The best piece of advice given to me before arriving at SXSW was simply to have no expectations. Don’t expect get anywhere (literally or figuratively) quickly. Don’t expect to get into high profile events. Don’t expect to get into secret shows. Don’t expect to see certain landmarks. Don’t expect to meet famous people. The event is an entirely different beast when it comes to music festivals and the best way to experience it is simply “to go” and let whatever happens happen.
Before delving into specific events of SXSW 2013, I’d like to share a few perceptions about the great city of Austin.
The people of Austin are friendly. Strangers are happy to strike up a conversation with neighbors in a restaurant or with people standing next to them in a crowd waiting for a show to start. If the strangers react positively, the conversation will transition from small to talk actual discussion. During SXSW, that discussion usually turns to hometowns, which is how I found out that most people who live in Austin are not originally from the city. By the end of my adventures there I had concluded that everyone at SXSW is a local, yet no one is a true local. And most of them have transplanted less than a year ago. Indeed, people are moving to the city at an astonishing rate.
Austin is a cultural melding pot- both for its reputation as the live music capital of the world and for its University of Texas, one of the nation’s most populous campuses. Its vibes are similar to Bloomington’s: diverse, open-minded, accepting, and inherently cool.
Not only are the people friendly to other people in Austin, they’re also thoughtful to man’s best friend. Most restaurants have outdoor patio seating and nearly all of those patios allow four-legged friends to join their owners as they dine out. Some business have dog hitching posts outside while others, like the newly opened Bangers in the Rainey Street District, have installed holding pens for dogs that lets the “kids” play with each other (sans leash) while mom and dad eat dinner and sip on brews. To some people this may seem insignificant, but to dog-lovers this is an appealing aspect of life in Austin.
The pace of Austin is comparable to Indianapolis; a little big city, if you will. Its skyline is dotted with a few notable skyscrapers and beautiful historic architecture while managing to stay modest and reserved at the same time. Unlike the flatlands of southern Texas, Austin’s streets are characterized by many hills and it’s almost as if the city’s famous downtown district sits inside of a bowl. Nearly every street is lined with a bike trail, as it’s one of Austin residents’ most favored modes of transportation.
6th Street’s popular strip of bars and shops serves as the hub of activity for SXSW, causing street shut-downs for multiple blocks. Pedestrians crowd the sidewalks and fill the road as they walk from venue to venue taking in free shows from bands too many to count. The general area is reminiscent of Indy’s own downtown nightlife, as it’s a popular year-round destination for students of the university looking to get drunk on the weekends. But the bars also play a significant role in Austin’s reputation for live music, even when it’s not SXSW season. Every afternoon they open their doors to the city’s aspiring local talent and boast live music almost every day and night of the week.
Further east, on the other side of the always-jammed highway 35, lays the seedier side of 6th Street. Imagine combining The Alley Cat or Sinking Ship’s rugged patrons with The Mousetrap’s free spirits and placing them in a dive bar on Indy’s East side and you’ll get a feel for Austin’s rocky East 6th. These bars rarely, if ever, have live music with the exception of during SXSW.
South of the river one will find the Soco District characterized food truck lots, street vendors, whimsical shops filled with handmade art, and posh dining. It has the same air as Broad Ripple in the daytime- a bohemian village grounded in art and flair.
South By Southwest
First of all, if you want to fit in, you’ll stop calling the festival by its full name and shorten it to just “South By” as soon as you touch down in Austin.
Second of all, if you want to see more than half of the sets and shows on your agenda you’ll have a better transportation plan than just walking. Shows are concentrated in the downtown district of Austin, but stretch blocks upon blocks to the east and south of the hub of activity. One could walk in any direction from 6th Street for an hour and still stumble into backyard house concerts and block parties. Leave the car at home, use the bus to get to your general destination, and hope you can catch a cab to get home at night. Pedicabs (small carts for 2-3 people pulled and driven by bicycles) are everywhere and best used for a quick transport of 10-15 blocks, give or take. If you have a bike and can get it to the festival, it’s the fastest and most economical mode of transportation.
SXSW is different for everyone and the details of one’s experience will vary depending on whether you’re a local who knows about private parties, a musician who’s playing five gigs in three days, a member of the music industry listening to panels at the convention center during the day and networking in bars at night, or a general fan of music who’s just there to catch some free shows. You get out of it what you put into it.
In the blog posts that follow, I’ll detail my own adventures in a great city of Austin over the course of seven days. Here’s a video preview of what’s to come: