If you didn’t go to South by Southwest in Austin last week, it probably wasn’t because you didn’t want to. With the cheapest music ticket going for $650 (early bird), the festival’s entry fee wasn’t exactly music to our ears.
So we traipsed to Texas to see if it could be done on a low budget, for free even (after travel and accommodation expenses, of course). During the week of SXSW, Austin becomes the land of swag (booze, food, freebies) and we couldn’t wait to get our paws on it.
Our first stop on Thursday was the outdoor stage at the Grackle on East 6th Street. Just a flash of our IDs and we were in: no lines, no cash – hurrah! On stage was a Japanese pop band called Mothercoat, their lead singer as skinny and springy as a cricket, and their sweet female guitarist rocking out hard in her floor-length hemp robe. Not even five minutes into their set, the holy grail of all signs floated beyond the bobbing heads – “FREE BEER!”
Having had a sampling of a smaller venue, we headed to the main SXSW action. Most gigs are on, or just off of 6thStreet, which can only be described as an infinitely lengthier and rowdier St Marks Place.
After a quick tweet to @wingstreet, we filled our bellies at Pandora’s Discovery Den — just what we needed to brave the crowd by the stage. We ended up waiting about 45 minutes through a pretty depressing sound check, and decided the show wouldn’t be all that better. But we didn’t care. We were on an adventure through the swaggy sea.
On our way to the Dr. Martens Culture Collide shindig (also free entry), we chased after the Reebok truck in hopes of getting some free kicks to no avail. Luckily a nice chap gave us little pots of hummus to replenish our chi.
Our last jaunt of the day led us to an official SXSW show – PC Music’s showcase at the Empire Control Room & Garage. The prospect of rubbing shoulders with the festival’s elite was exhilarating. The venue had been described by Resident Advisor as “that place you went to, that perfectly crazy time, at the sweet spot of the night, when anything was possible.”
A lengthy line dampened our delight, even more so when one hour of waiting brought us only a few dozen feet closer to the door. The line-up (Kane West and Hannah Diamond, to name a few) – we were told – was beyond cool and whispers of free drinks wound through the crowd. Upon entry a barrage of disappointments hit: they’d begun to charge a cover, the drinks were not free, and the music was tacky. One set sounded like a face-off between Mario Kart and a blender. We stayed and danced anyway, and later treated ourselves to an Uber home ($6 between three for a 2.5 mile ride is as good as free to a New Yorker).
With the lay of the land sussed out, we were ready to pounce on all things free the following day. We scored big time at BreakThru Radio’s party at The Liberty. Free entry and free beer slapped smiles on our faces, and a new friend gave us a spicy and sizeable sprout salad. Our bellies were full and we had that perfect afternoon buzz, but large grey clouds were looming over our heads and we knew we had to come up with a contingency plan.
A trek south of the river was in order, all the way to a remote Airbnb apartment where we joined some fellow New Yorkers for a house party hosted by EPISODE. They greeted us with free beer, tequila, and even photography. They’d invited photographers to display their work for guests to muse as they mingled. The party was the perfect shelter from the storm, and the band generously gave us a ride back to town.
The great thing about SXSW is that on top of all the big venues and bars, you have tons of music tents scattered across the city. This is where we headed next, right to the front of a party hosted by Sounds Australia. On stage we found Remi and Sensible J, an awesome hip-hop act from Australia. No free booze but Remi’s tongue-twisting talent blew us away.
Undeterred by the previous night’s experience, we headed to another official venue: Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel. We spotted on Twitter that the line had shrunk because of the rain, and this time no lies were in store for us as volunteers ushered us in. “Want a bookmark?” one of them piped. Dismayed at the freebie, we took several anyway and were delighted to discover the bookmarks were actually FREE DRINKS TOKENS. We sang and swayed all night long to the likes of Years and Years, Daniel Wilson, and more.
Day Three proved to be tricky, as we failed in our attempt to catch a glimpse of Bill Murray, and trekked halfway across town to get into the Mohawk only to discover a $10 fee.
The Iron Bear in downtown Austin had a free showcase (on Saturday only) of up and coming DJs such as Yoshi, et aliae, and MEISHI SMILE. These teenagers brought bounciness to their peers far from the dub step beats of the last generation adolescents.
Later we dashed across town to slip into the Earl Sweatshirt show at the Hype Hotel, only to be denied access as lowly non-badge holders. Feeling dismayed, we hiked home, indulging in an overpriced quesadilla to feed our stomachs and our souls.
Our time at SXSW was overwhelming, but loaded with great music. Seeing headliners is a possibility, but the charm of it is discovering new tunes. Going on a budget was miles easier than we expected, but bringing a poncho and a positive attitude will help with all the waiting.