Festival season isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. I learned this early on while attending this year’s South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. SXSW, as it is abbreviated, is a two-week long festival, consisting of several different subsections; Education, Interactive, Film, Gaming, & Music.

I was present for the entirety of this event, both volunteering, and attending. From both my success and follies, I hope you can learn to venture out into a festival on your own, having learned from my experiences.

1. Attending SXSW — Or, The Best Way To Get Entry

SXSW is an amazing event, but it is not a cheap one. Tickets range from the hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on what you’d hope to see. You can get the cheap option with both film and music wristbands, but the chances of seeing hotly anticipated films and shows are slim to none.

With such high prices, how does someone on a budget find a way to afford such luxuries? As SXSW would prefer it, volunteer! The majority of volunteers are from the surrounding colleges, University of Texas and St. Edwards. That isn’t to say that there aren’t others who volunteer, like my unemployed self. They also, like many festivals, will take in out of town volunteers. Don’t expect them to pay for your hotel, though.

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Volunteering means giving up the majority of your free time. It’s going to cost you 65 hours if you plan on getting the “platinum” badge, allowing you access to wherever you’d like during the event. This means you’ll spend a good portion of the festival working 8 to 12-hour shifts, putting in the time needed to earn that sweet, sweet lanyard.

The perk here is that once you are scheduled for your hours, you can pick up your badge according to your expected hours. No need waiting to actually earn them; you can “pay” off your badge as you go! Be warned, though. Any attempts at blowing off your shifts, since you’ve already earned your “perk,” will cost you both your badge and any future business with SXSW. They do enjoy blacklisting anyone who thinks they can “best” the system.

2. Know What You Want To Do (Don’t Be Like Me)

This is important for both your overall experience, as well as what badge you plan on purchasing/volunteering for. Here is where I’ll admit I made my biggest mistake.

I am a cinephile; a film fan. That is what was important to me at SXSW, that is why I volunteered. To earn a film badge would have cost me only a few dozen hours. Instead, I was lured into the prospect of the “platinum” badge. I would be allowed anywhere, anytime. I would be a fat cat, able to live it up to the fullest at SXSW. All I had to do was volunteer an additional 30 hours. What steal!

Only problem; I didn’t have any interest in the education section. Interactive and gaming was cool, but not for me. I like music, like the rest of the world, but I had no interest standing in the Texas heat around a bunch of people drunk off of free booze.

SXSW 2018: ISLE OF DOGS Is Wes Anderson At His Most Wes Anderson

Those additional 30 hours amounted to nothing, in the grand scheme of things. I used my badge to get into films and film Meetups. But, beyond that, it was just a cool silver lanyard around my neck making me feel important.

What To Do Instead:

So, before attending, know what is best for you. Do you want the opportunity to experience new groundbreaking VR technology? Get a gaming badge! Want to see the hottest indie films? A film badge! Want to see Action Bronson amidst a wafting cloud of pot? Music badge! Only if you want to experience all of that, should you consider that Platinum badge?

Along the same lines, for those volunteering, know what the schedule of the festival looks like. If you are interested in gaming and music, know when it occurs during the festival. The last thing you want is to find yourself working menial labor when your favorite band is playing, or missing a really cool indie film because you’re stuck passing out tickets.

3. Be Realistic

Your favorite band in the world is playing tonight. You’ve listened to each of their albums back to back, and you’ve been hyping yourself up for this show for nearly a year. You decide to get dinner, have a few drinks with friends, then you all head over to the show 30 minutes before showtime. You have the music badge, why go any sooner?

Then you arrive to find that you are one of 300 rabid fans. You have listened to the same albums back to back, and you’ve all been hyping yourself up for this concert for nearly a year. The venue you now stand out front of — only seats 200 people. Guess which band you’re not going to see?

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Khalid performing at SXSW 2018.

Having a badge will only get you so far. Remember, there are thousands of people at this same event. Good chance that several of them are going to love the same stuff you do. That’s why they came!

Expect to wait. I do mean wait; some of the more popular events and screenings will cost you hours of your time. You may get lucky with the niche documentary or the panel about vegetation in the workplace, but know that keynote speakers and Sundance darlings are going to get packed, and fast.

A Word From Our Sponsor (me):

Personal story time; With this years SXSW, I was most excited about the horror film HEREDITARY. It got a crazy huge buzz out of Sundance, being called “one of the scariest movies of the decade.” I’m an adult with the stresses of society and finances slowly crushing my will to live. Make-believe scares are my only escape from the real ones. I had to get into this movie!

I arrived 2 hours before showtime. The film started at midnight, and I found myself standing alone, the sole member of the HEREDITARY line outside of a large Alamo Drafthouse. A few of the volunteers smirked at the long wait ahead of me. They had no idea what was slowly moving through the night air, quietly encroaching upon the Texas movie chain.

SXSW 2018: HEREDITARY Is A Cinematic Nightmare, In All The Best Ways

Within 30 minutes, over a hundred people stood behind me, also excited to see the Sundance darling. 30 minutes after that, over 300 people. The didn’t start passing out queue cards, guaranteeing you a seat, until an hour before showtime. By the time they started handing them out, there were already more people then there were seats.

Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming:

I tell you this story to help illustrate how important it is to prioritize. There was a lot of other cool stuff going on that night; Ready Player One had its premiere, with Spielberg himself introducing the film! I myself left a networking party where Elijah Wood was DJing! But, I knew I wanted to see this film, thus it got priority over the rest.

I may have waited for hours, but I saw what was most important to me. Others, who decided to saunter their way over to the theater an hour before showtime found a crowd that wrapped around the building, and a lost chance to see the film. People were pissed, people pissed and moaned, and a few individuals nearly got into an altercation. But, those were the people who didn’t plan correctly. Don’t be those people.

4. Go With The Flow

I do realize this point is in contrast to my previous point of planning correctly. But, it is important to note, that most of your plans will go out the window very quickly. Wanted to see Arnold Schwarzenegger speak? Well, the local meatheads have been camped out in front of the Convention Center since Thursday, so that plan is out the window. Now you have 5 hours before the next planned event. What do you do?

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Cast & Crew Of HBO’S WESTWORLD.

This is where it’s important to just be, as the great John Candy said, “Like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream.” There are plenty of crazy, unscripted things to see around the city. Random jam sessions on Congress Ave! Rap Battles on 6th Street!

Let’s not forget the copious amounts of free food and booze that you’ll stumble across along the way. Every day brought along a new smorgasbord of different food and drink options. If you play your cards right, you can eat and drink free throughout the festival! (Tip your servers though. Don’t be THAT guy…)

5. Have Fun

I do realize I sound like the end of a ropes course instructional video here, but it’s true. SXSW can be daunting; the film guide alone is the size of a small novella. There are hundreds upon hundreds of things to do. You’ll feel overburdened quite quickly if you attempt to plan out everything. It is important to both prioritize but to also soak in the city, and all the festivities that happen around you.

And who knows, maybe you’ll leave with a story to tell. My stories include seeing DJ Elijah Wood spinning The Exorcist II theme, seeing Danny Devito randomly show up at the screening of the new Danny McBride movie, and making friends in each of the lines I stood in.

SXSW is an experience. Admittedly it is expensive, and by the end of the two weeks, you’re so exhausted you can barely move (I slept for 18 hours after my final event). But, it is an experience that I’ll treasure, and hope to repeat at SXSW 2019.

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