AUSTIN, TEXAS — While hundreds, if not thousands, of suckers wait in line to watch The Flaming Lips from a hilltop at what might as well be driving distance, I’m miles away, cooking hamburgers at a house party that, right around medium rare, gets infiltrated by the police as Guantanamo Baywatch wraps up its set. This is the modus operandi of the guerrilla South By Southwest experience. No badge. No wristband. No official shows. Little more than overhearing, “This shit is going to be awesome!” and following the soundwaves like steam from a pie. And if you’re aware what you’re getting yourself into, it’s the best way to spend the week.
Here’s something you need to know. SXSW isn’t Coachella. Shelling out for that $795 pass doesn’t mean you’re going to see every act you want to see. Even the vippiest VIP, if he arrives late to the Green Day show, will not get in. And even if you have that crazy pass, it doesn’t mean every single show in Austin will be at your fingertips. Corporate sponsors with Buick-sized purses bring in juggernauts (Prince, Justin Timberlake, Ice Cube) to play SX-adjacent shows, drawing tens of thousands of visitors who have no real interest in hearing the next Local Natives or whatever the case may be. Which sort of dilutes the purpose of the 27-year-old conference and festival built upon chance discovery and seized Cinderella stories.
After perusing the colossal 2,500-name list of artists, most of which you won’t recognize, some of which royally suck, the Music Badge becomes a crutch. It makes sense if you’re in it for the networking events, the panels, the keynotes and the Q&As. But, as a cursory Twitter glance will reveal, you’re more likely to see Usher play an unlisted show than catch the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in an official environment.
But, as the years of SXSW have gone on, and the corporate hullabaloo progresses into the status quo, it’s the unofficial side of the festival that gets interesting. There are parties and live music on almost anything that can physically hold tangible objects — bus rooftops, slabs of plywood, literal street gutters — and unless all you want to see are Akon and his ilk, you’ll probably catch a pretty decent rock band from Akron or Providence or Athens if you know where to look.
It should be noted that, unless you find yourself crammed into a van, your instrument Tetris’d into five square feet of space, your bandmates (in Rusty Maples) following suit, you will not have the same SXSW experience as mine, which involved running from show to show, loading in, loading out, seeing very little music other than the act before and after my own. What I’m saying is I didn’t Instagram any pictures of Dave Grohl and I doing karaoke at a party sponsored by Chevrolet-flavored Camel Lights. But you could, and that’s the beauty of it.
So let this serve as your three-part primer for SXSW 2014 and beyond, until the whole thing becomes equivalent to Disneyland’s It’s a Small World, coasting dreamily along Sixth Street from behind the wheel of the brand new Honda Hovermatic (not a thing — yet):
Plan for weeks in advance. If you want to get into a party, RSVP (the currency of SXSW) via any of the event websites — Do512, Event Brite, et al — and make sure you have that ticket. Keep those tickets in a safe place, like a binder, which by the end will be of Biblical girth.
Pay attention to the really early parties. The Zombies will probably play before noon across the street from Whole Foods. Third Eye Blind will play at 9 a.m. Don’t underestimate seasoned rockers and their ability to get up ass-crack early and play a show to a bunch of particularly ambitious veterans.
And this last one I can’t stress enough: Find a place to sleep and lock it in for the week. While I was particularly lucky, there was a night I was all but spooning with a pit bull and, worse, some asshole from Philadelphia. You’ve been warned.