(Baby me on 6th Street, St. Patrick's Day, during my 2nd SXSW in 2006. This guy was just hanging out, sitting on the curb and I asked for a picture. Keep Austin Weird, indeed. By the same time a year later, I would be an Austinite myself!)
I like to joke that South By is my favorite holiday. Despite the traffic and noise, to me it's always been the most wonderful time of the year. While I won't pretend to be an expert at all, I've got a total of six years of SXSW under my belt (two as a visitor and four as an Austin resident) and I think I've picked up a few things along the way.
1. HAVE A PLAN (AND A PLAN B AND C AND...)
Whether you have a badge, wristband or you're completely winging it, I cannot overstate the importance of having a set schedule AND a backup plan (or two or three), if need be. Nothing is worse than getting to a showcase or party that you had your heart set on and realizing that the venue is at capacity, there's a line around the block and no one is getting in, not even if they have a fancy badge they paid good money for. If you underestimated the turnout and didn't have another event in mind, utilize your smartphone to access sites like Do512 and Show List Austin or download the official SXSW app to find out what is going nearby if you get shut out. There's nothing worse than standing around wasting time standing around trying to figure out what you're going to do when you could actually be doing something (I know this from past experience)!
More than likely, the artists you want to see are going to be playing several shows throughout the week (most will play at least 3-4, some insane ones' performance count will creep into the double digits). If you have a badge or wristband, find out which of your favorites are playing day parties and prioritize. Do you want to get up early to see them perform at noon with a decidedly smaller crowd in a more intimate setting (maybe you'll even have a chance to talk to them before or after their set!) or do you want to try your luck waiting in line to see them at a small, packed venue that will fill up quickly? Do you want to see your favorite local band that you can see several times a month or do you want to see a band from Iceland that maybe never come back to the U.S., let alone Austin, again? Only you can make the best choices for yourself but it helps to think about how you want to get the most out of your SX experience.
That said, if you're more of the "go with the flow" type or find yourself with a free block of time between events, allow yourself to simply wander and discover new music you wouldn't otherwise have found out about. That's the true spirit of SXSW!
2. WEAR LAYERS
Mid-March is Central Texas is one of the most beautiful times of the year. I can only imagine to how nice it is to people who are visiting from parts of the country (and the world) where the ground is just now starting to thaw (actually, I can, being from the Midwest). It's (usually) sunny and warm (mid-70s to low 80s) during the day, so it can be tempting to prematurely bust out the sundresses, shorts and sandals. At night it cools off significantly (sometimes as much as 30 degrees in a few hours) so I've learned to utilize layers. Check the weather before you set out for the day. If you feel you'll need it, carry a lightweight jacket or cardigan with you and/or bring a pair of leggings you can put on under your dress or shorts when the temperature drops. Boots look good with anything (it is Texas, after all) and you won't have to worry about cold toes. And if you're staying in close proximity to downtown, there's no shame in going back to your hotel/crash pad for a costume change after sunset.
3. BRING A BAG
Some people may complain about how commercialized SX has become these days, what with the many, many sponsorships that make the official festival (and the unofficial events that pop up around it) a success but you know what else having all those sponsors means? TONS OF FREE STUFF. Now only is there swag to be had, such as free magazines, t-shirts, foods, drinks (more on that later) and other crap you probably won't even look at after SX is over, but tons of bands and their street teams are pounding the pavement giving away promo CDs and other items. Not to mention, if you see one of your favorite bands or discover a new one and you may want to support them by buying some merch. It's hard to carry around a bunch of tchotchkes
4. HAND SANITIZER/WET WIPES
At some point in the week, you're going to have to use a Porta-Potty or bathroom that's seen so much constant traffic that the (very busy) staff or (very wasted) tenant/homeowner couldn't adequately keep it clean if they tried. By the time you feel the call of nature, the soap dispenser might have run dry and the toilet paper and paper towels have gone MIA (if there were any of these items to begin with at all). Some people might argue that I'm being too germaphobic and that hand sanitizer isn't really that effective. To that I say that I feel better putting something on my hands after having to use a grimy bathroom than nothing at all (especially prior to eating). Not to mention, whenever I've offered a squirt to someone post-using facilities during the festivities, no one's ever turned it down!
5. PACE YOURSELF/HYDRATE
Again, one of the best parts about SX experience is all the free goodies. After you turn 21, you get to take full advantage of the wonders of day drinking (if you're into that sort of thing) for free. I attended two tortuous SXSW festivals before I turned 21 (the fact that I couldn't get into some venues was more annoying than not being allowed drink, honestly). When it finally happens, it can seem like it's too good to be true, so you should get as much as you can before it goes away. Believe me, the free booze flows like water for ten glorious days in Austin, there is no need to rush. The worst thing to do would be to lose a whole night of seeing bands and partying because you passed out before 5 p.m. due to overdoing it at an open bar. Make sure you're putting something in your stomach regularly and drink lots of water. You'll be getting the most out of your experience and your body will thank you for it! I also believe there's no shame in taking a day or evening off in the middle of the fest to recuperate, if you're not missing anything vital.
6. TIP YOUR SERVERS/BARTENDERS/FOOD TRUCK STAFF
Finally, the service industry folks of Austin work hard, just on a normal day. But during SXSW, they have to step it up to a superhuman degree, serving dozens or even hundreds of people at a time, as quickly as possible. Please be kind and tip generously if you get great and (relatively) fast service, especially if you're at an event with an open bar and/or serving complimentary food. This town loves to eat and drink so it's in our best interests keep to our brave and hardworking friends behind the counter happy!
I've already rambled far too much. What am I even doing? I should be resting up for what is sure to be a crazy next 10 days. Have a safe and happy SXSW, y'all!