Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
All of these people want to know ... where's Bob Boilen going to be during South by Southwest?
All of these people want to know ... where's Bob Boilen going to be during South by Southwest? Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
It's the kind of problem you can't whine about. Two thousand bands in just five days, and I have to decide who to see and when. This is only my fifth SXSW, but I've found a system for creating a schedule for this crazy week of music that works well for me, and may help you. My goal at SXSW is to see as many new intriguing artists in short order.
I rarely stay for entire sets, rarely see a band I've seen before and almost never see big name artists. For me it's about the thrill of discovery and less about the full immersion of a concert. I can do that in D.C. or New York, but SXSW is a place to graze, to taste-test. At least that's my approach. Regardless, I've got a few scheduling tips that should work well for all.
Listen to as much as you can before you go. The SXSW site can help: there are lists of artists performing along with songs and short blurbs. You can listen to the All Songs Considered SXSW preview show or the Austin 100 stream. Blog posts are good ways to find artists that pique your curiosity. Make a list, or a playlist, then go to Sched.org — a website businesses use for planning events that's perfect for SXSW — and work on your schedule. The reason I use this schedule tool instead of the one on the official SXSW site has to to with that word, official. Beyond the officially sponsored/curated concerts and panels is a world of the unofficial where bike shops, parking lots and beauty shops all become venues for often unsigned and little-known bands. Sched.org lets you see how popular something is, so if you're clueless, you can see how many people are planning to attend.
(Just a note: Sched.org's iPhone app had some issues last year — it reloaded every time you opened the app, which was a bit of a nightmare with the overwhelming cell phone usage — but the folks at the company say some of that has been worked out this year.)
The intensity of your preparation is only limited by your imagination: I listen to 1,300 songs by bands attending SXSW, rate the songs, then sort them in an iTunes playlist. I then go to my schedule and search for each of the artist for my top rated tunes and check off every instance the band is performing.
It isn't really possible to know which of the shows is going to be the one you'll make it to. You may want to make that midnight Caveman show, but the 11:15 Bear in Heaven show may be too good to leave, or too far away or got started late. So the best you can do is to say that you want to see Caveman and choose all the times they're playing and hope to make one.
The exception are the must see bands, maybe a realistic Top 5 that you show up early for just to be certain. I know I want to see Salt to Bitters, Kishi Bashi, Apparat, Spoek Mathambo and Filastine, so I'll mark the one date I'm going to set aside and blow off other concerts too far away or too close in time. Actually, anything that involves a walk longer than about 20 minutes usually isn't worth losing that much time for, when you could be using that 40 minutes of walking to see two more bands.
Finally, add a dash of chance and whimsy. A few years ago I had nothing on my schedule and decided to go to the convention center, stand at the bottom of the escalator and see if I'd run into anyone. Within five minutes I saw producer Tucker Martine, who I had met briefly the night before, coming down the escalator. We spent the rest of the afternoon heading to shows together. It was a highlight of my week.
One last bit of advice: Pace yourself. The days are long, panels start early, bands start playing certainly by noon and don't end until 3:00 a.m. By Thursday you can feel pretty burnt, and there will still be days to go. I live on pizza after making sure to have a big breakfast, and I aim for a late afternoon tiny cat nap. It makes a world of difference.
Have fun. Below is my schedule (You'll notice things are a little light on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon — that's because NPR Music is hosting concerts and we'll be online live with video during those times). I've done all my prep, and even though the official festival doesn't start until tomorrow, I'm heading off to unofficial events tonight, starting with two ukulele-based concerts tonight. I might make it to a metal show by the end of the night. You never know.
[Note: This schedule updates constantly, so it only displays performances that have yet to take place.]