SXSW Tips – The novice attendee’s recap

Coming back from SXSW on Sunday, 19-Mar, I’m still pretty much on the ‘recovery mode’ after 12-16hrs daily out and about during 10 days of conferences, discussion panels, trade show, exhibition, exposition, music showcase, comedy, movie premiere, not to mention … parties! (you name it). As a first time participant in SXSW, I had a Music Badge but decided to stay for the whole festival time covering Interactive, Film, Game, Music (Yes, put my Maximizer hat on) to feel the beat and attempt to extract most values out of it. I got the badge very early in September 2016, making sure that I have the time to Google on any tips for first time SXSW attendee. However, what came up on the internet are either outdated or too general. I can only speak to my point being an individual attendee, with Networking as my utmost goal. 
South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and festivals started in the 80s, are now the hub for the creative exchange of people in interactive, film, and music industries. 
  1. Get a badge early and join some pre-event community meetups 
I don’t totally find the pricing model attractive. How about paying 1k$ to stand in line for a chance to join the panel discussion/showcase/film premiere? Fortunately, I didn’t get to pay 1000$ for my badge, I got early bird rate, and later on, half off for students discount that is not normally available. However, if you pay over $1000 for a badge and still get to stand in line, I understand the itchy feeling about it.
There are tons of good bands playing at free events in downtown Austin, but Chainsmokers liveshow and SONY sonic motion project demo just don’t flood around out of nowhere. However, what I found most valuable in owning a badge is not about having access to all the cool events that people without one can’t, it’s about having access to a detailed database of all badge holders, from movie makers, musicians, artists policy makers, congressman to marketer, tech founders, radio host, entertainment lawyer, etc. My guesstimate is about 30K people are on the list, with full profiles. Not too bad of some online point of contacts. Not to mention, the opportunity to network with people who share your interests, at least at a more deliberate level than just hobbyists, was fascinating.
I went to Dallas SXSW meetup a month before SXSW officially started.
  1. Have a goal and follow your plan 
I’ve heard about that before I came to SXSW. However, not until I’m already there that I know the overwhelming rush is real. At the same time, there could be 100 events of the same category happening all over downtown Austin, some venues are not within walking distance, so you will need to coordinate the transportation. As SXSW is about discovery, since you may end up stopping by something good on the way, and you don’t need to feel like the strict calendar is burdening you. I have taken other previous attendees’ advice to squeeze in 4,5 panel discussions or meetup sessions in the daytime. My night time is dedicated to fun and exploration that I filled in with movie, music or party. If you plan the transportation right, doing 2 movies a night is possible. However, do take into account the waiting time. I have friends waiting for 3 hrs in front of the Paramount theatre with a secondary badge (Interactive badge) and they ended up not making it because the theatre has reserved most of the seats for the Primary badge (Movie badge, Platinum badge). Needless to say, you have just wasted 3 hours of your evening for nothing! After 2 or 3 days, I started having an idea of what event would be sold out to budget my time accordingly. This year, VR and AI workshops are always in high demand.
Transportation wise, pick one or two transportation means that you’re most comfortable with. Looking around for navigation and getting confused about transportation would seriously take you a bunch of time! I picked the shuttle and walk. No bus, no Pedicab, no Rideshare downtown. There is no prize in getting lost.
Overall, the tension is often among:
– The venue
– The speakers
– The content
I looked to match 2 out of 3 criteria. If the venue was convenient and the speakers are the one I wanted to network with, I let go of a less than amazing content.
  1. Go Broad or go Deep 
Generally speaking, I don’t think of SXSW as a suitable avenue to delve deeper into your field of interest. SXSW Websites did indicate which level each panel discussion is (beginner, intermediate, advanced), I found it to be a more accurate indicator of whether it’s worth going than the catchy titles and descriptions they give for the discussion.To me, sessions of crossover between Music and Branding (How brands pick a music band to invest, how to apply retail marketing in music, etc.) are too general. Meanwhile, CLE (Continuing legal education) sessions are fruitful. They have 3 full days discussing Entertainment Law, covering all aspects from Tech Sex issues rising in VR porn, Youtube Safe Habor, Streaming and sync rights, Social Media and Talents agreement to Artist property and legacy management, just to name a few. These sessions are at a much advanced level, that I hardly think I could ever access to elsewhere without being an attorney! Some governmental panel discussions on Media Reform and New policy about Drugs use at Music Festivals are super interesting. Workshops and bootcamps are also recommended if you look for intensive, tactical guidance in some areas (as I see geeks tend to make the most out of it.). Most of the guest speakers are much more approachable than other events I’ve been to.
  1. Technology, Technology, Technology 
The SXSW Go App took 4.3 GB on my phone memory, but it’s worth utilizing to every details. It allows you to mark your favorite speakers, read their profile, send them some quick note online, rate the session. Based on your tag and interest, the app will match you with the right people. It also shows the shuttle itinerary real time, so you can be sure to get out of the door right when the shuttle shows up. Film-wise, the app shows the status of each theatre with Green being “Totally available”, Yellow being “You’d better be hurry to make it to the line”, and Red being “You’re out of luck”. I find it extremely helpful to plan your transportation ahead, considering there were probably 20 venues that air the movies. The chatbot function of SXSW Go App, however, is pretty disappointing. It doesn’t filter out the past events, so the suggestions are irrelevant. If you ask Abby the bot one questions, she will only pick up on words, not the whole phrases, e.g, I asked about Music Meet up, and Abby came up with “Music” and “meet up”.
Everyone walking on the streets sticking to their smartphone, in the line, during the meetup, at the lobby. Technology is basically anywhere and everywhere. I personally feel like it does get in the way of a quality conversation. With such scale and excitement, the immediacy behavior is even more aggravated.
Some side notes:
– Job fair: SXSW, as always, is a casual opportunity to talk to several people, heads of lots of companies and especially technical recruiters. It was one of the job fairs that I feel most comfortable with since people are all in jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers. Anybody can look awkward with the suits on! The information on the Job Board wasn’t available, which I think is a huge gap. It’s funny to find the CIA booth there recruiting for their intelligence officer! Lots of big name corporates were presented, however, a handful of them are Europe based, which were largely irrelevant to the job seekers in the U.S.
– Bring as minimal as possible once you’re out. After a day, you sure will be filling your bags with all free goodies, from a water bottle to T-shirt to phone charger. Nonetheless, free food doesn’t worth your time. As I already have a badge, I only go for Badge-specific events. It saved me tons of time of hustling in with tons of people.
– The local music scene or the street music is diluted in terms of quality. The venues are oversaturated. I’ve heard Austin residents, or SXSW frequent goers saying that it wasn’t half as good as it used to be. I did, fortunately, caught a really good artist. The city of Austin has dedicated many good venues for local musicians, but some of them are far from anything but mediocre. 6th streets are flooded with musicians who are neither good performer, entertainer, nor vocalists. Sad story!
– If you get overwhelmed and want some down time, talk to the volunteers. They are mostly there for fun, could be movie buffs or music junkies, they have a clear idea of where the best events/shows/movies happen.
– Bumble went big at SXSW, Tinder might have some jobs to catch up with (or not).
– “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, hold on, because it will change”. That phrase is especially true. I came to Austin expecting the torrential rain, as indicated on the weather forecast. I ended up having some rain, but the next day was chilly. 40f in Austin wasn’t the ideal weather for outdoor activities, especially when you got to queue 50 minutes outdoor for a movie. Layer up!
– Wear comfortable shoes. Being on your feet 12-16 hrs a day is heavy duty. Don’t risk it.
– I had real heavy breakfast. That way I was able to skip over lunch. It was just my preference to have decent, sit-down meal. Most restaurants around have a long queue. I didn’t want to spend that much time in line during the day. A bit more snacks in between can help me sustain the energy till dinner.
– Music tech startups: The startups come up with a wide range of products, from music product cataloging, music licensing software management, to fundraising for touring bands. More products are geared toward indie artists. Some products are still in its infancy, some others more financially viable to me are:
  •  Music rights & Metadata management platform for the indie music community. TuneRegistry is synced with ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SoundExchange, Harry Fox Agency, Music Reports, AARC to automate your music copyright registration process and organize your music catalog.
  • Kind of for Music shows, but so much more. You can follow your favorite artists’ social network, music, videos, live-streaming, and purchase tickets online.
  • A bracelet delivered at door of each venue will help both artists and venues to keep track of fan engagement (how many times they clap their hands (!!), the color on the bracelet will change depending on their level of engagement). Fan can sync the bracelet with their phone to upload social media “Hey, X is currently at Liveshow of artist Y”. The founder came from a research background and has thorough knowledge about theater and audience behavior.
  • : For corporates/brands use. Fast way to discover and license commercial music. No more uploading and sending music back and forth on email for your clients, you now can upload everything on the same platform and invite your clients in to view and comment on the tracks.
SXSW materials: 
  • Entertainment Law Lecture series:
  • Official Podcast by SXSW:

Photos: I couldn’t get my Android phone to sync appropriately with Macbook yet. Check back in a few more days for photos and updates! Thanks. 

Featured photo credit:


Nylon strings with #LED and #3D printing #dancer figure #sxsw2017 #sxsw #visualarts

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