9 Tips to make the most of SXSW 2018

Next Friday, the SXSW (South by Southwest) Film and Interactive conference and festival kicks off in Austin, Texas… then the Music Mayhem starts the following Tuesday! We’re just days away from flying to the great city ourselves for our 9th consecutive year of coverage, so we thought we’d share with your our top nine festival tips in this special piece. Read on and pay close attention…

1. Don’t peak too soon…

It’s the hardest thing to avoid, especially on your first night at SXSW. Rushing off to the first parties you can find and enjoying a pile of free beverages (and, usually, snacks) and letting the excitement take over. And that’s the problem: it is all very exciting. And you’re probably standing next to someone famous. But remember this is day one of up to nine days… keep the excitement going and don’t fall victim to a first day hangover. It never goes away. But luckily, the free drinks don’t stop either. So it’s a bit of a balancing act no latter how you look at it.

2. Visit a Church. 

Pictured: Curtis Harding in the Central Presbyterian Church. Photo by Larry Heath.
Pictured: Curtis Harding in the Central Presbyterian Church. Photo by Larry Heath.

I live by a bit of a rule at SXSW. If in doubt, visit a church. And there are quite a few that become music venues during the festival. Central Presbyterian Church is usually your safest bet – in past years we’ve seen Band of HorsesIron & WineJames BlakeTyphoon, Fiona Apple and many more incredible artists in that room. Some of the best sound of the entire festival, too. At another church one year I stumbled across a guy named Hozier. I think you may have heard of him by now. What makes these gigs so great is that 1) you can sit down 2) it sounds beautiful and 3) the curation is always splendid, giving you a chance to see as-yet-unknown artists before they break. It’s a very, very safe bet.

3. Get that SXXpress pass…

If you have a badge, you’re able to get what’s called a SXXpress pass, which allows you to skip to the front of the queue for a selected artist at a selected venue. Music badges will get two choices a day, Platinum badges will get three choices a day. In past years you’ve had to line up early on the morning of the show to get your pass, but this year you will do it the night before via the SXSW app. Have a look here for more details as even veterans will need to get their heads around this one.

4. Change your plans last minute and follow the crowd.

OK, so Austin isn’t a very big place if we’re looking at the downtown area. You’ll be walking pretty much everywhere – maybe taking the odd Pedicab along the way – and usually you’ll have a destination in mind. But give yourself plenty of room to move. If you see a crowd of people walking somewhere, chances are they know something you don’t: or at the very least have some good plans in mind. Follow them and see what happens… You never know what you’ll stumble across…

5. Stroll down to South Congress…

If you’re an Austin local, you’ll usually be found a little bit out of the action during SXSW – and one place you’ll be continually told to check out is South Congress, on the other side of the Colorado River. There’s great shopping, unique venues and plenty of unofficial events happening. Oh and the food is some of the best in the city, too. Most pedicabs will happily take you across the bridge to enjoy what the other part of town has to offer… though it is walkable we wouldn’t recommend it (it’s a lot longer than it looks like on the map).

Pictured: Iggy Pop, performing with The Stooges at SXSW 2013. Photo by Andrew Wade.
Pictured: Iggy Pop, performing with The Stooges at SXSW 2013. Photo by Andrew Wade.

6. Get to shows early.

Missed out on a ballot ticket? Didn’t get an SXXpress pass? Show up anyway. If you’re a badge holder, get there before the venue opens its doors – for the biggest shows I’d recommend an hour – and you’ll pretty much always get in. But even if you get get in on a ballot, or get up early enough to get an express pass, you should always get there while the previous band is playing at the absolute latest to make sure you get in. The hottest shows though aren’t worth the risk… if you really want to see something, plan accordingly! You won’t be able to get in if you don’t give yourself the time to line up. But if you do give yourself the time to line up (and you have a badge), you’ll almost always get in. I’ve never missed a show I’ve wanted to get into by following those rules. If you have a wristband you’ll want to give yourself even more time as you only get let in once badges are catered for!

7. Support Australian Artists!

There are dozens of official and unofficial Australian artists showcasing at SXSW every year and this year is no different. They’ll be playing at events all week, so head along and support them! Often this is a great opportunity to see well established Aussie acts playing small venues, too, so it’s a win-win. Your best bet to see a bunch of Australian bands at once though is at one of the many parties happening at Lucilles, which will be known as “Australia House” for the first time, holding parties like “The Aussie BBQ” and events for Aussie companies like MGM.

Badge holders will get in with no problems, subject to capacity, and there are usually RSVP options for those without Badges, which you should look out for. Same goes for most day parties… if you want someone to RSVP for you, check out RSVPster.com.

Artists like Chet Faker and Vance Joy play SXSW before even touring at home. G-Flip is shaping up to be the Aussie Buzz artist to watch this year. Watch the first ever interview with Vance Joy here, from the Aussie BBQ in 2013:

8. See Food Trucks? Eat Food Trucks.

Austin has some of the best food trucks in the country – and they’re in overdrive during SXSW, scattered around the city in groups. Make sure you don’t leave the city without trying some Korean Mexican fusion food at our favourite spot, Chi’lantro. Their Kimchi Fries and Burritos are out of this world. But you really can’t go wrong no matter where you eat. There’s also a spot on South Congress that does some incredible fried chicken and mac n cheese – a staple no doubt.

9. End your festival with a BBQ.

Spend an extra day in Austin on Sunday if you can and enjoy a good BBQ to end off the festival. Sure, you’ll have snacked all week on some of the best food (and best food trucks) in the country, but getting pieces of Salt Lick at the MTVu Woodies has nothing on sitting in Salt Lick itself, enjoying piles of meat dripping in their succulent sauces and spices. Places like Franklin’s and Salt Lick are indeed favourites for a post SXSW feast, but you don’t have to go that far to enjoy it: Why not head to the Stubb’s Gospel Brunch on the Sunday? Or if you’re a fan of team sports, SXSW even has some spectacular BBQ at their annual Softball tournament. And best of all, it’s free! We also love to food at Moonshine – their Chicken Fried Steak with a side of Mac n Cheese has been a staple of our last meals at SXSW for years!

And that’s it! We’re just hours away from flying over for the festival ourselves, so keep your eyes tuned to the AU review for all the action, and on our SXSW hub which you can find on our music site here! For more details about the event itself, running 9th to 18th in Austin, Texas, head to sxsw.com.

Photo: Deftones play the annual SPIN SXSW day party. Photo provided by SPIN.


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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.