend, including some killer outdoor lineups at Auditorium Shores.
I've taken in a Hold Steady show while nibbling on hors d'oeuvres conceived by Rachael Ray. Those only make a dent, but the good memories always outweigh the struggles.
Take this, not that
Once you have a list of targeted events and concerts saved, put them in your phone or in a notebook you can have with you at all times. The SXSW Go smartphone app also can help you make sense of your schedule, and it sends out notifications when things change or last-minute artists are added. Once you begin to explore Austin's music offerings, it'd be smart to wear sensible shoes (it's difficult to get a cab the later it gets, trust me on this), and store extra water, snacks, sunscreen and other essentials in a light backpack. Free your arms and pockets up, and you instantly improve your experience.
Know where you're going, but be flexible
Even if you've R.S.V.P.'d for the popular free day parties such as Spin's bash, the Fader Fort or the Spotify House, you might still be standing in significant lines to enter. Be flexible and don't freak out if you can't get to everything. Make a daily itinerary that won't have you zigzagging all over town. Try exploring a different area of Austin - preferably far away from the madness of Sixth Street - each day.
And hey, if you really want to make it easy on yourself, you can skip Austin altogether and catch SXSW acts who are stopping in North Texas before and after their shows down there.