9 Top Musicians and Insiders Share Their Expert SXSW Tips
South by Southwest (SXSW) kicks off this week with 10 days of revelry and buzz-worthy chaos to follow. The extensive lineup of acts—from music headliners to expert panels—can be tough to navigate. With such a diverse selection, taking it all in can be daunting for newcomers and seasoned veterans alike. We asked some of our favourite industry insiders for their best tips on keeping sane, enjoying the scene, and not missing a beat. Keep scrolling to find out what we learned!
Avoiding lines at the fest is impossible. Even with all the proper credentials and best guest-list posturing, you will undoubtedly be left waiting to get into certain venues. And be forewarned: The festival runs on volunteer help. Getting in anywhere is rarely turn-key.
“Basically, there is no civil way to avoid lines without looking like a huge prick,” editor-in-chief Pat McGuire of Flood Magazine tells us. “Suck it up, pick the one thing you really want to see each night and do it the old-fashioned way: Go early and fight for your place.”
Keep tabs on showcases hosted by your favourite label, blog or magazine. Odds are they will have stacked a lineup that promises to keep you settled and happy the whole day/night through. Drummer Jason Faries of Neon Indian, stands by his own: "You can never go wrong at the Fools Gold label parties, good people good times!" he says.
“Everyone tries to get into the high-profile ‘buzz’ parties, but I'd recommend at least one day of stumbling into random places with janky setups and a list of bands you've never heard of before,” says singer-songwriter Ryan Merchant of Capital Cities. “You might hear some crap, but you will also undoubtedly discover a new favourite artist.”
SXSW is the ultimate melting pot of marquee names and breakout acts. Wandering in and out of free showcases or lower-profile day shows can prove rewarding. Plus, it's a great way to explore the city and support up-and-coming artists.
Establishing a home base for some much needed R&R will be your saving grace after long days and even longer nights. Book well in advance. Accommodations in every corner of the town will sell out. Scoring a coveted spot at a boutique hotel is its own reward.
"Do all you can in your power to stay at Hotel St. Cecilia or Hotel San Jose. Both magical and rejuvenating to the Nth degree," singer-songwriter Joy Williams of The Civil Wars tells us. There’s nothing like some southern hospitality to keep one in good spirits.
During the SXSW, Austin’s public transit system, Capital Metro, offers a variety of options to squire you about town. Keep an eye out for free rides in the way of promotional services, such as the wildly popular “Catch-a-Chevy.”
Singer-songwriter Cary Brothers offers us his favourite commuter hack: “One of my favourite things at SXSW is the RVIP Karaoke Bus. The RVIP is kind of like a rolling bar from Tron. It circles around the action on 6th Street. If you have to walk all the way across town to a show, it’s much better to hop on the RVIP, have a cocktail, and sing your favourite tune before you jump off near your destination.”
“Hit East Austin to meet the locals,” urges stage manager Shane Timm of Bleachers. “Do not discard the creepy, hole-in-the-wall bars. You never know what killer music lies at the back.”
East Austin is host to a slew of food trucks and lower key venues you won’t want to miss. Jason Faries recommends Paul Qui’s infamous East Side King taco truck at Liberty Bar, while Joy Williams favours La Barbecue on East 1st Street for an authentic Texas fix.
Along with the exaggerated wait times, crowded city streets can make packing multiple showcases into a single day an exercise in futility. Prioritise the acts you want to see most and make peace with the fact that sacrifices will be made.
“I never try to run around and catch every show, especially if I’m playing with the band,” says drummer Justin Glasco of The Lone Bellow. “It’s a lot more fun when you are dealing with a reasonable pace. I spent my 30th birthday at SXSW and I’m sure that experience alone cost me a couple years off my life.”
Faries tells us, "In order to have a excellent time at SXSW, you need to have a steady diet of Gatorade and street tacos to soak up all the bad choices you made the night before.” Sage advice.
Haute street food and legendary BBQ joints are culinary godsends for staying on the go. Owner Nate Yetton of Sensibility Music vouches for the gourmet hot dogs at Frank on 4th Street, while KCRW DJ Chris Douridas and Glasco solidly endorse Franklin BBQ. “I will always make time for Franklin BBQ or Uchiko Sushi… or both!!” insists Glasco.
For those not partaking of the meat-centric diet, Shane Timm swears by these off-the-beaten-path gems: “If you’re a vegetarian like me, Counter Culture has my heart and will gladly hold yours tenderly. One must venture over to Super Burrito! When you walk in it seems like there must be some kind of mistake. Shortly after the first bite you realise you may have wandered into the best hole in the wall burrito joint in Austin.”
If you can spare a day to venture far from the maddening crowd, take advantage. An hour’s drive out of town you'll find beautiful hill country, iconic honky-tonks, and pure Texas sightseeing.
“Take a day trip to go inner tubing in the San Marcos river or catch a show in Luchenbach,” Chris Douridas tells us. “Late night deer feeding in New Braunfels is also surreal. Around 2 or 3 a.m. up to 100 deer roam the deserted streets.” He adds, “The offbeat shows at Willie Nelson’s ranch are typically the best SXSW has to offer—if you can get an invite.”
Once you’re really ready to get out of Dodge, Cary Brothers offers up one more helpful last minute tip: “Remember that there’s a Salt Lick BBQ in the Southwest terminal on your way home to help with that hangover.”
What buzz bands are you excited to see at SXSW? Tell us in the comments below.