Story Ashika Sethi
Illustration by Nathan Burgess
Since 1987, hordes of techies, musicians, filmmakers and culture fetishists alike have made the trek to Austin for South By Southwest, a festival that represents innovation, exploration and most importantly, free booze. For ten days in mid-March, the city streets buzz with food trucks, vendors handing out cuisine and alcohol for free and incredibly attractive foreign accents. Restaurants become bars, bars become clubs hosted by companies like Google and all other free spaces are transformed into makeshift stages. Music oozes from Austin’s pores, with over 2,000 official musicians performing in well over 100 venues scattered around the city. For Austinites and outsiders alike, South by Southwest is a week filled with opportunity, cutting-edge innovation and drunken celebrity sightings.
For the determined attendee, South by Southwest has all the potential for heart-palpitating experiences. In a little over a week, I met star and creator of The Mindy Project’s Mindy Kaling, had a front-row seat for Lena Dunham’s keynote speech, casually spotted George Takei and won a couple free iPods in the process.
As a three-year volunteer and festival goer, I’ve learned that you get out of SXSW what you put into it. In my first year, being a college freshman and devastatingly broke, I made a pact to make the most out of my time at the festival with as little money as possible. This meant volunteering at the Austin Convention Center and following every SXSW-related Twitter handle that mentioned free food or parties. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet that mapped out which bands were performing when and where, the age limit and the badges that would get me in (newbie attendees, fear not: programs are provided by the festival that relay all this information — a perk I was not aware of at the time).
Festivalgoers who simply wander around the city alone won’t get access to much of this content. Although free shows and panels are scattered around town, attendees have to know about them in advance to snag a ticket or get a good spot in line. Even then, these free shows and conventions, although welcoming, are not the meat of the festival. SXSW can be overwhelming for outsiders, but with a few tricks up your sleeve, it can be incredibly simple to navigate.
To get into events at the festival, attendees wear badges of status around their necks that allow access into more exclusive events like keynote speeches at the Austin Convention Center or film premieres at the Paramount Theater. The “Gold Badge” gets attendees into Film and Music events, and the ever-coveted “Platinum Badge” gets them into 99% of the festival.
As exciting as this festival sounds, purchasing a regular badge is pricy (from $600 to over $1,000, depending on the type of badge). Still, there are plenty of ways to experience SXSW without depleting your whole semester’s budget. Festivalgoers who can’t afford a badge should consider volunteering their time to the festival. As a past volunteer myself, I can guarantee that is one of the best ways to meet new people and get the most out of the week. There are two categories of volunteers: Conference and Production, which have several different crews ranging from Music Stage Set-Up to Film Crews. Shifts typically range from six to eight hours depending on your team, and each crew will require you to work a certain number of shifts to earn a specific badge. With the festival starting this week, it’s too late to sign up this year, but for more information for next year, check out http://volunteer.sxsw.com/.
2. Twitter and Social Media
If you plan to do SXSW right, Twitter is a necessity. The app was introduced at the festival in 2007 and has become the epicenter of all things free, boozy and secret throughout the week. I’ve never had such a surreal experience as seeing Childish Gambino at a private concert by winning a Twitter contest, and I never would’ve received the opportunity without the social media platform. Check out these Twitter handles: @CameronAtSXSW, @SouthByFreeNOMS, @sxshhh, @coolinaustin, @sxswtweet, @rsvpster, @SXSWPartyList, @sxsw, @SXSWbaby, @unofficialsxsw.
3. Free Noms
Many companies use SXSW as a means to get more publicity. What does this mean for us broke college students? Free food and drinks decorated in company logos. Again, follow twitter handles like @SouthByFreeNOMS and keep your ears open. It’s quite possible to eat almost every meal without spending a dime. South by Southwest is commonly regarded as the only festival where you can walk all over the city, day and night, and still manage to gain weight.
There are tons of interesting people at South By with access to parties and conferences you may not be allowed into. Don’t be shy: Make some new friends with cool accents, and maybe they’ll be kind enough to invite you to one of the most exclusive parties at the festival. Also, take every opportunity to hand out business cards to new acquaintances. You never know who might be looking for a new copy editor at their startup publication or an on-set intern for the new film they’re producing.
A key aspect to surviving the festival is spontaneity. Washed Out is Platinum Badge-only? No problem. Girl Talk is performing a free set at the Spotify stage just around the corner. Line is too long at Stubbs? Check out some food trailers in the meantime.
What’s so special and inspiring about South by Southwest is that anyone with a smartphone, a substantial supply of energy bars and drinks and some flexibility can have access to these experiences. In a world that seems more cut-off and elitist by the minute, South By Southwest is a mecca of opportunity for all ages and backgrounds. Empty pockets this spring break? Don’t sweat it. Gather up a few of your most adventurous friends and join in on the free fun at SXSW.