SXSW 2015: A Survival Guide

In preparation of South By Southwest (SXSW), the music industry’s most epic and grueling music festival, I felt inclined to make a list of advice and suggestions that I wish that someone had told me in 2009, as I headed into the event. So to all of you SXSW rookies out there, read the following:

1. Drink water, not whiskey.

Since SXSW is unlike any other festival in the fact that it is a marathon, not a sprint, pacing yourself is key. With schedules spanning six days and shows popping up from breakfast to bar close, bracing your body is absolutely vital. With Texas heat and expecting to be able to push yourself to unrealistic limits, SXSW can break down even the toughest of ironmen. Therefore, logistically speaking, drinking your lunch might not be the best plan for success. Picture the festival as a week-long season of Survivor. You have to be smart to stay alive, stay on top of the scene and maximize the shows you attend. Otherwise, you’re just another piss-stained pair of skinny jeans passed out on the sidewalk of Sixth Street that Nick Cave has to step over on the way to his next gig. Don’t be that guy.

2. RSVP for everything.

Sure, it seems like a waste of time now as you sit on your couch eating corn chips and watching Scrubs. Also, I understand that you have no intention of attending all of the 650 parties that I am currently asking you to plop your email address into. “It won’t hurt to skip just this one,” you tell yourself as you make a b-line for the events featuring your favorite new band. Yet, if you fast forward to the festival’s third day of bands, you’ll find yourself having drinks with a beautiful redhead named Zooey, who happens to work for Columbia Records. She has chatted you up through the whole of the last set, flirting and charming you into a state of complete smitten and butterflies. You stop for Tito Tequila shots on the way to her next assignment as a talent scout. She is on her way to analyze the talent at the “Next Big Thing” party at Emo’s in 20 minutes.  She asks you to join, claiming ‘she doesn’t want the conversation to end.’ You’re in, man, hardcore. You, however, didn’t RSVP for that party because you didn’t know any of the bands on the list.

Long story short, don’t cock block yourself personally or professionally by being lazy.

3.  Bring a power strip.

We live in a time where it is impossible to exist without our cellphones.  I mean, how the hell do you expect to check into every bar on 4square, keep in the SXSW know through Twitter and update your Facebook status if your iPhone runs out of juice? Obviously at some point during the course of your 18-hour day, you will need a jump. You will also quickly discover that as everyone in the modern world (and some bands from the dark-age countries) descends into the Texas state capitol, power outlets become scarce.  You’re doing everyone a favor by packing a power strip. You’ll be a hero at the convention center when you add five new ports to the mix. Additionally, you be forced to socialize as people ask you permission to plug into your device. Phone-addicted application junkies will unite as one and the world will bond over the experience.

4. Be prepared to snack. A lot.

At some point you are going to find it impossible to eat at SXSW. This is not due to a lack of access to food—that actually couldn’t be any farther from the truth. Hell, everywhere you turn around in Austin there is a dining option. In reality, starving will come due to a lack of time. With bands starting sets more often than Taylor Swift starts relationships, there will too-often be no time to sit down and snarf a steak. It would be wise for you to pack a collection of “hiking food” in your bag. Power bars and granola are both light and take up very little space, yet leave you with plenty of energy in return. Shoving them in your face on the go leaves much reward for little effort.

5. See someone play in a church. Anyone.

The coolest thing about SXSW is getting to see bands play in places you’ll experience no place else. I’ve gotten to see Fiona Apple play in a Presbyterian church and Broken Belles rock a parking garage. Both experiences have pushed the boundaries of what I expected to experience in my music journalism career. They are unique and amazing stories I am blessed to have. Do yourself a favor and experience them too.

6. Leave your TOMS at home. Bring your Jordans.

At SXSW, you’re going to walk. A LOT. Wearing shoes that are made to comfort your feet is a stellar idea. Sure, it is important to look cool, but honestly how cool are you going to look as you limp around from the quarter-sized blister you gathered on your heel?

Think comfy, not cool.

7.  Bring a hoodie, just in case.

Sure, Texas is hot.  Texas is T-shirt and jorts (jean shorts) hot.  Your shirts are going to pit stain and you’re going to want to change clothes a minimum of three times a day during the fest. Texas is this hot IN MARCH. However, fluke weather happens. I can remember standing in the photo pit of Auditorium Shores preparing to shoot She and Him a few years back, freezing to death. The weather had dropped from 75 and sunny the previous day to the 40s and rainy. Come prepared for everything.

8. If that secret show has been announced on Twitter, it isn’t secret anymore.

It is pretty badass that Green Day has decided to play their one and only show at SXSW in a tiny, hole-in-the-wall dive off the beaten path. The venue holds roughly 300 people. The event will be second to none and something that you will never get the chance to see again. It is something that you don’t want to miss. However, it is also something that hundreds of thousands of other people will not want to miss. You do the math. Do you want to stand in line nine hours early in order to get in the venue? Or would you rather see nine other bands play?

Seeing the big names are great, but you’re missing out on a lot.

9. Expect for your schedule to fall apart.

You can make as many spreadsheets, Google docs, to-do-lists and itineraries as you want, but at the end of the day all of them will fail you. SXSW is a clusterfuck, plain and simple. Bands are going to miss their sets. Shows are going to run late. Shows are going to hit capacity and you’re going to be left outside.

SXSW doesn’t give a shit about you or your spreadsheet. You have to adjust. If one bar is full, go next door and see what you find. You never know if the next band that you randomly walk into will turn out to be that band that changes your life.

Take a chance on a no-name or two.

10. Be polite.  

You’re going to be tired and cranky throughout the week. Your feet are going to hurt and you’re going to be overwhelmed by the amount of people who are constantly in your face. Weather, delays, drunks and a gaggle of other obstacles are going to piss you off throughout your experience. You have to smile through them. It is understandable for you to be annoyed, but don’t be an asshole. Everyone else is just as fed up as you and it pays to have friends from all over and you never know who you’ll meet!

Josh Hammond is a music industry lifer. After years spent reviewing artists and discussing their ongoing activities as a music journalist, Josh now spends his time pitching talent as one member of Another Reybee Production PR. Follow him on Twitter to gain more insight on his life in the music business.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.