Thursday, March 31, 2011

SXSW for Dummies and Newbies

I’m sure you’re probably still reading my last post on SXSW and so are probably SO STOKED for next SXSW. Maybe you’re already making plans, I don’t know, I’m not you. Or maybe you’re over it already; SXSW was so two weeks ago. But before the bloom is completely off the rose, I’d like to take the opportunity to share with you some hard-earned tips for surviving SXSW in its current incarnation. (And I won’t lie to you, mostly I want to post this now so that I can link back to it next year…)

Think of it as a sort of beginners guide to SXSW: for beginners, by beginners (I’m no jaded veteran, this was my first SXSW and I’ll be the first to tell you how incredible and how daunting it is)

The usual recommendations? They apply.
Drink Water – I mean, let’s be logical here. You’ll be walking around, standing around, in the sun, drinking. You will get dehydrated. Not all venues will let you bring in a water bottle, but you have access to water everywhere. Take advantage of that access.

Use Sunscreen – Protect your snow-white winter skin, the sun is damn unforgiving. Don’t let sunburn ruin your week-long bacchanalia. And this applies to performers too. You know who you are. I saw you; you were lobster red and looked REALLY uncomfortable.

Stock up on Food – I don’t care if you live here or if you’re renting or at a hotel. Make sure you stockpile good, healthy food before SXSW begins. While there is a TON of free food during SXSW, tacos and beer aren’t going to sustain you for a whole week, you’re not going to want to take a break to go to the store, and you’re going to need all the energy you can get. Eat your veggies. On a similar note,

Take Your Vitamins/Meds – vitamin B, iron, vitamin C, midol, whatever. Know what you need and take it. Got a headache? Take aspirin, A.S.A.P. Heartburn? Find some Tums. Don’t try to play through the pain, it’s not worth it. Take care of your body and it’ll take care of you (or at least you’ll have less of a chance of collapsing from exhaustion and missing something awesome).

Have a Bike – Seriously, if you are anywhere within biking distance of downtown, have a bike. Parking is near-impossible and, while public transportation rocks, biking gives you more control over where you go and when. Plus it makes travel time faster and gives your tired tootsies a much needed rest.

Be Comfortable – I don’t really care what this means to you. If being comfortable means wearing loose clothes that you can move in, wear those. If being comfortable means looking awesome, do that. If you will be most comfortable in running shoes, wear them. If you’ll just feel better wearing sandals, wear sandals. You know you. You’ll be out for most of the day so if you are wearing something that doesn’t make you happy, you’ll spend more time thinking about how much you hate what you are wearing than you do enjoying the moment.

Get Up Early – I found this impossible, but then again, I can’t wake up before 11 on a normal day. But SO MUCH good stuff goes on before 1pm during SXSW, like panels (if you have a badge or can get around security) or day parties with free bloody marys and/or mimosas. If you’ve got a badge* you can chill out on beanbag chairs in the convention center in dimly lit rooms listening to bands perform. If you haven’t got a badge, you can chill out on benches in dimly lit bars listening to bands perform. Plus: day drinking. And I’ll tell you a secret: the best part of the fun is shuffling around in sunglasses, hung-over as hell, just like all of the other rock stars.

Wear Sunglasses – See above. Plus, all the cool kids are doing it.

Have an iProduct – or some sort of a smart phone. Besides being the way of the world, constantly being connected to the internet means you’ll be one of the first to know about secret shows, surprise performers, sudden parties and free food via email and twitter updates, PLUS you’ll be able to locate any venue or R.S.V.P. to any day party whenever you want to. If you needed more convincing, there’s an app for that. It allows you to search for bands by genre, check the official schedule and make your own schedule, so you’ll never end up at the wrong show or, you know, lost. Just try not to lose your iProduct.

Take a Nap – Absolutely crucial. You don’t actually have to nap, but you are going to need a break and if you don’t take this into account you may end up taking said break without meaning to. You may take your break wherever you want, whether this means heading back to home base, or passing out in a dark corner of a bar, one of the lounges, or against a tree in the park. Heck, you don’t even have to sleep if you don’t want to. Sometimes just finding a bar without a show or party going on, sitting on the fringes and having a drink in peace is enough to recharge your battery. Because honey, it’s gonna be a long night.

Don’t forget the Eastside – I have a feeling that out-of-towners and beginners tend to miss out on the Eastside. I know I almost did. There is just so much to do around the Convention Center and on 6th street, and I’m talking a mind-boggling amount of things to do and places to go, that making it ALL the way over on the other side of I-35 (it’s not really that far) can be daunting. But there is just as much to do on the Eastside and more of it is free. Plus, because there are far fewer official events, there’s a more laid-back feel and less pressure to see this band or that band. It felt more like an endless summer and less like a week-and-a-half-long event.

Be Flexible – You can think of SXSW as one of those choose your own adventure books. Are you going to make a detailed itinerary or wing it? Is it all about the shows for you or are they more of an excuse to escape normal life and party like there’s no tomorrow for a week and a half? Obviously, there are going to be things that you’re going to want to do and see, but the bottom line is, you’re going to have to be flexible. Because SXSW isn’t like any other festival. It isn’t a giant concert; it’s a giant clusterfuck. It doesn’t span three days and three or even eight stages in a giant field. It spans a week and a half, an entire city and includes an overwhelming number of performers. There is absolutely no way to exactly control your experience. You don’t know, your two favorite bands could be scheduled at the same time on opposite sides of the city. So I found it was better to just let go, drift and enjoy the experience.
If there is a show that you absolutely have to see or you’ll just die, get there an hour early. Sure, you’ll spend an hour standing in line when you could be living it up elsewhere, but the venues are small and reach capacity quickly. If you have to see this band, you stand a much better chance if you’re first in line than if you show up 5 minutes after the set has started (when you will be S.O.L.). But the good news is that many bands play multiple shows. And don’t forget the day shows. I missed out on a few bands because I couldn’t make their night shows and couldn’t get up in time to catch them during the day.
Obviously, it’s your adventure. I’m not you. I can’t tell you how to best figure out what to do with your time. For my part? I found that the way to enjoy SXSW was to forget about seeing bands I knew or loved. If I ended up at their show, great, awesome. But if not, I know I’d be willing to pay to see them at some other time. Instead, I went through the WHOLE schedule and made a list of bands that I thought looked interesting or that were playing at venues, where they were playing and at what times. That way, if I ever ended up without something to do, I’d be able find something close and interesting that I knew I’d enjoy. And if I didn’t make it to their shows, it wasn’t the end of the world and at least I’d found new music to listen to. But for the most part, I tried to not stress about the shows. I tried instead to focus on just existing in SXSW, that fascinating drunken world unto itself. I focused on surviving. Aaaaand sometimes I just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

*(NOTE - Badges vs. wristbands vs. nothing: There are pros and cons for each. Badges give you priority for shows, access to panels and lounges in the Convention Center and other such perks, but they’re expensive and I have a feeling you can end up skipping the free stuff because you have the badge and want your money’s worth. On the flip side, you could just not buy anything, miss out on the big-name bands in small venues, but instead focus on the (often free) fringe and unofficial events which are just as awesome, if not more so. And then wristbands are right in the middle there, because they cost less than badges you only get second priority and it can be frustrating when you pay for a wristband, but still can’t get into a show because the venue has reached capacity and badges get priority. Also, wristbands don’t get you into the lounges and panels.)

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