SXSW Survival Guide 2013
By Beth Martinez (@dangervillage) of Danger Village, a music publicity firm.
In four days, I'll be leaving Los Angeles to attend my eighth South by Southwest Music Festival. Having been attending festivals for over ten years now, I've developed a few methods for surviving the madness that comes with integrating into a crowd of thousands of festivalgoers for days on end. If you're serious about your festival experience, you'll want to figure out a way to enjoy yourself, see a ton of great music, and possibly escape without coming down with the SXSW Plague that puts out 90 percent of the music industry in the two weeks following their return from Austin. To wit, here are three major lessons I've learned that have helped me not hate music and life for the month after SXSW ends:
1. Be Prepared for Anything
Before leaving my hometown, I always head to a local store to stock up on supplies. You're not going to want to waste time in Austin hitting the Target off I-35, and the convenience store across from the Driscoll is always super packed and overpriced. Use the handy guide below as a shopping list of what you should pick up before you go.
a. Tote Bag Note to dudes reading this: SXSW makes it OK to carry a tote. Cool music labels and parties give them away, so you have no reason to not use one to sport all your supplies. You're going to be on your feet for 18 hours a day, you can bring a bag. Don't be a hero. We don't need another hero. For the ladies, I'd suggest anything with a side angle shoulder strap that you don't mind getting dusty, spilled on, covered in vomit (preferably not your own, but you never know) or stolen. Anything can happen at SXSW. Anything.
b. Camp Toilet Paper Inevitably, you'll end up at some French Legation Music type of setup with overused and under-maintained Porto Potties dotting the parameter. Over the years, I've tried many methods for bringing my own toilet paper to festivals, from travel tissues to actual rolls. Most travel packs don't reseal properly and you end up with dirty bits of tissue floating around in your tote. What works best, in my experience, is the Charmin camp To-Go. The resealable hard plastic holder stands up to the movement in your cluttered tote, and these small rolls hold a surprising amount of toilet paper.
c. Sunscreen Lotion Unless you're coming from Australia, where it's summer now, or some equatorial country, Austin is likely going to be sunnier and hotter than where you come from. Getting sunburn on the first day will exhaust you for the rest of the trip, and probably embarrass you when you're trying to look your best. Grab a travel-sized sunscreen to keep in your tote and you will be set. It will make you popular while waiting in line to get into Maggie Mae's, and you may end up making friends with the editor of a magazine because of it. (What up Scott Heisel of Alternative Press!)
d. Extra phone battery Begging the bartender at the outdoor stage of the Beauty Bar to plug in your iPhone or Blackberry so you can check in with your boss is not a good look. (See: Rookie Mistakes, 2006.) Your phone will run out of battery charge. A phone charger is not enough you don't want to be tied to a pole around the corner while your friends are off dancing to the hot new band you've been dying to see. Invest in an extra phone battery and possibly even good portable battery charger.
e. Portable Grub Long-term music festivals wear us down to our most primal instincts. The need for food, rest, and shelter become foremost on our minds as we throw away all cares for how we look or smell. You'll start out your time in Austin with grand dreams of margaritas and tacos on a terrace overlooking 6th Street and by Saturday you'll be so frustrated by the long lines and overpriced food trucks that you'll settle for free Dorito tacos at the Hype Hotel even though you haven't eaten anything from Taco Bell in five years. (See: Hunger Induced Indulgences, 2012)
Put simply, you need to eat. Food is essential for keeping up your energy and stamina. Lone Star and whatever other energy drink is being pushed onto the public this year aren't sufficient for this purpose. My favorite festival foods are packs of almonds, granola bars without chocolate (it's really hot, remember?), and beef jerky or Slim Jims. Think of it as trail food. Unlike the Hunger Games, there will be no rations dropped from the sky.
f. Ear Plugs Have you ever hung out with aging rockers? If not, spend some time on the Sunset Strip around those dudes with dyed-black hair who nod along to what you're saying to act like they can hear you. They can't, because their hearing is blown from years of overuse. Wear some earplugs. A lot of brands give away plugs at parties, so you can stock up on enough to get you through the next year.
h. Wet Wipes Austin in March is hot and dusty. You'll be grimy and even if you plan it, you often won't be able to make it back to your hotel/Airbnb/friend's couch/hovel to freshen up before going out for the night. I've found that individually wrapped hand wipes have the best staying power, winning out over any resealable or snap-closed pack. It's not actually the Hunger Games, so you may actually care what you smell like.
i. Ibuprofen/Aspirin Investing in a travel pack of Tylenol is way more efficient than spending $3 a pop at the corner store several times during the week. It's going to be loud and you'll be shouting during shows to be heard. Your voice will hurt and your ears will ring. You'll get dehydrated. You may want some pain relief, so make the wise choice now.
j. Sharpie Writing down information on the back of a flyer or business card is sometimes crucial, especially if you run into someone who can't take notes on their smart phone because they didn't know to bring an extra battery and it's dead. Often, those flyers are laminated and a pen isn't going to cut it. Buy a three-pack of small sharpies. Share with friends. Treat yourself.
2. Comfort Over Cuteness
SXSW is like summer camp for the music industry mixed with NYC fashion week. From the New York Times to Elle, you'll read style reports from SXSW, as well as see every style imaginable and unimaginable parading down 6th Street. Unless getting photographed is your thing," try to make wise choices in what clothes you bring to Austin. It will be hot during the day and cold at night. You're going to sweat and then you're going to freeze. Think breathable cotton with a portable sweater that folds into your handy tote.
You should also make sure that you bring proper footwear. Yes, Chucks are adorable and look great with everything. But the lack of support on the flat bottoms results in fallen arches after one day of walking. Asics and Sauconys are my sneakers of choice, but if you must Chuck, I'd suggest investing in some gel inserts for the week.
Wearing flip-flops at SXSW, as in the rest of life, are always a bad idea. You don't want to end up in the Convention Center with the dude from Music for Robots running to find you a Band-Aid for your tragically oozing, recently burst blister, as you're trying to look cool saying Hi!" to the owner of Pitchfork while grimacing in pain and embarrassment. (See: My Rookie Mistakes, 2006)
Personally, I like to opt for pink ballerina Crocs, but I also have no shame.
3. Know When to Call It
I've tried many times to make the most out of every single moment of my SXSW experience by trying not to miss anything, including the always-a-bad-idea late, late night parties after the after-party. In my rookie year of 2006, I learned a valuable lesson that stays with me to this day: do not, under any circumstances, drink Red Bulls and Vodka until 4 AM at the Red Bull House. You will only sleep poorly, for a few hours, and then never regain equilibrium for the rest of the festival, causing you to spiral into an alcohol and energy drink infused haze that ends with you trying to latch onto the singer from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah all night at the VICE Saturday night party at that Blue Genie warehouse, miles away from downtown with no cabs in site and five percent left on your Blackberry battery.
The truth is that you're always going to be missing something at SXSW. You'll think of all the money and time you spent to get there and you'll want to make the most of it. Know that those really late night shindigs often end up like the infamous 2007 VICE late night party where the porch collapsed with everyone standing around waiting for something cool to happen or somebody famous to show up. Nine times out of ten you're left stranded for an hour waiting for a cab, wishing you'd gone to bed hours ago. Know when to call it quits: tomorrow is another day and you'll get more out of it on six hours of sleep versus two.
Spend the next few days getting as much rest as you can. Building up your immune system heading into the festival will hopefully protect you from getting sick, and give you the ability to present your shiniest face to the rest of the music world. There have been years where I tried to prep for SXSW by not getting sleep and drinking a lot of tequila, and it doesn't work. Just take my word on that one. Hopefully my obsessive planning gave you some good ideas and you end up having the best SXSW of your life. I'll see you there!