SXSW- A Visitor's Guide
By Russ Loeffler |
Austin has been on my bucket list as music town for a while. When I ran into people from Austin at the winter NAMM show, I would ask “Is SXSW the best or the worst time to visit Austin?”. The answer was usually “Yes”. So, I planned my trip with a mix of excitement and apprehension. I spent some time looking on-line, watching Youtube videos, and downloading some apps. I had to filter through a lot of non-music related material to find useful information. Following are some recommendations from my limited experience.
Austin Outdoor Art and SXSW Poster
SXSW – More Than Music
For better or worse, SXSW is much more than a music festival. The includes the film festival, tech conferences, gaming, and a new focus on the cannabis industry. As a musician, I was there for the live music and I filtered out the non-music events which freed up my mornings to explore Austin.
South Austin Music Store
Badge or Wristband?
Badges are expensive - $1125 for music and up to $1650 for all access . They will allow you to get to the front of the line for many events. They are also required for some headline events. I suspect that they provide more value for the non-music events (no data to support this), but I could not see a reason to purchase a badge for the music venues. Wristbands are also available for $225. Wristbands don’t allow you to move to the front of the lines, but you avoid the cover costs for most shows and allow you to venue hop.
Signs outside of the venues will include “primary” (first in line) and “secondary” credentials. I’m sure that there must be some shows that require one or both, but I couldn’t find one for a music venue. The cover charges were $5 or $10 (usually credit card only) and most were free. I was there Wednesday through Sunday nights and I definitely did not spend enough on cover charges to justify the cost of a wristband.
Uncle Billy’s in South Austin
SXSW Apps and Other Sources
SXSW has an official app that is a great tool. You can filter by venue, artist, and genre. I found that filtering by genre brings the staggering number of bands down to a reasonable list. I was looking for artists and bands that actually played instruments (folk, rock, blues, jazz, punk, metal) and it helped in my search. I was surprised to see how few blues bands were scheduled. Many of the artists have sample music on the app which will allow you to quickly determine if you want to include the artist in your “favorites”. The app is limited to the “official” SXSW shows. So, you need to reach out to other sources such as the Austin Music app and Bands-In-Town to find the unofficial shows. Some venues will have a list on the wall and it is worthwhile to drop in to see if a schedule is posted. Although you should suspect a scam when anyone tries to hand you something on the street, there are some flyers that will give you up to date show times.
Downtown - This covers several blocks with the heaviest concentration between 3rd and 7th Streets and Red River and Congress avenues. Several streets are blocked off for pedestrian traffic only. 6th Street is famous for its Mardi Gras atmosphere (more focus on partying than music).
Punk Band In Downtown Bar
Rainey Street - This is one street just south of the core downtown area. The street is closed for pedestrian traffic and I felt it had a better vibe than downtown. Many of the venues had no cover charges.
Craft Pride Patio - Rainey Street
South Congress (SoCo) - This stretch of Congress Avenue south of the river is worth the visit just for the funky shops and great restaurants. There was a parking lot concert venue near the Austin Hotel in addition to the shows at the restaurants and bars.
SoCo Parking Lot
The rest of Austin - Some of Austin’s famous clubs are near, but not in the three areas I covered. That means a little more planning is required to get these venues scheduled into your plans. I covered everything on foot, but the south end of South Congress to the north end of downtown can be more than 4 miles. So, you need to consider that in your plans. Traffic during Friday and Saturday evening can be heavy enough that an Uber ride may not be faster than walking. You can try the electric scooters (they’re everywhere) at your own risk (the locals hate them and rules are still being developed).
Saxon Pub - South Austin
Big venues – The bigger venues had huge lines and they seemed (to me) to be based on the party rather than the band. Although standing in line is a big part of SXSW, I didn’t find one that was worth standing in … considering I could be listening to music somewhere else.
Unofficial venues – Many of these are bars and restaurants without cover charges. These are the “follow your ears” gigs where you listen for a song or two and decide whether to stay. My favorites where the patio venues. Some have cover charges and one stamp may be good for the entire evening. That’s worth checking out. Get your stamp early and you can come back later.
Lucy’s Chicken - South Austin
Hotels – I know that it seems lame to go to SXSW and end up in a hotel lobby to see a band, but that’s where some of the best unannounced bands may show up. I was checking into a hotel my first night and a band was setting up in the lobby. I talked to the hotel manager about the hotel line-up. He had no idea which bands were going to be playing for the festival. They just agreed to provide the space for SXSW. The bands performing at the hotel didn’t show up in Bands-In-Town. I took several detours through hotel lobbies just to see some great bands. Hotels also have some very nice conference rooms and ballrooms set up for live shows. I walked past several clubs with long lines into a hotel with a $5 cover charge and a full night’s worth of music acts (bonus – comfortable seats and clean bathrooms!)
Lobby of the Hotel Van Zandt
Driskill Hotel - Downtown
Marriott Hotel - Outdoor Venue
I found that the same basics for the NAMM show apply for SXSW – comfortable shoes, plenty of water, chapstick, and earplugs. Earplugs not only protect your ears, but a good set of ear plugs can improve the sound for smaller, bright venues with loud drums.
Book your flights and hotel rooms well in advance. I was able to get some great deals using hotel points because I booked before the hotel rates shot up for SXSW. I don’t recommend renting a car unless you plan to leave town. I rented a car for one day to visit San Antonio and a trip to the Collings Guitar factory. If you are a foodie, do your research and plan. I am going to limit my recommendations to: Franklin BBQ – if you can commit to 5 lbs. of meat, order for pick-up and take-out several weeks in advance. Detroit style pizza – just ask and you’ll find a cool patio with live music behind a taproom.
Classic Guitar Outside the Driskill Hotel
Russ Loeffler is a contributing editor to Harmony Central who covers trade shows and live events when he is not fine-tuning his guitar chops. He is also a gear head with a passion for good music, great tones, and music that is much easier to listen to than it is to play.