I admit it’s been a crazy long time since I’ve last blogged about music and my accumulated rust is showing with my inability to dive right into this recap. However, I do wonder how something like SXSW can really be summarized, topped with a nice tidy bow. But writer’s block and procrastination be damned, I have a story to tell.
Let’s begin by answering a basic line of questions on some housekeeping, geared towards those who have never attended SXSW.
How was it?
Fantastic. Straight up. I do, though, tend to be be over-optimistic with these sorts of things. To better answer the question of how it was, let’s take a moment to focus on what SXSW is.
SXSW is an intensely unique experience where “over 300,000 people descend upon Austin, Texas…” (courtesy of LAmb cohort and festival bud, Twila G, in her own Top 14 moments of SXSW recap).
Wrap your mind around that for a second. It’s not quite a “festival” in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, it is an open-city showcase where 300,000 some odd people smash into a 10-15 sq. block footprint of downtown Austin. And for a few short weeks, the city transforms itself into a seething mass of people, music, food (a LOT of BBQ and Tex-Mex), and of course, booze-fueled partying.
Sounds crazy! Should I go?
Probably not if you dislike crowded streets and constant bustle. If you avoid fatty foods, are annoyed by rambunctious people, and hate dealing with lines, it’s probably not a good idea. If long days on your feet, miles of walking, and chaotic party logistics bother you, your patience will be tested.
But if you enjoy dabbling in uncertain outcomes and are intrigued by the prospect of attending one of the most insanely unique, musically diverse festival settings available, give it a go.
Cool! So do I need a wristband?
Yes and no. To be honest, my SXSW plan was nothing like I originally planned. I knew I’d be in Austin for SXSW Interactive and decided to extend my trip into the music portion, because you know, why not?
Also, I wanted to experience firsthand the highly touted “weirdness” that Austin had to offer, regardless of capacity, so my plan was to actually do it up with no wristband and no lodgings (rental car + 24 hour fitness showers).
THANKFULLY, things ended up working in my favor much better than I anticipated, with a wristband, and yes, an actual place to stay. For the record, the wristband was very useful as I made it a point to tackle a long laundry list of artists. Just having it enabled me to avoid very long lines and gave me the ability to bounce around to multiple parties.
So how do the lines work?
For “official” SXSW parties, door guardians hold the line in multiple places. First, to let badge holders in, then those with wristbands, and only then will they let general admission/”RSVP” in. The practice holds true even when venues fill capacity quickly and they move to one-in-one-out door control.
Which means RSVPs and general admission don’t mean shit unless you show up incredibly early. Capacity control was very strict with a ton of fire marshall presence. I’ll go on record, though, to note that I actually appreciated how strict they were in not letting hundreds of people be packed into venues like sardines (as we do in LA).
But, as you can imagine, it’s a frustrating experience standing in a GA line, hours on end, only to watch a constant flow of VIPs, badge holders, and wristband possessors be let in before you.
The Road Less Traveled
This does, though, bring about the possibility of attending SXSW off the cuff, to just explore the possibilities of popping into open and free bars to catch any number of musical acts sans wristband. But with my obsessive compulsive tendency to plan things out, along with some awesomely-timed opportunities, I always found myself with a destination…for 7 days straight.
Which moves us into the next section: the street life aspect. At South By, the streets are always filled with people. When music week starts and nighttime falls, the streets transform into a carnival-esque hodgepodge of street performers, party goers from all walks of life, and a full-time army of pedicabs.
It’s what I’d imagine Mardi Gras + Burning Man + a 2 Chainz music video to look like, but with an aromatic twinge of BBQ in the air 24/7. It was an incredibly fun/interesting experience to just walk the streets, people watch, and take in the sights with talented street musicians at every corner and a strong, festive vibe amongst the crowd.
But for those interested in catching high-profile artists — Snoop Dogg, Coldplay, Nas, Imagine Dragons, Phantogram, etc., were in town — same drill goes in getting there early. Sometimes for larger parties, the badges/wristbands didn’t mean anything as they let attendees in through one general line, first come, first serve.
Meaning you weren’t getting in unless you knew someone at the door or were ready to line up starting at noon.
A Culmination of Micro-Experiences
I’ve always found it incredibly tricky to recap festivals. Not that there’s some crazy secret to it or anything, but because it’s easy to look back on experiences like these through a big picture lens, and simply give a polarized yes/no-good/bad-epic/whack response.
Was it fun? Yes and no. Behind the great moments were the frustrating as hell parts of getting in and out of downtown (tons of traffic and expensive cab fares), nightmarish venue logistics, and, of course, the tragic drunk driving incident that etched a deep, dark mark on the SXSW festival.
Instead, I enjoy viewing it as a culmination of micro-experiences. A million little instances in time with their own stories to tell. Was my SXSW defined by getting kicked out of a Snoop Dogg party for having a protein shaker cup? Or meeting Sinbad at valet curbside of a hotel? Do I talk about the hilarious guy who was running around 6th street, getting down on one knee and proposing to every girl who walked by his way? Or was it about plowing through a 3lb turkey leg at 12am, with the live sounds of a local folk/jamband playing in the background?
I believe it’s about all of that, but more importantly, I was able to walk away from the festival with a huge new list of artists to follow and great music to share, so here’s a list of my micro-stories and highlights.