SXSW: The New Rules of South By Southwest

The Thermals
Chad Wadsworth/Butchershop Creative

The Thermals perform at the House of Vans at SXSW

South by Southwest is the prime environment for a condition known as FOMO -- fear of missing out -- to spread like the incurable contagion that it is. But take it from the old school: In five years, or as many months, that secret set from the fest's rapper-du-jour on the edge of town won't feel so special when you can't remember anything more than pining for your hotel bed at 2 in the morning. (Semi-related: A lesson many new bands learn the hard way is to check whether a performance at 12 means noon or midnight.)

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To be sure, music is not the end-all, be-all of the five-night fest. With so much happening simultaneously (including movie screenings all over town; see page 30), and much of it easily viewed vicariously through social media, it's time to reconsider your approach to SXSW. Seeing every buzz band ever blogged about won't actually help you find the future of music, or save your job, whichever you're trying to accomplish. You need to operate outside of the mania that sets in once you touch down in Austin. To that end, we've laid out some simple rules.

The great Guy Clark once sang, "Well I wished I was in Austin in the Chili Parlor Bar/Drinkin' Mad Dog Margaritas and not carin' where you are." The Texas Chili Parlor (est. 1976) still stands at Lavaca and 15th, slightly out of range from the SXSW sphere of insanity. Consider stopping by and not caring where you are (rule No. 11). Here are the other 10:

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1. Avoid Sixth Street. It's impassible and impossible. Bands: Bring only what you can carry. Badge-holders: Dive into the Driskill Hotel bar if you must, but otherwise, opt for a pedi-cab down the alleys to get around the downtown cluster.

2. Bring no more than two cool band shirts to wear during your stay. (You aren't allowed to wear the same one all day, every day -- we're looking at you, dude in the Bevis Frond tee.)

3. Take an afternoon off and get out of town. No -- crossing into South Austin doesn't count (and you really don't want to walk it; it's farther than it seems).

4. East Austin is the new South Austin, so once you're done making the rounds at the hotels surrounding the Convention Center, cross the highway to the other side. A new world awaits, only semi-gentrified.

5. Bands: Take it easy! Limit your performances to two a day. Any more than three and you're impressing no one but yourself. Instead, go to someone else's showcase for a change. Don't you have any friends?

6. Put that damn phone down! You are going to be in a line, and undoubtedly more than once. Take your face out of your phone and bond with your fellow music fan. If nothing else, think: The more people you know, the better the barnstorm if a special guest takes the stage while you're waiting.

7. See one band you've never heard of. It used to be the norm, now it's the exception, but with more than 2,200 acts scheduled to play, that mind-blowing, life-changing show could be anywhere. If you're one of a dozen badge-holders who winds up at the Japanese hair-metal show at 1 in the morning, rock on.

8. Again, put that damn phone down! Firing off a quick Instagram or Facebook update? No problem. Drunk tweeting? Likely. Recording the band you're watching as if gathering footage for submission to next year's film fest? Unacceptable. It's distracting to the band, and it leaves everyone around you looking at your minuscule screen rather than the live, in-the-flesh experience just feet in front of them. (Note: This rule should apply to all shows, not just SXSW.)

9. Just say no to the goodie bag. Nothing is more depressing than thousands of tree-killing postcards and never-to-be-used flash drives littering the sidewalks. It's a clash of the mediums in downtown Austin: discarded paper products in an area where trash cans are scarce partly because the town has long considered itself a progressive tech hub.

10. Decide your mission in advance and don't give in to the FOMO. There is nothing at all shameful about hitting only a couple of events in a day and eating three square meals. Why kill yourself simply trying to get around, let alone cover all the bases? Find what speaks to you, or try something unexpected. You'll connect to the spirit of the fest's early days, and you never know what you'll discover.


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