SXSW is a culture unto itself today, defined as much by its concentration of Google glass, hashtags and corporate bar tabs as it is by concerts, movie premiers and software launches. Spend enough time here and you might start believing the internet is a real live place. Looking at it all through the lens of the present, it’s hard to believe the festival was started 27 years ago by a few staffers at the Austin Chronicle who wanted to attract bands and artists from around the world to the eclectic music scene of Austin in hopes of exposing the city as a hotbed of talent.
Nearly three decades later, the nine-day festival has grown to welcome more than 300,000 visitors from around the globe into a roughly a five-block-by-five-block area of downtown Austin. Successfully organizing the chaos of individual attendance starts with an official website stocked with information about where to stay and how to get around, an app (of course) that allows attendees to create their own schedule or view upcoming sessions, and frequent shuttle loops that transport lanyard-wearing fans from hotels to venues on a surprisingly regular basis.
Keeping your sanity and wallet in ship shape still hinges largely on planning ahead. Hotel rooms near the Austin convention center go for $1,000/night and sell out months in advance. Other more reasonable options can be found outside the city for those willing to trek. Cabs can take close to an hour to drive routes that Google Maps suggests should take less than 10 minutes. Driving yourself? Parking near the festival in one of the many designated lots can run $20-$50/day. Solutions like the local light rail, bike rentals and even the hordes of pedi-cabs can often be better options for those in a hurry.
Then there are the badges for access to different parts of the festival (music, film, and “interactive”, or tech and internet-related), which range in price from $650 to $1,700 depending on your desired level of access. Buying up to six months ahead of time can save a few hundred dollars. Regardless of what you decide on, accept the fact that you can’t see everything. Over our four days we found a minimum of three to four keynotes, discussion panels and films to explore at every hour on our schedule. 11:00 a.m. on Saturday the 8th had a whopping nine solid options. Was it better to hear Marc Webb talk about his creative process and break down the layers of a song used in the upcoming Spider-Man movie, attend the discussion of how to “run your film like a startup company” or see Seth Meyers talk about his show? What about learning how drones are changing sports programming? Situations like these are both the blessing and curse of SXSW.
The frenzy was in full swing in the Interactive side of the festival, with upwards of 60 sessions happening simultaneously. Just imagine if every Ted Talk you saw, podcast you heard or Fast Company article you read happened at once. Want to learn about “Disrupting the Gun Lobby with Digital Organizing”, discuss “Emoji or Texting: Is the Human Language Extinct?” or find out “How Technology is Saving Poetry”? This is certainly the place.
Maybe you’re more interested in getting some kind of project off the ground. Pay attention to the Meet-Up category on the schedule. These sessions can be some of the most valuable time spent during your stay, and consist of smaller break-out times where people mingle, exchange cards, network, etc. around a given topic.
Once you consult your app and create your schedule, be prepared to stand in line for up to an hour in order to get a seat. We waited for 45 minutes to watch Jeffrey Tambor’s acting class, which was worth every second, and about an hour for Seth Meyers. Those waits were admittedly nothing compared to the lines to sit in on massive Skype sessions with Julian Assange or Edward Snowden.
After all this learning and networking there are plenty of places to relax and let loose with up-and-coming bands, DJs and comedy shows. One of those places was at De Nolet presented by KETEL ONE® Vodka on 7th. The windmill doorway, vintage wooden tables and copper plaques were homages to the Nolet family’s Schiedam roots. The rest of the scene was, to put it lightly, unique. At one bar denizens wore headphones to listen to a specialist talk about the different types of Ketel One vodka; across the room, others crafted cocktails inspired by bands like Caveman and Thumpers or tailored specifically to guests’ individual tastes using ingredients as varied and distinct as smoked Earl Grey tea, basil, grapefruit, hibiscus and mint.
Looking back on our whirlwind time at the festival, it’s clear that what makes SXSW a special is the overwhelming variety of its visitors. There were hackers who lived in their parents’ basements standing in line with Fortune 500 CEOs in thousand dollar suits; there were Silicon Valley startup execs who dressed like the hackers but had net worths on par with the CEOs. True, it might be the largest gathering of 30-somethings in hoodies since an Eminem lookalike contest, but at its core, SXSW is about the energy and excitement of the future. From web designers to musicians to filmmakers to bloggers, the people performing and attending are all in the same boat: the next big thing is just a convention center event away.
PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY.
KETEL ONE® Vodka. Distilled from Wheat. 40% Alc/Vol. ©2014 Imported by Ketel One USA, Aliso Viejo, CA.