[This story originally ran on Feb. 22, 2013, but still applies today.]
We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the Valentine's Day cards that got returned with no forwarding address is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how music fans could and should approach SXSW, the gigantic music festival held every March in Austin, Texas.
Laura Ann Klein writes: "How does a non-industry professional manage the big festivals like SXSW? Is it even possible for someone without a press badge to see the bigger names?"
For those who can't make it to the festival, we curate a chunk of it for enjoyment at home — and have already announced some of our programming for this year. But if you can get to Austin? Short answer, absolutely; it's totally doable. Long answer...
Even for music-industry professionals — which we'll define here as "People who got a hold of the festival's $795 badges" — SXSW is an exhausting and impossibly crowded swirl of logistics, lines and long hours. The badges make it much easier to breeze from club to club and graze on bits and pieces of individual sets in the pursuit of an epiphany, and that $795 laminate vastly improves your odds of getting into venues that are running at or near capacity. But even badges don't function as all-access passes, and the fire marshals in Austin mean business.
So, if you're not buying a badge, and no one else is going to buy you a badge, that leaves two options: wristbands (which generally run just shy of $200, are often scalped, and are only officially sold locally) and winging it with a small bit of cash on hand. Wristbands will keep you from paying cover charges and provide for more mobility if you're one to drift from venue to venue, while going without generally means picking one or two lower-profile lineups per night, showing up early and paying a cover. (Some venues/shows only allow badges and wristbands, so have a Plan Z.)
Of course, this only refers to the evening showcases, which usually run from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. All day each day, there are tons of free daytime parties sponsored by various media enterprises and corporate overlords, and many of those are available to the public — provided you're organized enough to RSVP online in advance and are patient enough to wait in line. (This is only part of the pre-SXSW cavalcade of preparation and logistics, which many of us at NPR Music are experiencing as I type this.) Some events require badges or wristbands; others will have you wait in line for a special event-specific wristband, creating a "waiting in line for a wristband guaranteeing you access to another line" effect that's very SXSW.
But all of that just boils down to levels of access. Once you're in Austin, and there are dozens of bands bashing hi-hats within earshot, and everything is swirling around you with that funny SXSW electricity, you face a dilemma that's absolutely universal: There's an awful lot you could be doing at any given moment. It is possible to have a SXSW where you're always doing something awesome, just as it's possible to have a SXSW where you're always waiting in line to do something that turns out to be a bore. No two experiences at the festival will ever be the same, because there are literally dozens of options to choose from for roughly 14 hours out of the day.
You could spend an entire festival attempting to focus only on metal, or bands from Asia, or places where free beer is served. You could, as some people do, use SXSW as an opportunity to latch onto a few new friends and float where they float. If you've got a nearby surface to sleep on, the endurance to stay on your feet for what feels like days at a time, and the flexibility to scrap all your carefully laid plans the moment you encounter an enticingly shiny object, you'll be fine! So come on down and say hello.