South by Southwest

The Indie Music Festival That Keeps Austin Weird

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'A Rock guitar player close up'

Austin, Texas's quirky city motto, "Keep Austin Weird," found on its signs and in its spirit will easily worm its way into visitors' worlds. The city's offbeat nature, paired with Austin boasting the highest concentration of music venues in the United States, makes it the perfect host to the progressive South by Southwest Music and Media Festival (SXSW), a 4-day music fest featuring more than 1,400 bands playing at dozens of downtown venues.

Held every March, the music festival -- 1 of the biggest in the country -- draws scores of people from across the world and remains focused on exposing new talent to the hordes of industry professionals, writers, fans, photographers and Austin locals who attend the yearly festivities. 

The festival's enormity makes it 1 of the hardest events to navigate for a first-timer. But with a healthy dose of pre-planning, a dash of spontaneity and a some hard-garnered advice from this writer, you can cook up a musical experience to delight the senses and expand the mind. Here are the top 6 things you need to know to survive SXSW:

Read 'em or weep
Print the festival schedule out, actually read it, and then try to get an idea of what your schedule will look like.  The crazy math required to devise a schedule will be daunting, but without doing so, it's impossible to enjoy the festivities and leave feeling like you really experienced all you came to see. Sure, it's overwhelming to encounter the 1,400 showcased bands playing rock, hip-hop, alternative country, avant-garde/experimental in the form of 400 performances a day at 60-plus venues. Luckily, the festival's wonderful, user-friendly site allows you to download the schedule, get the latest news on the event's buzz, and check out profiles of every band playing the festival, complete with sample songs that you can stream online.  Check out the unmarketed talent being showcased; you may just find that band you never heard but knew you always loved.

Be ready for anything
Once you've created your schedule, come to terms with the fact that you will probably not stick to it. Apart from the seemingly unending scheduled performances, there are also unofficial shows played all over the city in many unexpected venues -- don't be surprised to find a show being played in a McDonald's parking lot.

It's Austin against the music
Austin is an oasis of progressive cool, with a bustling nightlife, great vintage shopping, good food and innumerable natural attractions. Nightlife in Austin centers around the infamous 6th Street, 1 of 3 roads in the United States where it's legal to drink on the street. For something different head over to Beauty Bar, a converted beauty salon turned dance party.

If shopping tickles your fancy, check out Austin's nationally renowned/popular vintage clothing shops, which are mostly centered around the area known as "SoCo" (South Congress Avenue). Your best bets are: Buffalo Exchange, Cream Vintage and New Bohemia.  If communing with nature is your ideal, head over to Barton Springs in the morning to sunbathe in the grassy fields surrounding a 900-foot natural pool fed by spring water. 

When it comes to food, don't follow the crowds
Make sure you sample the fanfare of delicious culinary surprises the city has to offer.  This is especially true for those vegan travelers, as this progressive Texan idiosyncrasy called Austin has an array of delicious, cheap, vegan food. Casa de Luz features an all-you-can-eat dinner centered around the theories behind macrobiotics. For a simpler, but no less deliciously fresh alternative, try Food Heads, a mom-and-pop style deli that specializes in grilled sandwiches and breakfast burritos made with fresh, organic ingredients. Meat lovers need not cower in despair; if you're hungry for the famously carnivorous traditional Texan cuisine, head over to Trudy's. Specializing in Tex-Mex cuisine, this "Austitution" is known for its famous Mexican Martini.

Save your money
No, this isn't meant to be ironic. It's not entirely necessary to pay full price for a wristband in order to enjoy SXSW.  Again, most bands play free daytime sets open to the public, and at the same venues as the wristband-only shows occurring after sunset. If you can't scrounge up the money to pay for a ticket, schedule the big names for the daytime and leave the nights to explore the musical landscape you have yet to discover at an unofficial SXSW event.

"South by Southwest" vs. "South-by"
The former is a music festival put on to promote new bands; the latter is the mentality the festival brings to the city. For 4 days in March the entire city becomes a nonstop celebration of music and community. When people say "South by Southwest," they are probably talking about long lines, sponsored events and the egos of the roaming industry reps. When people say "South-by," they are talking about concerts in parking lots, drunk rock stars playing impromptu shows at house parties and cheap roadside tacos. Most SXSW events overlap with the "South-by" vibe, but learning to distinguish this difference will ensure you have a better time and a more authentic experience.  If you do only 1 thing while in Austin during SXSW, make sure it is to marinate in the "South-by" spirit.