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In the early days, SXSW was a fairly easy event to navigate. Registrants would show up, pick up their badges and goodie bags and map out a schedule over a drink in their downtown hotel room. It was simple: By day, most of the action was on the floor at the trade show or in the various nearby panels. By night, bands played their official showcases, mostly in a tightly knit cluster of bars in and around Sixth Street. Bigwigs plotted world domination at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel down on what was then known as Town Lake.
And then, along about 1996 or thereabouts, the guerrilla day parties and after-hours soirees started breaking out all over town. By the end of the '90s, people started showing up without bothering to get badges, and by the mid-2000s, bands no longer could content themselves with their one official show. Today, many of them play up to six or seven or even ten shows, all but one of them unofficial.
The geography has shifted — today, the event in all its official and unofficial glory sprawls from its downtown birthplace to several blocks of South Congress, the Drag and UT campus, Hyde Park and North Loop, and scattered pockets in the East Austin barrio and patchouli-scented South Austin. (Indeed, the spillover affects the entire state: There are few better times for music fans in Houston than the weeks immediately preceding and following SXSW, as seemingly about two-thirds of the bands pass through on their way to or from Austin. See "Built to Spill.")
What's more, with each passing year, more and more people show up without bothering to buy official badges and, more alarmingly for the SXSW brass, more and more of those who do buy the badges discover that they are of little real use. Sure, having a badge might be the only way you can get in to see Iggy Pop at Stubb's or something like that, but with so much else on offer, even an epic show like that seems eminently missable. Who knows? By committing to see yesterday's hero, you might miss seeing tomorrow's version play in front of 125 people in a dilapidated warehouse on Airport Boulevard.
What's more, in many cases, the vibe at the day parties is just plain better than those at the sanctioned shows. Many of those in the latter category are held in ad hoc venues slapped together just for SXSW. "Who wants to go play in or see a 20-minute show in some club where they don't normally have live music, where the owners are upset that they had to move two pool tables to accommodate bands from all over the world?" Hill asks, and adds that the only official shows he's ever done have been as a member of the backing band for legendary pimp-a-riffic R&B godfather Andre Williams. "It takes drinking straight rum with Andre Williams to muster up the courage to play an official showcase," Hill laughs.
"At the day parties you can actually hang out with the performers a little bit," continues Hill. "You find a much more casual, fun-loving audience — the actual music nuts. They don't really care about the fame aspect. They are real music fans, whether they are club owners looking for new talent or writers looking for something else. They are all checking it out and thinking, 'This is our time to chill and see what's happenin'."
McManus, coming from an entirely different sub-segment of the contemporary music scene, dissents about the nature of the audiences, if decidedly not the idea that day parties are better. "The day shows are not as industry," he says. "At the industry shows they are more jaded, while at the day shows people are just waking up so they are all kind of stilted as far as audiences go — all jaded or hung over." He points out that some day parties can be just as packaged as the sanctioned shows, if those day parties are hosted by a slick marketer like Fader or Levi's.
His favorite day party, both as a fan and an attendee, was an entirely different kind of critter. It was hosted by Chunklet magazine (Mottos: "You favorite band sucks" and "Chafing America's ass since 1993") at a deep East Austin haunt called the Church of the Friendly Ghost, and there the vibe was anything but slick. "Everybody who goes to a Chunklet show is there to see bands and talk about music and stuff, so that was a lot of fun," he says.
In fact, that's about as good as it gets at SXSW. Expect not to see specific shows or the bands everybody else is talking about. Just go to see what bands come your way and to have fun with your friends and to "talk about music and stuff." Whether you are in a band or are just a fan, the best plan is to have a minimal plan at all; the only expectation you should bring along with you is that you should expect to have fun.