Since its inception in 1987, South by Southwest has grown from a 700-person local festival to the largest music festival of its kind. But why? Award-winning music supervisor and six-time SXSW attendee Andrew Kahn is back to share his insight on enjoying South By culture by shedding light on why the festival is such a phenomenon (validating your decision to travel south or exacerbating your FOMO, depending on who you are).
The best thing about SXSW is that it's spread throughout Austin, so fans can have a rare, intimate experience with bands that usually play stadiums. It's the opposite of mega-fests like Coachella or Governor's Island, where you and 50,000 other people end up clamoring to see a band that usually plays a 200-capacity venue.
The growth has brought some headaches, but change has also been a good thing for both musicians and fans. More attention leads to more money leads to more opportunities for bands leads to better shows for fans. The fest used to focus on showcasing up-and-coming and indie acts, but now there's something for everyone. Last year Prince, Justin Timberlake, Snoop Dogg, and Depeche Mode all performed, while baby bands flourished in small venues throughout the city. The variety of acts has made the festival more appealing for musicians, and more exciting for fans.
SXSW is one of the few events where you see a genuine explosion of enthusiasm. It's pretty much a spring break paradise for music lovers. Whether you're there to "work" or as a fan, it feels like a massive vacation.
To be fair, there are some downsides. The downtown neighborhood where most SXSW activities take place becomes the Times Square/Bourbon Street/Hollywood Boulevard of Austin. It's overcrowded with slow, drunk, confused tourists. There's definitely a good time to be had, but you'll have to navigate your way through a hellish parade of puking ex-frat boys to find it.
You should also prepare for a pretty bleak housing and transportation situation. If you can find a home base within two miles of the festival, the price may make NYC rents seem almost reasonable. Getting to and from any venue will require you to fight strangers over a taxi or hire a local to cart you around in a pedicab while he drinks a PBR and reminisces about his days volunteering in Guam. Luckily, you'll be spending as little time as possible in your Airbnb, most of which should be spent sleeping. So once you make your way to town, don't come back until you're ready to call it a night.
Sometimes the action can be a little overwhelming, and you don't want to burn out halfway through the festival. If you need a break from the madness, I highly recommend Barton Springs. The enormous pool in the middle of a natural creek just outside of downtown is perfect for a rejuvenating mini-getaway. Another option I've relied on when I need a break from the SX scene is renting a bike and doing a little exploring.
At the end of the day, remember that you're there to have fun. Here are some dos and don'ts to help:
Do venture outside of Downtown. It's the epicenter of the fest, but there's fun to be had throughout the city. Don't take too many photos at shows! Putting your fancy camera phone away and being in the moment is the best way to enjoy yourself and respect the people around you. Do eat lots of Tex-Mex for breakfast…and lunch…and definitely dinner. Juan In A Million is a good place to start. Don't bring your big-city attitude with you. Austin is a genuine and friendly place, and that spirit seeps into the fest. Don't spoil it! Indulge, engage, and enjoy yourself.
Next week, Andrew will check in from SXSW to share his music — and food! — discoveries.
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Andrew Kahn works as an independent music supervisor at his company Good Ear Music Supervision (GEMS) for brands such as Apple, Target, Southern Comfort, ESPN, Cadillac, and many more. From 2007-2011 he served as the in-house music supervisor at TBWA/Media Arts Lab, overseeing Apple's iconic commercials, and prior to that as the Music Coordinator on HBO's The Sopranos. Andrew keeps on his musical toes DJing events in LA and NYC, and consulting for brands such as Human Rights Watch, Konkuey Design Initiative, and FixFood.