Exactly How to do SXSW, from a 20 Year Vet

By Andrea McAlister

Editor’s Note: Andrea McAlister is an Austinite, lover of live music, and longtime friend of the blog. She dropped in to give us her best tips for surviving SXSW before hitting the streets for her twentieth year at the festival!

My first SXSW was in 1998. I was lucky enough to know Brent Grulke, the longtime SXSW Creative Director, and we would often share a pint as we got together a rough list of showcases to see for the music portion of the conference.

When it started back in 1987, South by Southwest was a music festival with about 700 attendees. Over the past 30 years, “South by” has grown to include film, interactive technology, comedy, and gaming. It’s now one of the largest music festivals in the world (as well as the craziest ten days of the year in Austin!) Most of my SX experiences were with a music wristband, but my tips are applicable to any part of the festival. Read on for my advice on how to survive SX in style:

image by racked

Don’t drive.

I moved to Austin 20 years ago, and two weeks later I attended my first SX. That first year, I drove all over town to see bands in bars, skate shops and galleries. I had no idea how lucky I was to find actual parking then. Austin has grown SO much and parking is a total nightmare now. We have all the ride shares and city buses, but the best way to do SX is by bike or on foot. You’ll stumble into more by taking a slower mode of transportation. If you aren’t comfortable on a bike, we have pedicabs which are super fun and everywhere during SX. A lot of people are distracted by their phones and the general chaos happening on the streets. Be careful! Austin police have been known to crack down on this during SX and they will ticket you for jaywalking.

image via vogue

Do make a plan but keep it loose.

The best things at SX are unplanned such as secret shows and movies, last minute invites to spontaneous parties, fun digital demos, and groovy tunes streaming into the street from a dress shop. My first 10 years, I planned everything from which bands I see to what I wanted to see at the convention center; and, of course, a stop at the Flatstock Poster Show. Now, I pick a few parties that I must go to and everything else is more fluid. There are hundreds of official and unofficial SX events, and don’t forget that some of the best stuff is free!

image by natalie off duty

Wear comfortable shoes and pack light.

Since you have no idea how long you’ll be standing in line or on your feet, comfort comes before fashion during SX. I carry a small bag to hold interesting promo materials I want to check out later, and everything else I pass up. Download the official SXSW app to help keep you on track, and if you have a portable phone charger bring it with you.

photo from & other stories

Take advantage of free food and drink.

I’m sure you know how to do a quick internet search to get an idea of the food we have in Austin; but keep in mind that at most events, there will be complimentary food and drinks. If you play your cards right, you won’t have to spend a lot of extra money. If you’re paying for beer during SX, you’re doing it wrong. And no matter what, it’s a requirement to eat a breakfast taco before you leave the city!

image via the elgin avenue

Be a good friend.

If you have a friend playing a showcase or at a demo, go see your friend. The music sets during SX are short and a friendly face in the crowd is never a bad thing. You’ll likely run into people you know on the street or at events, so be spontaneous if you’re invited to something that interests you. SX is chaotic, but that’s what makes it so fun! Your plan will change, so go with the flow and you’ll have a great time.

image from entertaining with katie turpin

Don’t chase the party.

The first time I heard this advice, it came from my friend, Bobby Johns, and it’s the number one thing I stick to every year. If you are having a good time at an event or party – just stay there, because there’s no guarantee you will get into the party across town. I learned this the hard way on more than a few occasions.

image via gal knows

Check the weather before you leave in the morning.

The weather is either beautiful or rainy during SX, and it can change very quickly! Don’t get caught in the rain without a poncho or umbrella. And eat at least one meal on a patio if the weather is cooperating.

image via teen vogue

Be prepared to stand in line.

There’s just no way around it, you will stand in line. Yes, even if you have a platinum badge.

Welcome to Austin, Texas. You’ll find Texans are very nice, and you can ask anyone on the street for directions if you are lost. Embrace what I call “JOMO” (Joy Of Missing Out) when you can’t get into that ONE thing you really, really wanted to see. With a positive attitude, you’ll find something better than that party or session you wanted to see!

Oh, and one last reminder that I can’t emphasize enough: Eat a breakfast taco. Just please, don’t call it a “breakfast burrito.”