Each year, those of us lucky enough to attend the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas face the same questions: Where am I, and what am I doing?
It's pretty intimidating from a scheduling perspective -- there's so much going on, you're guaranteed to miss almost all of it, no matter what you do. (Plug: I'm speaking twice, but other than that, I'm considering a strict vow of silence.)
In the interest of smart festival attendance -- or even if you're not going, but just want to find out about some cutting edge new music or try the tools people at SXSW will be using this year -- here's a quiver of arrows to help you split the apple on SXSW's head, to mangle a metaphor. We haven't included them all (for that, go here) -- just the ones we've tried and verified are useful.
Our work here is not done. We aim to revise this list during this week's lead-up to the festival, which starts on Friday, March 9. If we missed any really good SXSW tools that should be listed here, please let us know.
Discover your next favorite band
Whether you're going for Film, Interactive, Music, or all three segments of the festival, there will be bands playing everywhere you look. Sometimes, you can even hear four of them at the same time as you stumble down the street. These tools should help you wade through the noise.
SXSW Torrent (BitTorrent): If you don't already, you need to know about this unofficial resource, which showcases the useful, rarely seen, mostly-not-infringing side of the BitTorrent file sharing protocol. How else could you distribute a 4.71GB file ( .torrent) containing at least one song from every band showcasing at the festival this year? BitTorrent is an efficient way to spread a file like that -- and you can bet that none of the bands included mind. After all, these showcases are there to help bands get discovered, and all of the MP3s included in the file were approved for free posting on SXSW.com/music, so it's legit. However, even with BitTorrent's efficiency, the file takes forever to download, and even longer to listen to, so you might still need some of the other tools listed here.
Suggest.by (web - thanks, Peter Watts): In the absence of Lastsx.sw (see below), we're happy that Suggest.by emerged to help people wade through the ridiculous amount of music at SXSW to find stuff they will personally enjoy ( more here).
Operation Every Band (web): These lunatics pledged to "listen to and review every band performing at SXSW 2012." We haven't scrolled through the whole thing, but it looks like they made some great progress, and they're still at it. Granted, some of the reviews are just a single sentence, but there's lots of YouTube mixed in there too. While not the magic taste-based band finder we seek (see below), it's sure faster than listening to everything in the torrent. (We've emailed to ask them how far they've gotten, and hope to post an update soon.)
Austin 360's Guide to "Side Parties" : This one's super useful for those nights when you somehow find yourself with some time to spare, but it also works if you're trying to track down a particular band at an unofficial event or just drink a free beer. You can search by Interactive/Film/Music, date, and whether the event is free or not -- and whether it has free food and drink -- and that's just the "simple search." The " advanced search" lets you check out the SXSW 2012 side parties by venue, event name, staff picks, RSVP required, invite/badge required, and even what bands are playing. Yes, loads of bands play sponsored side parties at SXSW. How else could they afford to fly to Texas and play for free?
Lastsx.sw (web): This is a bummer. Lastsx.sw, which appears to have been shut down by the official SXSW people, used to be able to recommend bands for you to see at SXSW based on your Last.fm and/or Spotify preferences. According to the website, festival organizers shut it down because "We strongly believe that anyone who sees your solicitations or promotions will assume that we are endorsing your company." The creators of Lastsx.sw responded with a call for SXSW to release a public API to make it easier for developers to make apps like this, rather than harder: "As if this was a company endeavor, or had any promotions or solicitations. Total lameness. Here's a thought for you: launch a public API." Hear hear!
(Note: We need a streaming radio app for SXSW 2012. Shoutcast, Slacker and other places we've seen SXSW radio stations in the past are coming up empty this year. Do we really have to plow through that whole torrent file manually? Like, with our own ears, and everything? Hopefully not. If you've seen a streaming radio station for SXSW 2012, please, let us know and we'll add it to this list.)
Meeting people is easy
If you are going to Austin this year, one of the best things about it is meeting people. One of the worst things about it is meeting the wrong people. Both kinds seem to be everywhere at SXSW; these apps should help you find more of the former while avoiding the latter.
Highlight (iOS): Every SXSW seems to bring a breakout app (see: Foursquare). Maybe it's because the festival creates such a concentration of tech and music nerds in a town unfamiliar to most of them, but for whatever reason, there always tends to be an "it" app, and this year, Highlight looks like the one everyone will be talking about. Install the app on your iPhone, and you'll be able to see lots of information about anyone else with the app installed who is standing near you, using GPS and the fact that most of us have a shocking amount of information available about ourselves on Facebook, which this app can see. Logging in with Facebook is necessary, and allows the app to see your basic information, profile, photos, your friends' shares, send you email, and access your data at any time, even if you're logged out. Privacy squeamishness aside, this actually looks like it could be useful in Austin this year -- assuming you're actually looking for even more people to talk to.
Glancee (Android, iOS, Facebook): Glancee does pretty much the same stuff Highlight does, but it also runs on Android phones in addition to iOS. Will that help it or hurt it in the race to be the "it" app of SXSW? That could go either way, given the preponderance of Apple fanboys and other iPhone users flooding the streets of Austin later this week. So far, Glancee does a better job of introducing people who don't already know each other, although granted, we haven't walked around with Highlight yet.
Ban.jo (Android and iOS): Is there really another one of these? There is. Ban.jo does the same thing Glancee and Highlight do, and like Glancee, it runs on both Android and iOS. What is a person to do except for installing all three and seeing which one actually works best in Austin? That's what we're doing.
I'm Right Here (iOS): Plenty of apps let you share your location, but this one purports to be the only one that can send a URL with your location via SMS. It's not true. You can share your location using the Map app on your iPhone by dropping a Pin first, then sharing that location. However, we like the name of this app, and there's something to be said for how simple this app makes sharing your location to anyone in your iPhone's address book -- especially later in the evening, when things can look blurrier than Highlight's logo.
It's really important to stay organized at SXSW, where it's very important that you stay organized. You should also try to stay organized.
Sched.org (web, Android, iOS, Blackberry): If you only try one app from this entire list, it should probably be this one. Sched.org's guide remains the gold standard in SXSW organizers for the web, Android, iOS, and Blackberry. It shows you an encyclopedic list of what's going on there; you can tag the stuff you want to attend to put it into a personalized calendar that can be exported to whatever you normally use for scheduling; or you can use the app itself as your calendar. This year, Sched added EventBrite compatibility, so when you RSVP for a party or other event using that, it goes right on your Sched.org calendar. So far, it lists 6,729 unofficial and official events. You can sort them by "badge events," free drinks, free food, and so on -- or just make your way through the whole thing chronologically, tagging stuff to add it to your personal calendar.
SXSW Go (iOS, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7): The official SXSW 2012 app, powered by Womzit, also warrants a mention, in part because it's available on more platforms than anything else on this list. As with Sched.org's apps, this one lets you browse through events and tag them to your own schedule, but it also includes maps, floor plans, the official list of speakers and exhibitors, the ability to track the festival on Twitter and Facebook, and a photo sharing area where attendees can share what they're seeing. And as with the unofficial Sched.org version, you can use the web and app versions interchangeably, offering a nice way to do the heavy organizational lifting on your computer and access the results on your smartphone.
LocalMind (iOS): This app, which tech pundit Robert Scoble said was the best SXSW app last year, lets you ask the people who have checked in at a place what is going on there, even if you don't know them. In most cities, most of the time, an app like this would be of dubious utility. However, at SXSW, possibly the most app-happy place in the world, it should actually work pretty well. Are you wondering whether so-and-so has gone on yet, or whether it's too crowded to get in to X, Y, or Z? This app lets you ask someone who is actually there.
Start your own festival
People sometimes complain about SXSW because it used to be a small music festival for industry insiders where bands would go to get discovered by record labels' A&R staffers, and now, it's a massive event primarily designed for music fans, which some say rips off bands who don't even get discovered there anymore. Instead of complaining, why don't you start your own festival? Google has a healthy number of resources for learning how to start your own music festival, but the best one we've seen so far is JP Music's Guide to Starting a Music Festival in a Bad Economy ( .pdf).