Thursday, March 27, 2014

John Does SXSW 2014 - Getting Around

If you would like to read my recap of just the music, please click here.  

For starters I would like to say I really enjoyed Austin. I like the food and arts and music culture intermingling. And I like that it has a huge university in the middle that fuels everything else. 

They do as good as a job as can be expected for SXSW, with hundreds of thousands of visitors flocking to the city for a week. But there are still a fair amount of delays and lines to confront. Cabs are nearly impossible to get. After our flight arrived the line at the cab stand at the airport had to number over 100 people. Luckily there is a steady flow of cabs coming to the airport for pickups and drop offs, so the wait was maybe only 20 minutes. Unfortunately that means cabs aren't readily available for the 2-3 mile trips within the downtown area of the city (a bit too far to walk, but maybe not far enough to be willing to wait 20 minutes for a bus). On the first night, after looking for cabs for an hour, I ended up having to flag a golf cart taxi to get home before I knew the bus schedules and routes to/from my apartment. They do have pedi-cabs (bicycles), but they only travel within the downtown area. They definitely will not take you two miles north at 2am.

But basically Austin during SXSW isn't Philly or NY. You can't just get a cab and say, "Take me to Place-X." You have to know where you are going and how to get there and most likely take the bus and/or walk.

As for lodging, our apartment was fine and relatively cheap compared to what hotels were charging. But it was nearly three miles away from most of the music venues. If you are going to stay 2-3 miles away or further and bus it into the downtown, then you have to leave your place to start the day with a backpack full of everything you need for the day. You probably won't be going back there again until the day is over and it's time for bed. 

Also it was about a 30-minute bus ride into the downtown area from where we were staying in the north campus area. Add in time walking to the bus stop, time waiting for the bus (and bus often being behind schedule), and time to then walk to where you are going when the bus lets you off, and you are looking at about an hour from the time you leave your apartment until you can realistically get to the first place you are going. That was a bit of adjustment for someone like myself who lives in downtown Philly and walks fairly quickly to almost anywhere I need to go.

So our apartment rental was mainly just a place to sleep, shower, and re-organize our backpacks for the next day, packing extra sweaters/shirts/jackets depending on the weather, etc.

The next time I attend SXSW I will look for a place closer to the venues, even if it was a mile away, that is still walkable late at night. I just hope the extra cost to stay closer won't be prohibitive. The hotels are unaffordable for the average person (some wanted $700+ per night). But if convenience is super important and you can afford it, it would be nice to be able to go back and forth to your hotel throughout the day and avoid having to carry the daily backpack of "everything you need for the next 16 hours." 

If you stay until the end of the night, they have a Night Owl bus line that picks people up in town from 12am-3am.  So you have to plan accordingly and when it comes to choosing what artists you see at what venues later in the night. Wherever you are, you have to get back to 6th and Congress streets or be along the bus route around 2am or you might have to walk home once the Night Owl stops running. Even after we got to the bus pickup location in time we still had to wait for multiple buses before we got on, as hundreds of people are waiting for each bus line at that time of the night, with the biggest crowds around closing time at 2am. So on several nights we didn't get home and get to bed until 3:00-3:30am-ish. Again, plan accordingly. If the artist playing at 1am isn't someone you are willing to potentially have to stay up until 3:30am in order to see , then you should probably just leave and catch an earlier bus.

As for getting around to the actual venues, I thought the cost of a badge or wristband was a little pricey at first when I registered. But if you value your time, it's probably worth the cost to get a badge. It gets you into many crowded "official" events that you wouldn't otherwise get into. And even during the unofficial events during the day, badges often get priority over wristbands and those who have neither. Also, with badges you can usually bypass any cover charges.

In general I think the badge vs. wristband vs. "neither" argument comes down to how valuable your time is to you and how many sets of music you want to see. I hate waiting in long lines so for me my time is worth the money. Of the 40-something sets I saw, at least half were during the day and I probably could have gotten in without a badge anyway. But for some of the shows there were three-tiered lines to get in to the venue. Badges had top priority, then wristbands, and then those with neither.  

For the Hype Hotel day parties, for instance, if you had neither you had to go across the street, wait in a long line for around thirty minutes just to get a wristband for that venue. Then you had to wait in line for the venue and still get skipped by people with official badges and wristbands. So I probably still would have gotten in to that show eventually without a badge, but maybe not until after waiting in line for an hour. As it was I waited in line for about ten minutes then they checked my badge and ID, and just put a wristband on me and and I got right in.

And any of the crowded "official" shows at night you needed the badge. So badges allow you to do what I did some of the days and nights and go venue to venue to venue for just maybe 1 or 2 artists in each place. Otherwise, if don't have a badge you will spend much of that time waiting in line and not getting in right away to hop around and maximize your show time.

If you wanted to badge-less/wristband-less suppose you could just do like 1 or 2 "unofficial shows" every day too and take your chances and then just look for whatever was open after that, knowing you already had a pretty good day of music. Again, it depends on what is important to you and how much your time is worth and what you are trying to get out of the trip.

As for beating the long lines and getting around, I generally had a good week until the final day when it came to that. I think the key is if the headliner at a place is a fairly big name (Bob Mould, The Hold Steady, etc.), you probably need to get there earlier and sit through a few acts you may not care about. Don't mess around seeing someone else an hour before the headliner that you really really want to see. Do not assume you will get right in even with badges and wristbands. 

It seems like Friday and Saturday are the most crowded days. I assume some people just come for the 3-day weekend and skip Tuesday-Thursday. And I think on Friday more of the locals come back to town or come into town. It definitely seemed like more of the University of Texas students were back from Spring Break and on the buses those days. That probably combined to make all the day parties on Saturday nearly impossible to get into if you didn't get there around when they started.

Also in the future I'd consider leaving Saturday during the day rather than Sunday because of everything I noted already - the festival is more crowded and there are less overall gigs. And the big shows that everyone goes to with long lines are so hard to get into anyway.  

Now that I know the ropes the next time I m looking forward to doing this again.

Some other random notes about the trip:

- Early in the afternoon on Wednesday March 12th I had a coffee at Cafe La Crepe while I'm 95% sure Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak was sitting in there relaxing/meditating. 

- Sound checks, sound checks, and more sound checks. I saw 40+ sets of music that week and almost as many sound checks. As my wife quipped, "I've watched more sound checks this week than I had in my entire life combined."

- Guacamole is plentiful and awesome in Austin. Also I saw two different people eating an avocado the same way you see people eat apples or oranges for a snack. They cut it in half and just started scooping it out.  I mostly lived off of protein bars, tacos, guacamole, and Lone Star during the trip.

Lone Star - the national beer of Texas and SXSW

- For meals I ate from street vendors a few times. I also had dinner at El Sol y Luna, Manuel's, and Lamberts BBQ.  All were very good. I ate lunch from a famous taco truck on the final day and dinner from Peruvian Creole barbecue truck one night. The rest of the week it was peanuts and protein bars for breakfast/lunch. 

Llama's Peruvian Creole Barbecue

The Peached Tortilla - home of famous fish tacos

Cucumber margaritas at Manuel's

The misses and me at Lamberts BBQ

- Portable cell phone/device battery chargers are a must-have. Most will fit in your pocket and definitely in your backpack. Being out for 15 hours a day using your phone constantly for maps, directions, pictures, and general communication means you will use up most of your power. We are used to this convenience nowadays. And with events like this with so many people trying to access the mobile network at the same time, your device will use up its battery much faster than usual trying to constantly connect. Also, put your device in airplane mode to save on this battery usage as much as possible.

- The worst vibes at any of the shows were on the Friday night seeing Pains of Being Pure at Heart at the Chevy Courtyard and then Lucinda Williams an hour or so later at the Gatsby. So many people around me who seemed to just want to be there for a half dozen other reasons besides the music. People with badges hanging at the bar talking during the sets (probably talking "business"). There were fans lined up outside waiting to get in who would have killed to be in that position. Those two events definitely seemed to be more of insider events than any of the others. So many record company flacks and the like just hanging out.

- It appears the venues have a "1 person gets in for every 10 who leave" policy for shows they expect to be crowded. So this causes the lines to grow quickly. I really didn't understand why I had to wait 10 minutes to get into the Hype Hotel show with maybe 10 people ahead of me. And then I got inside and the venue wasn't even half full. Just let everyone in immediately until it reaches capacity. Then go with the "1 in for every 10 out" policy for awhile. I'm not really sure why you would stagger the people entering otherwise. 

- And in the few long lines I waited in during the week the conversations I overheard were all the same. Basically twenty-something guys complaining that they've hardly seen anyone good all week and just were kind of going to big name parties or showcases and sitting through a lot of acts they didn't know or didn't like and then not knowing where else to go. It seems there is definitely a market for some kind of app to make artist recommendations at SXSW for the agenda-less festival goers so they can maximize their enjoyment. It also would come in handy if you are through waiting in a long line for a show and want to see if there are other similar artists playing anywhere reasonably close at the same time.

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