How to do SXSW for free

Ultimate SXSW guide + how to do it for free in 2019

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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 two South by South West festivals (2015, 2016) and even got hitched at Lou Neff Point straight after it in 2016. Craig then ditched me and went solo in 2018. We’ll see you there, together, in 2019, this time with badges but for now, here’s your ultimate guide to SXSW with tips on bagging gratis food, booze, entry to SXSW free parties – how to do SXSW for free.

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. Participants can either pay for a badge or, with a bit of effort, see gigs and events for free. What makes SXSW special is that the festival takes over the whole city, no space is safe. It’s not unusual to watch a band play in a hotel, church, park or club. The 10-day event is split into three sections, interactive, film and music. 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 2019?

SXSW events run from March 4th until March 17th 2019. SXSW Edu kicks off the show on the 4th-7th, SXSW Interactive starts on 8th-15th, SXSW Film runs from 8th-16th and SXSW Music is the last portion of the fortnight 12th-17th. Limited presale badges have been released from $295-$1150. Purchase your early bird South by Southwest tickets here.

How to do SXSW for free Austin

South by Southwest line up 2019

The SXSW lineup won’t be announced until closer to the time. Previous artists and speakers have included big names like Chvrches (2016) 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 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 badges. 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 queue but not to the extent of those who enjoy SXSW by stalking the free events.

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).

Twitter

Planning for SXSW starts months before the big event. Start stalking your favourite bands and artists 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 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.

@SXSW
@SXSWNews
@Do512
@SXSWWhoa
@RSVPster
@FreeatSXSW
@Atxconcert
@SXSWMF <— Craig’s favourite

@SXdrinks
@SXSWeats

The rules

Craig’s experience of 2018 was very different to that of 2015 and 2016. In the past, RSVPing was a must as stewards checked for the app tickets at the door. He says this year he played by the rules and followed the RSVP stipulations but bouncers were not bothered – as long as you queue and the venue isn’t at full capacity you’ll get in. Again, keep an eye on those Twitter accounts to see where queues are doable, you need to be flexible at SXSW.

Queues

Queuing is just part of the SX bloodline. Even badge holders need to stand in line at times, albeit in the primary queue. We waited for a good few hours, drinking our tinnies from the petrol 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 queued out 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.

SXSW free parties

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:

  • Mohawk (we met some guys who were queuing from 11am to see Win Butler DJ. If you want to see a band, dedicate your day to that party. They’ll throw you out for the night parties so don’t bother going there during the day in the hope you’ll get to see a big gun at 9pm)
  • Stubb’s BBQ (free breakfast tacos and Steele’s beer aka in bed by 8pm)
  • Fader Fort (our new ‘line friend’ John attended Rachael Ray’s party and enjoyed a free breakfast)

For Stubb’s BBQ you queue on guest list opening day to collect the passes then queue to get in. Once the free beverages run out there are no more so get in early.

RSVPster review

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 in 2o18 just to be safe. I’m intrigued to assess its use next year.

SXSW Apps

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. A charged phone is essential, pack your too.

SXSW free gigs

SXSW Venues

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)
  • Hotel Vegas – 1502 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702 (5 different rooms, day goers can stay until evening without getting thrown out)
  • The Blackheart – 86 Rainey St, Austin, TX 78701 (Frank Turner, Amy Shark – really cool street with lots of venues, look out for the I hate you so much wall)
  • Urban Outfitters SXSW/UO Spaces/Space 24 Twenty –  2420 Guadalupe St. Austin, 78705 (look out for Jeremiah the Innocent on the walk there – Gus Dapperton, Men I Trust)
  • Volcon Garden – 1209 E 6th St, Austin, TX 78702 (Kelea)

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 booked Firehouse Hostel months in advance and when they realised it was SXSW they cancelled our booking and left us limited time to find an alternative. We’ve also stayed with HI Hostel Austin which 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 Firehouse 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 £25, 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 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. 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 2019. Oh, and take your ID – you have to prove who you are (and that you are over 21) at every door.

Save to your Austin board

How to do SXSW for free

Are you going SXSW?
Let us know in the comments below

Comments 17

  1. My daughter attended this one … she is an online marketing guru for her company. She loved it there. I tried to get her to let me come along, but she said she’d be too busy to spend any time with me! LOL

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  2. This event has grown into a megalith over the years. The digital media component is, quite honestly, the only part of it which I am even remotely familiar. Your ingenious strategies could be adapted for almost any multi-day event, though, so very helpful! I liked how you reminded people that actual performances don’t comprise the entire show – plenty to see and do in the queues! A fun look at SXSW, thanks.

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  3. This sounds fun! I never knew music festivals could be so complicated and cool at the same time! While I don’t see me and the kids attending for a few more years yet ( they are still at the “stars on ice” type of concert stage) it sounds like a great way to travel in conjunction with your hobby!

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  4. It reminds me of visiting Galway, Ireland during the horse races. There are so many interesting things happening in the streets and music pouring from every building and even people in the streets. Waiting in lines was never a problem there either. That’s part of the fun, right? We met two guys that I stayed friends with more than 10 years later.

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      I didn’t even know that existed in Galway! Sounds like fun. Looking forward to meeting up with friends we made last year again and some Austinites we’ve met on the road in the past few months!

  5. Excellent information! I love festivals and SXSW has always been very high on my bucket list. I had no idea the event was so connected. You have saved me future hours of research and frustration in planning to attend this festival. I look forward to attending in the future with my charged phone and backup battery 🙂

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  6. HI! I was never into festivals, but this one sounds like fun. Interesting that it also includes the digital side. Thanks for the detailed description on how to get involved!

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  7. Thanks so much for sharing these tips! I’ve always wanted to go to SXSW but it seemed so expensive, so I put it on the back burner. I think I’ll have to take another look for next year though now! Looks like such a fun time!!

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      I’m going to write an article about accommodation soon as we’ve had a ‘mare of late. You can’t book to early as everyone cancels on you once they realise it’s SX and they can make their millions in that week. Stay tuned!

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