What Is This Thing?


Every spring thousands of people from all over the world descend on our city. The streets are jammed. Live music pours from any conceivable location. Odd movies appear at the theatres. Strange people wander the streets. For nearly two weeks, South by Southwest takes control of Austin. Is there a place for the casual onlooker in all this madness? Is it possible to participate in SXSW without losing all of your mind, your money, or your sleep?

The answer is: maybe.

But, let’s take it slow. Here’s a short quiz** to get you started:

1.  What is this thing they call South by Southwest?

a)    An opportunity to get out of town until all the crazy people leave
b)    An internationally unique event showcasing talent from all over the world
c)    Something for hipsters and teenagers who don’t need sleep
d)    All of the above

2.  Who are these thousands of 22-year-olds in skinny jeans wandering around my city?

a)    Musicians and filmmakers
b)    Confused spring breakers who got lost on their way to South Padre
c)    Your new best friends
d)    All of the above

3.  Do I need an American Apparel hoodie and a faux-hawk in order to enter Whole Foods?

a)    Yes
b)    No
c)    Welcome to South by Southwest
d)    All of the above

To the outsider, South by Southwest can feel like a beast. A sprawlingly complex event that requires insider knowledge or an $800 dollar badge or tons of free time (or all three) even to consider participating. The reality is that this is true. And it isn’t.

SXSW is actually three separate conferences rolled up into 10 days of parties, screenings, performances, parties, panels, speakers, and parties. It’s all encompassing to those who participate and meaningless to those who don’t. The secret is this: there is a place for the outsider at SXSW. You can attend a film if you don’t have a badge. You can see countless free music shows throughout the week. And you can go to Whole Foods without a faux-hawk. Just make sure you wear your American Apparel hoodie.   


The SXSW Music Festival began in 1987 to showcase Austin bands and compete with the more internationally renowned music recording cities (Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville). The results were immediately successful and the film and interactive components were added in 1994.

Additional factoids to consider:

•    SXSW is the highest revenue-producing special event for the Austin economy (estimated economic impact = at least $110 million in 2008)
•    Last year, SXSW Music Conference and Festival brought in over 12,000 music industry professionals, and 1,800 acts from 42 different countries, performing in over 80 venues in downtown Austin
•    Twitter launched at SXSW Interactive in 2007. (Note: if you don’t know what Twitter is, skip down to Music)

The festival dates are – Interactive: March 13-17; Film: March 13-21; Music: March 18-22. In other words, the components are distinct and yet overlapping.


This enigmatic section often seems like the redheaded stepchild of the conference. And while it’s not nearly as accessible as the other components, it’s worth a looksy anyway.

SXSW Interactive is, in short, a conference for computer nerd superstars. Five days of speakers, panels, and events include presenters such as the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, the creator of fivethirtyeight.com, writers from “The Colbert Report” and “The Office” and many (many) more. Panel choices are vast (sometimes 19 options at a given time), with topics ranging from “Kicking Ass With Controlled Metadata” and “Can Social Media End Racism?” to “Everything You Know About Web Design Is Wrong” and “What Does Awesome Sound Like?” (I’d like to attend that one). The good news is that it’s a uniquely frenetic and uniquely Austin event that brings over 10,000 attendees. The bad news is that you cannot buy single day passes and the “walkup rate” to purchase a badge is $495. So, there’s that.


It can be overwhelming to say the least. Just beginning to sift through the details gave me a headache. But after a piece of cake, I’m back in action. The “walkup rate” for SXSW music badges is $695 (which provides access to the music conference and first priority at getting into performances). Conference speakers include Quincy Jones, The Oak Ridge Boys and Britt Daniel (of Spoon fame), along with hoards of music writers, bloggers, producers and even a woman who represents the estate of Miles Davis.

Then there are the shows. Over 1,800 performers from all over the world include high profile bands (ie: Ben Harper), lower profile ones (ie: Deer Tick), and even (and I just learned this myself) stand up comics. With the badges so expensive and the wristbands sold out, what’s a music fan to do?

First up, visit a little site called Oh My Rockness which outlines the festival schedule and most importantly, the free shows. Even hot SXSW bands such as The Decemberists, Casiokids, and M. Ward are participating in free events. And the schedule is extensive. Weds 3/18 lists over 30 free shows to choose from and Thurs 3/19 has over 50. SXSW even hosts three nights of free music at Auditorium Shores and the details are on their website. Another great option is to wander around South Congress. Jo’s Coffee, Guero’s, and Homeslice Pizza all host free day shows from Weds 3/18 or Thurs 3/19 through Sunday 3/21.

If you’re overwhelmed (as I am) by all the bands, here are some hot tips I picked up from around the hood. (translation: performers my friends told me are going to be really good):

Sam Amidon
Loney, Dear
Department of Eagles
Beach House
Blind Pilot
Camera Obscura
Peter, Bjorn and John
Daniel Johnston
Elvis Perkins in Dearland (a personal favorite of mine)

Many of the above are playing free shows of some sort. Frequently their MySpace pages list their SXSW shows (and provide their music for your listening pleasure), but you can also check the official SXSW music schedule or Oh My Rockness.


With speakers ranging from Richard Linklater and Todd Haynes to (one of my favorites) Jeffrey Tambor, the Film Conference includes a wide range of industry professionals and (sadly) is for badge holders only. The screenings however are a different story. A lot of the movies are independently produced without big marketing budgets. What this means is that the crowds are smaller and the lines often manageable. Not always. But individual tickets go on sale 15 minutes prior to screenings, cost $10, and (particularly for the lesser known films) can be easy to come by.

The best way to attend the film festival is simply to show up. But with over 100 feature films and 120 shorts, choosing a movie is difficult. First, hit up the SXSW schedule online, or troll around local sites such as Austinist, Austin 360, or the Chronicle for picks. The films that screen range from movies that will be in theatres in the next few months (I Love You, Man, 500 Days of Summer, Adventureland, and Observe and Report) to unique film “events” (Office Space – 10th Anniversary – LIVE PRESENTATION, Golden Hornet Project Film Event – Metropolis with Original, Live Score) and locally produced independent work: Along Came Kinky…Texas Jewboy for Governor, Winnebago Man, Artois the Goat, and The Overbrook Brothers. Additionally, filmmakers and actors are frequently present at screenings for a Q&A afterwards.

Other movies that might be worth checking out include The Hurt Locker, St. Nick, Bomber, Calling E.T., Beeswax, Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, Moon, Passing Strange, and Letters to the President, That Evening Sun, The Eyes of Me, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo.
Note: I haven’t seen any of these movies. This list is a result of Internet research and talking to friends.

I realize that you don’t know most of these movies. You’re not alone. This is a film festival and many of these movies don’t (and may never) have distribution. Some might be boring and some might be weird. But some will be gems that you can only see during SXSW.

Then there are the short films. But I’ll let you navigate that yourself.

**Quiz answers: All D