By Jessica Galliart
2:36 AM CST, March 8, 2012
Can you get into shows without the pricey badge? How can I catch a cab? All the hotel rooms are booked--what do I do?
If you're a SXSW newbie or are considering planning ahead for next year, there are a few things you should know before heading down to Austin, Texas, for the annual music fest. RedEye talked to Chicagoans who have made the trek a few times for some tips, advice and background on everything you need to know to survive the week-long adventure.
Gino Pennacchio, Manager of Chicago bands Gemini Club and Hey Champ
Neph Basedow, Music Writer at Houston Press and former Chicagoan
Jim Kopeny, Senior Editor A&E at Chicagoist
Andy Keil, Head 'Stache at Pop 'stache
Veronica Murtagh, Founder and Editor at CreamTeam.TV
Is it better to drive or fly?
I recommend driving. Flights to and from Austin are too expensive, and having your own car for an entire week is convenient, especially if you don’t have a hotel downtown. Also, such a long drive (23 hours) makes the whole trip feel like an adventure. –Gino Pennacchio
Between Chicago and Austin? Flying. Check Dallas and Houston airports too, for cheaper fares, if you might know of other fest-goers already driving to/from Austin. Definitely not train-- no good train system in Austin. –Neph Basedow
Flying is the only way to go. Unless you're in a band. In that case rent a bus. Because of course you're rolling in disposable income like that. –Jim Kopeny
The first year I flew but that’s rather expensive, especially last minute. I prefer to drive. Road trips give me time to listen to records that I need to catch up on and having a car makes getting around to the house parties a lot easier and cheaper. –Andy Keil
If you have the time and a group of interested friends a road trip can be fun and save money, but I don't drive and prefer to get there and back in the shortest amount of time so flying is my preferred travel method. –Veronica Murtagh
Any advice for going the road trip route?
The first time we drove down to Austin, it was a nightmare. We had the very ambitious idea to drive from Chicago to Austin without taking a lengthy break. Just a straight shot to Austin. We woke up at 5am on Sunday, and didn’t get into Austin until 3am on Monday. To say we were happy to arrive at our destination would be a drastic understatement.
I will warn people who are driving, to be careful when driving through Dallas. None of us had ever driven through it, and it is a confusing process at times. You need to follow this very specific path on the highway to get through and off to Austin that results in having to make several really quick driving decisions. We didn’t enjoy it. –Gino Pennacchio
I’ve road tripped to Austin a number of times but I’m generally of the camp that drives straight through instead of seeing the sights. Having multiple drivers is definitely a HUGE plus though as the drive is 16 hours. –Andy Keil
What’s the situation on booking a hotel room downtown?
If anyone is currently looking for a hotel in Austin that’s walking distance from 6th street, good luck. Hotels in Austin start booking rooms for SXSW in July, 8 months in advance. –Gino Pennacchio
The four years I lived in Chicago, I flew to Texas and stayed with my parents and/or friends during SXSW. During those years, one might think I lucked out with friends and family there, but I secretly always envied my Chicago friends, most of whom booked hotel rooms in far advance. If your company isn't picking up the bill, you pay ungodly amounts, but I think staying downtown during the festival is worth that price for out-of-towners. –Neph Basedow
Reserve a hotel room shortly after the previous year's festival ends. Seriously though, if you don't have a room a few months out then you're not going to be staying anywhere near the downtown area. You'll be staying by the airport. Or in San Antonio. –Jim Kopeny
Finding a place to stay is the most frustrating aspect of SXSW. If you don't plan to buy a badge then staying downtown is probably not going to happen. The hotels downtown are blacked out for badgeholders. –Veronica Murtagh
If a downtown hotel isn’t an option, what’s the best way to go about getting a place to stay?
Nowadays, social media (via trusted friends/networks) is advantageous. Word of mouth, and booking a hotel far, far, as in many months in advance. –Neph Basedow
At this point, Craigslist can be slim pickings and AirBNB can be pretty expensive. I actually found a place to stay last year by asking a question on Quora. If you don’t have friends to stay with or people to throw in on renting a house, stay in a hotel outside of downtown and rely on the shuttle that runs every 15-30 minutes. It runs until the wee hours of the morning and is only like $40. –Andy Keil
The hotels outside downtown are accessible to all and generally much cheaper. However, you won't be able to walk to downtown and will need to buy a shuttle pass. Renting a house with friends is a great option but they go quickly and you will need to figure out transportation logistics. Whatever you choose, start early is my advice. –Veronica Murtagh
Is Austin a walkable town?
Definitely. With the exception of a few select parties, everything is in walking distance. –Gino Pennacchio
Mostly. Shows and events are dispersed mostly between central, East and South Austin (S. Congress). It's about a mile or mile-and-a-half walk to and from everywhere; for Chicago and New York dwellers, it's a cinch. Texans, however, bitch about the walk. –Neph Basedow
Absolutely. Built for walking. And great to walk around! –Jim Kopeny
The majority of the showcases are located downtown and it's very walkable with something going on through every door. –Veronica Murtagh
What’s the cab situation like? Is it easy to catch one if you’re not staying downtown?
During the night, no you cannot. Gordon (of Gemini Club) found this out the hard way. He couldn’t find a cab late one night, and his cell phone was dead so he couldn’t reach us, and he ended up sleeping on the steps of the Capital Building of Austin, only to wake up to a bunch of people in business suits walking past him to go to work. Just this non-U.S. citizen sleeping on the steps of the Capital Building. I love that story. –Gino Pennacchio
You'll enjoy the festival-- and life, in general-- less without staying at least near downtown. –Neph Basedow
There’s cabs and pedi-cabs which aren’t difficult to track down, especially during the festival. –Andy Keil
A shuttle bus services most of the outlying hotels (you will need to buy a pass). During the daytime it's an easy, convenient method of transportation, but come 2am it's a different beast entirely. Shuttle service ends around the same time the evening showcases wind down and the nightly drunken, exhausted rush for too few seats begins. Everyone eventually gets back to their hotel, but you may have to wait through ten full buses before it's your turn. Skipping the last couple bands of the night is your best bet at a quick shuttle ride to your bed. –Veronica Murtagh
Is it worth it to rent a bike?
You don’t need a bike – in fact, I would discourage one from getting a bike. Some friends of mine rented bikes last year, and they were complaining about how much of a pain it was to bike around the city with so many people walking the streets. –Gino Pennacchio
[If you’re not staying downtown], yes. Rent a bike. Traffic is awful and cabs are impossible. Wear SUPER comfortable shoes. –Jim Kopeny
You’ll find that you’re a lot more comfortable (and less sore) if you have a bike/skateboard or some other means of transportation. Alternate transportation also opens up the possibility of non-6th street or Red River venues, which are generally a lot more interesting and showcase more of what the festival was in the beginning. –Andy Keil
What’s the weather usually like?
There wasn’t a point in either of my trips to Austin where I thought it was cold. A lot of people were just fine in plain t-shirts. –Gino Pennacchio
Two years ago, Austin had this freakishly cold 2-day run right during SXSW. It was in the 30s. Usually, it will not be cold-- 60s or 70s at night, 80s during the day. (To Chicagoans? SXSW is Spring Break.) –Neph Basedow
It can get chilly at night but you'll be so drunk you won't notice it. Unless you don't drink. In that case have some brisket and the meat sweats will keep you warm. –Jim Kopeny
This can be a toss up. The first year was 60s-ish and then got really cold on Sunday, maybe 40 degrees? Last year was generally warm and we were in shorts and short sleeves most of the time. I’d say jeans are the most comfortable option and most versatile. Definitely bring a sweatshirt and layer. Bonus points if you bring a bag to store the sweatshirt if it’s hot. Generally gets chilly at night. –Andy Keil
Start checking the local weather now. Austin will probably be sunny, warm and amazing. But it might be raining and unseasonably cold. Bring t-shirts and shorts. Also bring a jacket and jeans. –Veronica Murtagh
How many people can you expect to see walking around downtown?
Low tens of thousands during the day. Much, much more during the night. During the night the streets are packed, and you can easily lose your friends even if you’re walking a couple feet away from them. Walking on 6th street on Friday night with a group of people larger than 4 can result in several stops to simply regroup. –Gino Pennacchio
Thousands? Millions? I'm not good with numbers, or I wouldn't be going to a music festival every year. –Neph Basedow
After dark? If you're in hurry at all, avoid 6th Street and walk down streets parallel to it. If you think Lollapalooza gets packed you ain't seen nothing. Day time's a little less congested but you'll either be at day parties or sleeping (or at the convention center if you have a pass) so you don't need to worry about that. –Jim Kopeny
I saw a stat a while back that the population of Austin almost doubles during the festival? That might be wrong but it was a pretty amazing number. I would equate it to a busy day at Taste of Chicago? Blocked off streets full of mobs of people. It gets worse after the sun goes down and people hitting the bars mix with the music goers. –Andy Keil
Theme park by day, Mardi Gras by night. –Veronica Murtagh
Any tips on how to stay in touch with friends when you split up?
Always text. Calling someone will only drain the battery life of your phone. –Gino Pennacchio
I try to plan the parties and shows I'm going to and/or covering in advance. Twitter, Four Square and other social networks and check-in methods come in great handy during fests like SXSW as well. –Neph Basedow
Why hook up with your friends? Meet new people! And texting is night impossible unless AT&T brings in mobile towers again. –Jim Kopeny
Texting is definitely the easiest. Twitter can be pretty easy as well, especially if you setup a hashtag for your group of friends where people can just post the venues they’re currently at without having to mass text. Reception is pretty good throughout downtown and most bars have open wifi. –Andy Keil
It's more about where you meet up with your friends than how you connect. Trying to meet up inside a venue of several hundred people is a frustrating game of hide-and-go-seek. You'll end up spending all of your time looking for your friends and none of it listening to the music. Meet up at your hotel, on the street, or at a restaurant then head out to the shows together. But don't let meet-ups dictate your day. At some point your phone will die. Don't run back to the hotel screaming. Take it as an opportunity for some solo time and to meet new people. –Veronica Murtagh
What Twitter accounts, websites or other resources do you recommend following for SXSW info?
Follow @SXSWPartyList – they are my go-to for any SXSW Showcase-related announcements. I also would strongly encourage people to check out Oh My Rockness’s SXSW page… they list out each show, and include the link to the RSVP if they are available. –Gino Pennacchio
austinist.com and donewaiting.com/category/sxsw/ -Jim Kopeny
Do512 is the best source for parties. Almost EVERYONE uses it and it’s easy to setup an account and start RSVP’ing. –Andy Keil
Twitter and Facebook can both be good auxiliary resources for event info. There are a few comprehensive sites though that will serve you well. The main SXSW site makes it easy to browse the official events and create a schedule. Oh My Rockness tirelessly compiles the unofficial showcases, and Sched is a site/app that covers everything. Local Austin site Do512 is another to add to your bookmarks. –Veronica Murtagh
What’s the free booze/grub situation like?
Finding free booze at a day party in SXSW is as easy as finding music. A lot of parties offer drinks during the entire day – typically from Noon to 8PM. When night time hits, you won’t be so fortunate – but there still are a few places I remember that served up free drinks well into the AM hours. –Gino Pennacchio
Day-parties seem to offer the most free food/beer specials. Showcases and evening shows less frequently. Check @SouthByFreeNoms, which is a handle specifically for those searching for free grub. –Neph Basedow
Since the official showcases are at night, there’s tons of day parties going on throughout the day which is where you can find the free booze/free food. –Andy Keil
If you pay for drinks then you're simply not looking hard enough. –Jim Kopeny
The bigger the showcase the more likely it is the booze will be free. Open bar is big selling point and will be promoted on event flyers/RSVP sites. –Veronica Murtagh
Is everything comparable to Chicago, price-wise?
Well, this used to be an easy answer: Prices will be much cheaper. That is still true (Tito's and Lone Stars aren't hipster commodities in Texas; that helps), but in the past few years, Austin has changed and grown, and prices have rose accordingly. Now, it's nearly comparable to Chicago. –Neph Basedow
Are these “trailer park eateries” really worth checking out?
Yes. The S. Congress park and East side park, in particular. –Neph Basedow
Where should you eat?!
I can't just list one. East Side King food-truck at The Liberty and The Grackle, on the East side. Best Wurst is also great (but heavy) street grub. Many out-of-towners (with a rental car) with a penchant for authentic Texas BBQ will appreciate making the trek to the Salt Lick. –Neph Basedow
Hut's on 6th Street. It's a bit of a hike but totally worth it! –Jim Kopeny
TACOS! Get them. Torche’s is the [bleeping] best. You think Big Star is good and then you eat Torche’s. –Andy Keil
As many tacos as possible. –Veronica Murtagh
Can’t afford a badge or a wristband. Am I screwed?
Not at all. I always tell people that you do not need to have a badge or wristband to have a good time at SXSW. A lot of the official artists are playing unofficial showcases anyways, so you can still catch them playing a show in Austin that doesn’t require you to have a badge. –Gino Pennacchio
No. There are many handles to check out for the wristband-less. Badges are kind of meaningless these days, too. –Neph Basedow
Not any more, but you will be mostly limited to free shows and non-"official" SXSW parties. If you are going to a show though, go later. Lines tend to disappear as the night goes on. –Jim Kopeny
Definitely not. We took 8 photographers down last year and none of us paid for a wristband or a badge. We all had unique amazing experiences that we wouldn’t have gotten with official credentials. You get turned away but avoiding “official” is very rewarding in Austin. –Andy Keil
During the daytime there's countless unofficial events going on that are open to anyone and free. You will have no shortage of things to do. You will want to research your evening options in advance. Many of the official events are open to the public, but are first come, first serve with priority given to badges and wristbands. It will be in your best interest to locate the unofficial events and smaller showcases. Otherwise, you run the risk of wasting every night in a several hour line that hits capacity long before you've entered the doors. –Veronica Murtagh
It looks like most of the shows are in the evening. What do you do during the day?
Unofficial Music showcases typically start at Noon, and can last until 2am, or sometimes even later. Official Music showcases start at 8pm and last until 2am. There is so much going on during the day, so many great bands to catch, that you will find yourself wanting to be at multiple places at once, all the time. –Gino Pennacchio
Go to day-parties, get day-drunk, have day-fun. –Neph Basedow
There are shows literally 24/7. But there's also brunch. Oh, and the convention hall if you have a badge. –Jim Kopeny
DRINK. Meet people. Eat. I generally use the day to nurse the following night’s hangover and figure out a plan of attack for when the sun goes down. Getting out into nature is another great way if your head can handle the bright sunlight, ha. –Andy Keil
It's a misconception that all the action at SXSW happens during the night hours. If you're sleeping in late, you're missing the best SXSW has to offer. The daytime is a great opportunity to get some sun, meet up with friends and check out the unofficial showcases. You'll quickly discover the lines are shorter, there's just as many open bars and it's most of the same bands playing. –Veronica Murtagh
Which showcases and parties are musts?
For best bets – first and foremost would be RSVPing for Fader Fort. It’s a huge party from 1-8pm. Their music lineup is always fantastic, and the drinks are not only free the entire day, but pretty good as well. I always set Fader Fort as ‘home base’ whenever I need to regroup. –Gino Pennacchio
I am partial to Bloodshot's (Chicago!) annual SXSW day-party, at Yard Dog. Their showcase at the Red Eyed Fly is always fun too. –Neph Basedow
Fader Fort always has a great lineup and Mohawk is almost always packed but it really depends on the day. I would never suggest hanging out at a single party and the benefit of 6th street and Red River is you can hit 4-5 different parties in an hour and catch some really great music. –Andy Keil
The best parties always end up being the ones you wander into by mistake. The FADER FORT, Mess With Texas and The Hype Machine regularly present large multi-day events that are are safe bets for catching a wide variety of acts with a single RSVP. –Veronica Murtagh
How much should you plan ahead, schedule-wise?
RSVP to everything. You never know where you will end up going. Make plans, but don’t expect to hold yourself to them. There is so much going on and happening that you might spend an entire day doing things that weren’t part of your original itinerary. –Gino Pennacchio
RSVP to everything. If you end up fitting something in your schedule, great. If not, no worries. The open bars fill up quick and generally run out of booze in an hour. Word of mouth is the best way to find the happening places. Pick someone who looks like they know what they’re doing and ask where they’re going throughout the weekend. –Andy Keil
Am I going to see celebrities and bands just walking around downtown?
Literally thousands of bands drive into Austin for SXSW. They will be walking amongst the crowd just like everyone else. It is not like Lollapalooza at all – SXSW is gigantic block party where almost everywhere you go there is a live performance going on. –Gino Pennacchio
SXSW is not like Lollaplooza with designated VIP areas (they exist, but are less prevalent/noticed). You'll see musicians and celebrities. –Neph Basedow
Everyone mingles. It's awesome. Some of the parties have VIP scenes but if you're at a party like that you're probably not getting the most out of SXSW. –Jim Kopeny
Absolutely. There is nothing VIP at SXSW except maybe the conference area. You’ll see artist loading gear, waiting in line for food, and definitely getting hammered so be prepared to meet your idols. –Andy Keil
Due to the nature of SXSW you will see musicians everywhere; in your hotel, on the streets, loading in and out of the venues. It's a great place for people and musician watching. –Veronica Murtagh
This one night when Gordon and I hopped into a van with the guys from Art Vs. Science and Miami Horror, and drove far out of Austin – to a mall. It was 1am, and we end up walking into this closed building – imagine walking into Woodfield Mall with all of the lights out – passing by all these closed up shops, but you just hear this thumping kick drum. As we were walking, it just kept getting louder and louder… and then suddenly someone opens this door and there is this HUGE party and Flosstradamus is on stage in the middle of a killer set. That, was a fun party. –Gino Pennacchio
That one in an old Buick dealership where I was chasing Janeane Garafolo around trying to hit on her. And failing miserably. I still had fun though. –Jim Kopeny
On my first trip to SXSW I had some leftover posters from my showcase to get back home. The hotel had FedEx service but it was pickup/dropoff only. I had spoken with the front desk to have the package sent ground delivery. The front desk instead sent my heavy box of posters overnight at a charge of nearly $500. I spent weeks trying to have the charges reversed with no success. I'm still mad about it. –Veronica Murtagh
WHAT I’M DOING AT SXSW 2012
For the past 5 years, I've told myself, "This will be your last year." And here I am. –Neph Basedow
My game plan is different from that of a concertgoer, because I have a job to do. Only after Gemini Club is done with their shows for the day do I relax. Most of GC’s shows this year are in the late hours so I’m kind of screwed. As it currently stands, they have an off day on Thursday, so I will be using that day to check out as many bands as I can. There are a ton of shows I want to see, but I’ll unfortunately have to pass on a good number of them. –Gino Pennacchio
I have a badge but still am not sure if I'm actually going to be able to get out of Chicago long enough to cover. I'm making a last-minute call in that area. –Jim Kopeny
I use SXSW as a way to relax and hang out with the people that I only get to talk with through email all year long. I don’t generally bust my ass to get to shows or lineup a TON of people to meet because that gets really hectic. The name of the game is great food, free booze, and the best music has to offer. –Andy Keil
I'm excited to do SXSW entirely on my own terms this year. I'm headed down solo with a hotel room to myself. I listen to a wide variety of music, so I'm planning to catch a bit of everything; electronic, hip-hop, rock. I'm most interested in seeking out acts I've not seen live before. Of course there will be plenty of tacos, margaritas and meet-ups with online friends. Oh and (shameless plug) myself and No Modest Bear will be presenting a daytime showcase on Friday, March 16 at Hype Machine's Hype Hotel. –Veronica Murtagh
ONE MAJOR PIECE OF ADVICE
Have your phone charger on you. Your cell phone will die, and it will die early. If you’re unprepared, the loss of your cell phone will set off a chain of events very similar to what we’ve come to find from a DIRECTV commercial. –Gino Pennachio
Hydrate. And eat as much brisket as you possibly can. –Jim Kopeny
Don’t get caught up in the “official.” Meet people and explore, you’ll be rewarded. –Andy Keil
Wear comfortable shoes. See some acts you've never heard of, you just might return home with a new favorite band. –Veronica Murtagh
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