AUSTIN, Texas - Since it was founded in 1987, the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, has grown from a little indie, grassroots event that locals barely noticed to a phenomenon that attracts 400,000 people and generates some $300 million in spending. For attendees, it can all be a little overwhelming. How do you know what’s worth your time and where the buzz is going to be?
Here are some strategies for conquering FOMO (fear of missing out) at SXSW, along with some other tips for visiting Austin during the March 9-18 festival or any other time.
WHY IS SXSW SUCH A BIG DEAL?
It’s a weeklong music, movie and tech juggernaut. It’s 2,000 bands. It’s film premieres and TED-like talks about the future of everything from virtual reality to politics to the economy. Participants have included Bruce Springsteen, the Obamas, Mark Zuckerberg. This year’s festival includes Bernie Sanders, the premiere of Wes Anderson’s new movie, “Isle of Dogs” and some type of actual town representing HBO’s “Westworld” series.
HOW HAS SXSW CHANGED?
It began as a very insider event in a few clubs over a long weekend where recording labels could discover new and unsigned bands. It was so small in the early days that you could live in Austin and really have no idea it was taking place. But over time the idea of getting “discovered” at SXSW crept into the culture and it got bigger and bigger, expanding far beyond music. It’s not just a venue for emerging artists anymore. And there’s a debate: Has it gotten too big? Has it lost its soul? It’s a fair argument to make. There’s a lot of marketing and product placement these days. At the same time, there are still 2,000 bands performing. If you can put aside red carpet premieres and megastars, what it was made for is still happening.
Austin has grown too in the last 25 years or so, from roughly a half-million people to a million. A favorite local pastime is complaining about how much better Austin was 20 years ago, and the sheer size of SXSW brings out the curmudgeon in locals. But others make a buck off of it. You can make good money renting your home or condo, though you might get the stink-eye from your neighbors.
HOW DO YOU FIGURE OUT WHAT TO DO AND SEE?
Fear of missing out is this boulder you lug around for the week. Social media amplifies that. You’re standing in line, hoping to get into one show, and all of a sudden on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll see some big name or maybe someone is rumored to attend or people you weren’t expecting to come are playing. Drake famously showed up last-minute a few years ago.
One way to create some leeway in your schedule is to let the nostalgia acts go — the former big-name bands that use the festival to promote comebacks. Instead, pack your schedule with artists that are coming into their moment and have their best years ahead of them.
Also, you need a plan. You really can’t just wing it. That’s a lesson you’re going to learn fast given the lines to get into the better, buzzy shows. And it’s not just concerts: The lines are at premieres and keynote speeches too. Be ready for the lines. But have some backups. And consider venues outside downtown, which will be less crowded. There are film screenings at theaters all over, and bands coming here to promote themselves tend to play a lot of shows.
PRICES, GETTING AROUND, FOOD
Wristbands are around $200 but a badge that gets you priority entry is around $1,000. The tiered system means it’s hard to get into the bigger headline events or hottest shows without the badge.
Hotels easily run hundreds of dollars a night. Rentals and Airbnbs can be had for less farther away from downtown, but lodging fills up fast.
The core of SXSW is walkable but for outlying venues, there are pedicabs, Uber and Lyft among other ride options.
Barbecue wars are real here. You might stand on line for three hours for barbecue. Salt Lick is a famous barbecue outpost about 20 minutes south of town but the trendier one these days is Franklin’s.
Austin is a great town for live music any time of year. It’s also a great destination for outdoor activities, with greenbelts, biking and more. Mount Bonnell offers great views, San Antonio is an hour away and it’s not far from Texas wine country. Under the Congress Avenue Bridge, at dusk every night, a million bats fly out to hightail it north. It’s a pretty amazing sight.
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