Katie Hayes Luke/NPR
Every Flat Surface: Jay Cobb Anderson (left) and Tyler Thompson on the street at SXSW 2011 in Austin, Texas.
Every Flat Surface: Jay Cobb Anderson (left) and Tyler Thompson on the street at SXSW 2011 in Austin, Texas. Katie Hayes Luke/NPR
It may only be March, but the summer festival season is all set to kick off this week with South By Southwest — the music, film and interactive carnaval that draws over 200,000 people to Austin, Texas, for 10 days every year. I've spent years tracking SXSW coverage from a distance as others immersed themselves in music and discovered new favorite bands. SXSW has always sounded a little crazy, a little manic, completely overwhelming — and yet a total adventure. A year ago, all of my friends raved about it when they got back — after a week sleeping off their hangovers — and it was then that I decided that I wouldn't let another year go by without experiencing it for myself.
SXSW can sound pretty daunting to music fans, especially when a badge — the festival's official pass — costs upwards of $750. If anything has deterred me from attending in the past, it's been the price. With easily the costliest entry fee around, SXSW comes across as an event tailored mainly to music industry insiders, whose employers can front the cost, and whose approval every act is vying for. While I've brushed up with the music industry in the past, this week I'll finally be there as a fan: no obligations, no plans, no badge.
Here's what I'm hoping for: the thrill of live music no matter the venue, and to find bands whose performances leave me with the feeling that I've witnessed something significant. Of course I can go to shows at home in Brooklyn any time, but SXSW makes it possible to binge on music in a way that's more concentrated and unpredictable than anywhere else.
Without a badge, I probably won't get into the huge shows everyone will talk about, but I hope that will give me the chance to catch a smaller gig with other people who are just as happy to be there. When I can't get into bars and clubs, I'll find shows at house parties, record stores and in the streets. I'll try to see as many bands as I can, with a focus on those I've never seen before. And if I don't love every band I spend time with, that's okay too. I will try to ignore the nagging feeling that attending one show means missing another, because while getting rid of some options may narrow my choices, it won't limit my experience.
What really sealed the deal for me: last year, I was surprised to hear many SXSW adventurers agree that ditching the badge is the way to go. After first hearing this rumor, I emailed some friends to seek advice. Rachel Kowal, who went for the first time last year, explained: "Badges are almost completely irrelevant during the day when most showcases are free and open to the public. It's best to just hop from show to show during the day and to pick one [paid] showcase and stay put at night." 12-year SXSW veteran Courtney Knopf agreed, adding that "Every flat surface in Austin seems to have a band playing it on it."
Going badge-less may keep me from attending official panels and showcases for bigger bands, but the key is to "leverage your network," offered Doug Mitchell, a 10-time attendee who advocated hanging out, showing up and consulting badge-holding friends. "SXSW is a great place for randomness," he wrote. "Knowing one or two paying customers can go a long way to keep you fed, connected, buzzed, educated or all of the above." Rumors abound of plentiful free food and beer, and I've been advised to RSVP to everything that sounds remotely interesting (if you're so inclined, you can pay someone else or download an app to do it for you). I have a feeling this won't make the lines shorter, but it sounds like a good place to start.
If your reason for going to festivals is to uncover and consume as much music as possible, as it is mine, then SXSW sounds like paradise. With a smorgasbord of new and rising bands in every genre, this is one of the most determinedly forward-thinking events around. Thousands of musicians are already in Austin, from established buzz bands with cult-like followings, to newcomers hoping for their first big break. And with the exception of a few legacy acts — Bruce Springsteen is this year's keynote speaker and Fiona Apple will be making some highly anticipated appearances — the general festival lineup hasn't been so carefully curated and vetted. Rather, it requires a bit of diamond mining. Or I think of it like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, where we can always launch off in a new direction on a whim. What if I'm denied entry to see an indie rock show I've been looking forward to? I might wander instead to the noisy showcase next door — and wake my dormant love for metal.
Such speculation is half the fun, but it was all talk until I finally bought a plane ticket. By cashing in some frequent flier miles and patronizing a budget airline (hey, Frontier!), I managed to squeak out roundtrip travel for under $200. Friends recommended renting a bike, so when I'm rushing from one side of town to the other to catch a 15-minute set I won't stress for time. Coming up empty-handed in my search for an available hotel, motel or hostel, I found another reason to, as Mitchell put it, "leverage [my] network." I'll be crashing with a friend from college — her awesome parents, who are SXSW veterans themselves, immediately and graciously offered their home not only to me, but also to the Boston band Quilt. I know people who will sublet houses, sleep on friends' floors, and rent a cheap room via airbnb. To a New Yorker, the idea of 80 degrees and sunny weather in the middle of March is almost worth the whole trip itself — but if the Texas heat gets to be too much, I may try to sneak into the hotel pool of some of those folks in my aforementioned "network."
Above all, I'll be there for the music. I see SXSW as a pop-up community — an eager, if competitive, space where we will trade musical experiences and try to predict where music will go in the coming year. I hope for spontaneous collaborations, the adrenaline rush of teeming crowds, the joy of running into a friend to share field notes before rushing off to catch a group that sounds exciting. Our potential to find these meaningful moments is entwined with a band's potential to become significant, and this symbiotic relationship between our pleasure and their success will drive everyone together.
I'll try to divide my time between bands I'm familiar with — Cloud Nothings, Grimes, STS, Alabama Shakes — and those that have piqued my curiosity — Lady Leshurr, Kishi Bashi, and the new Robert Glasper Experiment. Maybe I'll finally get to headbang at an Andrew W.K. show. I head there with a minimal plan — Sched.org has been especially helpful for that — but my natural inclination is to approach each day with room to follow my impulses as I venture out alone. I'm looking forward to being surprised; I want to hang onto the feeling that anything can happen.