Posted on | March 14, 2011 | 1 CommentI’ve been to every SXSW since 1995. Sadly, my streak ends this year. Since I can’t be there, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned through the years with those of you lucky enough to be going.
If you’re playing down there, I assume you’ve already gotten some extra day party shows booked, etc. (but not too many of those I hope). I’m not going to cover that sort of stuff here. These tips are more about the spectating/networking side of the festival. They start practical and get progressively more philosophical.
1. Wear comfortable shoes. Everyone wants to look cool down there. But you will be doing a lot of walking. So bring some shoes you know will be good for that. You don’t want to be breaking in new shoes down there.
2. Be prepared for any weather. Best case scenario, it’s shorts and t-shirt weather. But sometimes, it’s Seattle in the winter weather. Lots of stuff happens outside at night, even when it’s 50 degrees. It’s good to have some layers and gloves. Bring some sunscreen too.
3. Try to eat a good meal at the start of the day. There’s a good chance you will start drinking by 2:00 in the afternoon (or earlier) and keep drinking until 2am or 3am each day of the festival. Put something in your stomach first. In the flow of things, it’s easy to forget to eat. Or there may not be food available right at the moment you realize that you need some. Remember to drink water too.
4. Don’t ignore people from your town. Paradoxically, SXSW is a great place to meet people from your hometown. In your hometown, it’s easy to just stay in your own little silo, interacting with the same people all the time. At SXSW, everyone is a fish out of water, and people from your town are much easier to spot and often more open to interacting, even if you’re not from their little part of the scene.
It’s easy to think that SXSW is mostly about connecting with people from other towns. And it’s definitely useful for that. But if you aren’t already super successful in your hometown, you’re missing a great opportunity to build your local network too (a network I might add that will probably be more useful and important in the early stages of your project than your out-of-town network).
Connections made in Texas often resonate for many years. I know I’ve made some great friends down there through the years.
5. Don’t be afraid to head off on your own. Moving around an event like SXSW with a big group of people is a major exercise in cat herding. In this situation, you have two choices: (A) stick with the group and don’t worry too much about where you end up; or (B) head off on your own and go exactly where you want to go.
Option “A” can be a fun and really rewarding experience. Often, you end up checking out some stuff you never would have gotten to on your own. But don’t be afraid to choose option “B” sometimes too. It will probably lead to a magic moment. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave the group at SXSW and strike out on your own. Nobody will be offended. Besides, with cell phones, foursquare, etc. it’s not that hard to reconnect with your posse later.
6. Spend some time in the corners. Every year there are going to be some buzz shows that everybody seems to want to go see. Try not to get too fixated on those shows. If you really want to see one of them and you have a badge, go for it. Those can be special shows. But don’t be afraid to look for stuff in the corners too, off the beaten path. That’s probably where the next big thing will really be happening. It’s also where you are more likely to have a transcendent experience watching a seasoned veteran playing at the festival for the love of the game as much as anything else. These artists are the opposite of the next big thing. But they are still the real deal. They’ll help remind you why you love music, and they might just change your life too.
7. Never assume somebody is unimportant. There are a lot of people down in Texas. Some of them are very important right now. It’s natural to want to focus on connecting with them, because they seem like the most obvious people who can help you. But remember, there are also a lot of people down there who aren’t important right now, but who may be very important a few years from now. If you treat them badly now, you’ll burn a bridge before you even realize you ought to be building one. So don’t be a dumb-ass. Have a little grace.
8. Value quality over quantity (and be open to meaningful coincidences). The festival is not a contest to see who gets the most business cards. There are no clear metrics, and its value isn’t always obvious. It could be years before you fully appreciate the value of something that happened at SXSW. So focus on the quality of your experiences and interactions, not just the quantity. You never know where that might lead you.
Let’s say you meet this gal down in Texas. She doesn’t seem like anybody. She’s just friends with somebody else you’re hanging out with (maybe they were friends from college). She says she books a few bands where she lives in North Carolina. You’ve never heard of any of them, but you’re not a dumb-ass, so you treat her with respect anyway. After the bar closes, you, your buddy, and the gal end up getting tacos on the street, stumbling down Red River past Emo’s on the way to an after hours affair. You folks have a lot of fun at the after hours party, cracking each other up. It feels like you have been friends for years, not just 3 or 4 hours. So great.
Three years later, the gal is booking a really successful rising star band from North Carolina. You’ve kept up with her on Facebook through the years, and she’s always been interested to hear the music you’re making. You had drinks with her at SXSW last year when you saw her down there, and you laughed your asses off again.
About six months after that last round of drinks, she pings you out of the blue. She thinks your band would be a good fit for the northwest leg of the tour she’s booking for that rising star band. Would you be into doing it? You didn’t even have to pitch her on the idea. She pitched it to you. Fucking “A” yes that’s a good idea.
No tacos, no after hours party, no laughing your asses off? No northwest tour with her rising star band. Seems like random good luck, right? But it’s not completely random. It happened because you embraced that moment and helped make it memorable for everyone involved.
You could have spent that time scanning the room trying to figure out if there was somebody more important to chat up. Instead, you opted for quality. Good call.