So what is SXSW? 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 2021?
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 2021?
The show is pencilled in to kick off on March 12th – March 21st, 2021.
EDU takes place TBC, then Interactive portion takes over on the TBC. Film overlaps on the TBC. Finally, music will fill the streets officially from the TBC.
Purchase your early bird South by Southwest 2021 tickets here.
When was South by Southwest 2020?
SXSW 2020 was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID19.
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/panellists 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 2020 Announcements
- Keynote speech by Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) and Erin Lee Carr (I Love You, Now Die).
- Keynote by Grammy Award-winning musician, DJ, and producer Diplo.
- Panel discussion with 50 Cent.
- Conversation with the designer Tommy Hilfiger.
- Conversation with activist and #metoo founder Tarana Burke.
- Conversation with Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness.
- Music by Tim Burgess ex-The Charlatans, Walt Disco and CIFIKA.
- Reddit Chief Operating Officer Jen Wong.
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). Free.
- The Ninth Wave – Scottish band, Depeche Mode vibe played the British Music Embassy. Free.
- Nordista Freeze – wow, energy from Nashville! Caught on the rooftop of Handlebar. Free.
- APRE – indie pop, happy band from London (saw twice, once stripped back at Holy Roller). Free.
- Majestic Casual party – excellent lineup at the Rainey Street party. Badges.
- Good Omens Garden Party – this was a phenomenal two-day party with drink, food, music and puppies. Free SXSW event!
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 –
SXSW PanelPicker 2021
Mark this date in your diary, June 30, 2020!
On this date, the online application allows the SXSW community to have a voice in what sessions are programmed at SXSW.
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.
Also, pick up a copy of the Austin Chronicle paper for shows.
The Rules of Free SXSW Events
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 might 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.
How to RSVP to a Party at SXSW
If you want to ensure access to the best free SXSW showcases and parties Unofficial SXSW Guide can do the RSVPing for you. That you don’t have to work out if you need to RSVP as you are already on the list.
- Create SXSW dedicated email account, your inbox will be flooded during SX
- Sign up for the Unofficial SXSW Guide RSVP service with your new email
- Choose which events you want RSVPd to. Not sure? Go for ‘complete access’
- You will get an email confirmation for each event to your inbox which you show to door staff
- Unofficial SXSW Guide also send out a daily schedule which will decrease the chances of your brain melting
→ Running a SXSW showcase? Let Andrew and the team know here.
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 an RSVP! Sign up for the newsletter and apply nearer SXSW 2020.
- Whatever TV show is being pimped – pop up venue, three free drinks and 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.
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.
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).
- British Embassy – now at Cedar Courtyard. Awesome venue.
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.
What Do You Wear to SXSW Conference
Anything goes but be comfortable. Expect some days to be hot and sticky, other is can rain (not that often though). The number one item on your packing list should be well worn in shoes for all the dashing between locations.
If you are there to network you should aim to stand out. Bright hair, cool hat? Whatever your bag is. Prepare your elevator speech before you go too. Don’t forget your business cards.
SXSW Packing List
- SXSW Badge
- Proof of age
- Credit cards and cash ($1 for drinks tips)
- Comfortable shoes
- Waterproof coat – I recommend Marmot Precip US / UK, folds away neatly, looks good
- Warmer layer
- Day bag
- Phone battery pack – we use Anker US / UK
- Phone charger cable
- Hydration tablets US / UK – for the hangovers, seriously,
- Business cards
- Battery pack
- SD Card
- Earplugs for music venues
- Reusable water bottle – Bud Light party refused us entry, capitalism killing the planet
- Reusable straw – I have this bamboo cutlery kit US / UK
- Reusable cup
- Hand sanitizer
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is SXSW free?
It can be. There are plenty of free SXSW events around the city during the festival but the main point of SX is to connect clients with creatives and give companies the space to showcase their talent during the badge’s events.
SXSW or SX stands for South by Southwest. Apparently, it came from the movie North By Northwest.
How Long is South by Southwest?
The festival is officially ten days but there are events before and after if your liver can handle it.
Where are the Free SXSW Shows?
All over the city! On rooftops, in shops, in trucks, in theatres, and less surprisingly, in bars. Check out venues for an idea of some of the reliable venues.
Save to your Austin board
Are you going SXSW?
Let us know in the comments below
This guide to SXSW includes advertisement by Andrew and the team at Unofficial SX Guide
Table of Contents
- What is SXSW 2021?
- When is South by Southwest 2021?
- When was South by Southwest 2020?
- When was South by Southwest 2019?
- South by Southwest Line Up 2020
- SXSW 2020 Announcements
- SXSW Badges Explained
- SXSW PanelPicker 2021
- How To Do SXSW For Free [music, food and booze]
- How to RSVP to a Party at SXSW
- Wristbands For Free Shows
- SXSW Apps
- SXSW Venues
- Accommodation in Austin SXSW
- Getting Around Austin
- What Do You Wear to SXSW Conference
- SXSW Packing List
- SXSW For Free Roundup
- Frequently Asked Questions