SXSW is an incredible ten-day programme of film, music and interactive shows which takes place every March in sunny Austin, Texas. The conference is attended by media and tech businesses, artists and party-goers who are looking to discover new talent, often for free.
We (Gemma and Craig) have attended three South by South West festivals (2015, 2016, 2019) and even got hitched at Lou Neff Point straight after it in 2016. Craig ditched me and went solo in 2018.
In 2019, we opted for premium badges so we can now compare how to do SXSW for free against doing it like the industry types. Here’s your ultimate guide to SXSW with tips on bagging gratis food, booze, entry to SXSW free parties. As always, we discuss how much South by costs, what to pack and tips on how to get the best out of the fest.
What is SXSW?
SXSW or South by Southwest is an annual multi-media festival and conference which takes place every March in Austin, Texas for just under two weeks. The 10-day event is split into three sections, interactive, film and music.
You can expect the following:
- International movies playing in a variety of cinemas.
- Panel members speaking at the Austin Convention Center.
- Startups showing off their new products at the SX Trade Show.
- Bands performing in hotels, churches, clubs and even vans.
What makes SXSW special is that the festival takes over the whole city. No space is safe. Many locals actually escape the city.
Participants can either pay for a badge, wristband, or, with a bit of effort, see gigs and events for free.
You can purchase badges for each theme or go platinum for primary access to all three. If you choose just the interactive or film or music badge you gain secondary priority access to the other two.
When is South by Southwest 2020?
Although the festival is still currently taking over the city of Austin, the 2020 dates and early bird passes have been announced. The show kicks off on March 9th and runs on until 22nd.
EDU takes place 9th-12th, then Interactive portion takes over on the 13th until the 21st. Film overlaps on the 13th-21st. Finally, music will fill the streets officially from the 16th-22nd.
Purchase your early bird South by Southwest 2020 tickets here.
When was South by Southwest 2019?
SXSW events ran from March 4th until March 17th 2019. SXSW Edu kicked off the show on the 4th-7th, SXSW Interactive started on 8th-15th, SXSW Film ran from 8th-16th and SXSW Music, the last portion of the fortnight, ran from 12th-17th.
South by Southwest Line Up 2020
You might be surprised to hear this but the lineup for SX isn’t fully announced until the weekend before it starts.
The first wave of acts/panelists are announced from August/September but it is pretty much a guessing game until March and even then some artists have to pull out because of funding. We’ll explain how to create your own SX itinerary below.
Although Austin is the live music capital of the world, it’s not just about the music. Sessions include the topics of gender, health, business, marketing, self-help, etc. Sessions mainly take place in the Austin Convention Center.
Previous artists and speakers have included big names like Chvrches (2019) and CEO of Tesler/SpaceX (2018). However, SXSW is not about the known, it’s about the discovery of new talent from every genre.
SXSW 2019 Highlights
Here are some of our top music acts/events from 2019. We were lucky enough to see some gigs twice.
- Jonathan Bree – eery band think The Village/Handmaid’s Tale with an awesome sound (saw twice).
- The Ninth Wave – Scottish band, Depeche Mode vibe played the British Music Embassy.
- Nordista Freeze – wow, energy from Nashville! Caught on the rooftop of Handlebar.
- APRE – indie pop, happy band from London (saw twice, once stripped back at Holy Roller).
- Majestic Casual party – excellent lineup at the Rainey Street party).
- Good Omens Garden Party – this was a phenomenal two-day party with drink, food, music and puppies. Free to all!
SXSW Badges Explained
SXSW was created to support artists and industry meet and discuss future partnerships. Those who are serious about networking should invest in the SXSW badge.
Badges give you access to all shows, talks, events and gigs in your chosen area (or access all areas for the platinum badge), you may still need to wait in line but not to the extent of those who enjoy SXSW by stalking the free events.
Even as badge holders, we’ve missed out of sessions and films because we missed the window to request a SXXpress Pass. You do this through the SXSW Go app. It looks as if you have to request around 9 am the day before the event.
Another perk we’ve enjoyed as badge holders is the free daily drink at the Registrant Lounge. Here we’ve met interesting locals and visitors from a range of backgrounds including blockchain companies to gaming marketeers.
Here’s the difference between the four badges –
How To Do SXSW For Free [music, food and booze]
It’s universally known that you can visit Austin during SXSW just to take advantage of the free music shows, eats and drinks. Venues and gigs are sponsored by private companies and with sponsorship comes free shizzle!
Here’s how to get the best out of your free South by Southwest break (you will need a holiday after it).
Planning for SXSW starts months before the big event. Start stalking the bands and artists your love on social media to keep an eye on who is attending. You should also pay attention to SXSW Twitter accounts as well as venues in Austin.
During the festival, the following official and unofficial accounts will tell you where to get food, what the lines are like and where the surprise gigs are taking place. You might want to create a separate Twitter account to keep track of events.
@Do512 <— also an app
@SXSWMF <— Craig’s favourite
During SX follow the hashtag #SXSW20 and hit the ‘latest’ tab for the most up to date news.
Our experience of 2019 was very different from that of 2015 and 2016. In the past, RSVPing was a must as stewards checked for the app tickets at the door.
Things have changed, as long as you wait in line and the venue isn’t at full capacity you’ll get in.
Again, keep an eye on those Twitter accounts to see where lines are doable, you need to be flexible at SXSW.
In 2019, there were heaps of ‘no badge, no problem’ signs, especially on Rainey Street. You will have to pay for your own drink at these ‘no badge’ events unless it is a sponsored party you’ve RSVPed to.
Waiting in Line
Waiting in line is just part of the SX bloodline. Even badge holders need to stand in line at times, albeit in the primary one. We waited for a good few hours, drinking our tins from the gas station, to try and catch Years and Years one evening.
We failed to get anywhere near the front. However, one of the best things about SX is that although full one day, you’ll get to see the artist the next at another venue.
We missed Har Mar Superstar on 6th but caught him in a tiny intimate venue the next day. He was basically dancing on top of us, naked.
Wristbands For Free Shows
Don’t expect free food and drink at every party. The free, like actual free, days will be the BIG parties held at the notable venues:
- Stubb’s BBQ (free breakfast tacos and beer aka in bed by 8 pm).
- Fader Fort – this is the first year we’ve managed to get a RSVP! Sign up for the newsletter and apply nearer SXSW 2020.
- Good Omen’s Garden Party – pop up venue, three free drinks and two food tokens.
For Stubb’s BBQ you wait in line on guest list opening day to collect the passes then line to get in. Once the free beverages run out there are no more so get in early.
RSVPster acts as your mass RSVP agent for free parties. Create a new email address specifically for the free party RSVPs (you will be inundated with RSVPs) and let the company respond on your behalf. Download the tickets to the parties you wish to attend and ignore the others.
This service saved our unorganised asses so many times.
While queueing for Charles Bradley, I went for a nosey to see what the front of line situation was. I panicked when saw the door stewards checking people’s phones. Our friend, Pete, told us to relax, we already had invites through RSVPster.
It doesn’t work for all parties though, you have to check the entry requirements for everyone separately. Although 2018 experience indicated RSVP tickets are no longer necessary, Craig still purchased RSVPster just to be safe. I’m intrigued to assess its use next year.
The Do512 app is useful but difficult to use. The best way to get around it is the search for the act you wish to see and pull up the venues that they are playing at then investigate which party that would be. Twitter is definitely the best app at your disposal and taxis apps will be required to get into the city and out.
SXSW Go is the official SX app. As badge holders, it has been useful for scheduling events and attempting to request SXXpress passes for popular events. Craig didn’t feel this app was much use as a non-badge attendee.
A charged phone is essential, pack your battery pack too.
There are hundreds of venues at SX and the will literally pop up anywhere. Some of the most popular ones for free parties include
- Cheer up Charlies – 900 Red River St, Austin, TX 78701 (Gus Dapperton, Men I Trust, Gang of Youths).
- Container Bar – 90 Rainey St, Austin, TX 78701 (The Marias, a bar made out of… containers. Saw Charles Bradley here in 2015).
- Rainey Street – rammed full of sponsored parties that change every day (Dreamer Boy at Bangers ’19).
- Hotel Vegas – 1502 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702 (5 different rooms, day goers can stay until evening without getting thrown out).
- Mohawk Austin – 912 Red River St, Austin, TX 78701 (Broken Social Scene ’19. We actually went to a Junior Boys gig here on the night of our wedding elopement).
Accommodation in Austin SXSW
Hotels and hostels prices hurt in Austin around SXSW. Be prepared to pay around three times the amount you would normally pay for a popular North American city and if you get in quick don’t be complacent.
We’ve now stayed with HI Hostel Austin twice in a private room. It is in the perfect location, 30-minute stroll along the water to the city.
Airbnb in Austin
Straight after our first SXSW stint, we checked into an airstream through Airbnb and in 2016 after being ditched by Drifter Jacks Hostel we booked an Airbnb miles away from the city resulting in a taxi every day but that’s the reality of accommodation options during SX.
Straight after the festival prices drop, we stayed in a cute garden hut house at Barnton Springs and chilled by the swimming pool.
New to Airbnb? Sign up here and save money, we’ll get credit too. Thank you.
Getting Around Austin
Uber, Lyft and Ride Austin all operate as taxis in Austin. Ride Austin is a nonprofit company fighting against Uber and Lyft operating in Austin and carries the slogan Keep Austin Local. It operates on an app basis like Lyft and Uber.
New to Austin is the electronic scooter system. Uber (Jump), Lyft and Bird all have scooters dotted around the city. You need the app and a credit card to activate the scooter.
I’m quite an anxious driver but using the scooters with ease. The traffic is very understanding (surprisingly). You can’t use the scooters on the sidewalks or down by the river. Stick to the cycle lanes when there are some.
Austin B-Cycle programme allows bike rental for up to 24 hours.
SXSW For Free Roundup
Don’t be put off by the queues, SXSW is an electric 10-day event bringing together the best of music, film and interactive to one of the U.S’s hottest cities. Regardless if you are a badge goer or a free gig stalker I highly recommend adding SXSW to your bucket list for 2020.
Oh, and take your ID – you have to prove who you are (and that you are over 21) at every door.