As soon as you admit to anyone at SXSW that it’s your first time at the famous Austin music festival, you immediately get a reaction like you’re going through some life-changing rite of passage. Weird sexual metaphors get thrown about – “Oh, you’re having your Southby cherry popped” – and before you know it you’re red-faced and feeling like a self-conscious teenager.
I must have looked quite obvious on my first days in Austin: clutching my program like survival depended on it; running frantically with a mini-map between venues, powered by the fear of missing amazing moments in music history never to be repeated. Eventually, you learn to give in to the simple fact that you can’t see everything. Some shows will be missed; others you will come upon by chance. Plus, most bands play at least two, three times – it’s just a matter of finding out which parties they’re playing at outside of offi-cial SXSW gigs.
Vampire Weekend, for instance, were arguably the hottest band in town, and to catch their 11 pm show at Antone’s people were being advised to queue up at 7 pm. What most buzz-chasers, including myself, didn’t know was that VW were set to play the SPIN party the following day at Stubb’s, a venue that holds thousands more than the relatively small Antone’s.
My greenness also became evident when I waited in line at parties only to be denied because I wasn’t on the damn RSVP list. Without a doubt, the soiree to be at late on Thursday was Justice and Moby spinning at the Playboy party. But I wasn’t on Hef’s guest list, so the jarhead bouncer barked at me, “Don’t waste your time.” Most of the free booze parties require an RSVP to get around Texas liquor laws, so it’s in your best interest to e-mail them all, then pick and choose rather than get rejected at a particular hot jam you need to be at.
And speaking of free alcohol, nothing reveals your inexperience more than going wild over complimentary booze. At first, you’re in complete wonder that anyone would want to give you a bottomless bottle just for hanging out, watching bands and trying to look cool. But the sensation quickly wears off once you realize excessive daytime drinking in the hot sun inevitably leads to weary struggles no can of Red Bull will save you from. Besides, it’s like donating your body to some company’s crafty ad campaign.
Lastly, don’t try to do it alone. Talk to people around you as much as possible. Obviously, don’t chatter in someone’s ear while the band rocks, but don’t be afraid to kick up a conversation, cuz everyone wants to yak about what’s going on at the fest. If not for word of mouth, I might never have found the Garage, an unofficial SXSW venue that had three stages set up on the top level of a parking garage overlooking the downtown, where groups like Simian Mobile Dis-co, Santogold and Cut Copy all did sets.
Some of the most valuable info I got wasn’t in the official SXSW guide, including the all-important where to get the best pizza (Stony’s). And with these hard SXSW lessons learned, I hope to be, in the coming years, a better lover, er, festival-goer.