Doing SXSW without a badge (free, or mostly free) is very possible and even enjoyable. No need to spend a fortune on a pass. Going badge-less means attending day parties, so set your alarm clock. You’ll be burning the candle at both ends this week, but it’s all in the name of great music and is well worth it. You never know who or what you might see around town – I mean, Jason Sudeikis has already bartended at the The Highball and we’re not even 48 hours into SXSW.

Day parties are usually events staged in conjunction with SXSW, but are not officially sanctioned by the festival. These parties will be in stores, parking lots, small bars, large bars, patios, etc., just about any place where you can set up a microphone. The “headline” events you’ll read about with big stars (Garth Brooks, Weezer, Wu-Tang Clan this year) are for those holding SXSW badges or wristbands. If you want to purchase a badge or wristband, this is the place to go.

You need to keep in mind though, that SXSW is all about discovering new, unheralded talent so many of the acts you may see are unknown. That doesn’t mean they will be unknown forever.

Alabama Shakes perform at South by San Jose – 2012. Photo courtesy of Denny Angelle.

For example, Alabama Shakes played a number of free shows in 2012 including the walk-right-up-everyone’s-welcome event South by San Jose on South Congress. Even when they played in the parking lot of a pizzeria in 2009, Mumford and Sons rocked their future hit “The Cave” and a very long time ago (we forget the year) we saw young Norah Jones playing under a tent at a Starbucks near the UT campus.

We’re saying don’t expect to see huge superstars perform, although you never know who you might bump into wandering the streets of Austin. You may be able to see an act you’ve heard of, and if so congratulations – you’re lucky.

Another thing: don’t be tied to a schedule. Be flexible, follow your ears, and you may discover some new music you love.


SXSW at the French Legation Museum – 2012. Photo courtesy of Denny Angelle.

OK, so here are some tips:

1.See the big picture: these links will take you to sites that offer an overview of everything going on that’s not official SXSW. Many of these also have links to RSVPs, which you should do even if you don’t think you will make an event.

  • Showlist Austin – A great resource, it breaks down events by day and location and helpfully provides links to RSVPs.
  • Do512 – A vitally useful website for events year-round, they really shine during SXSW. Select a day that you’ll be around, and you will see a giant list of events. You can RSVP to many events right here.
  • Austin 360 Music – Provided by the Austin Statesman, it is also fairly comprehensive.
  • Unofficial SXSW Parties & Free Shows – Compiled by the Austin Chronicle.
  • Unofficial SXSW Guide – A good list, with lots of obscure and out-of-the-way events.

2. Keep an eye on social media: Hashtag SXSW or SXSW day parties and you’ll see a flurry of accounts. If you’re interested in a certain venue, a certain band or a certain type of music, you can see that reflected in some accounts. Follow them, and keep an eye on Twitter/Facebook/etc. for last-minute and “surprise” shows.

3. Prepare: Wear comfortable shoes. Bring along an extra pair of socks. Get a cheap plastic rain poncho that folds into a pocket. A little cash is a good idea, too. Basically prepare like you’re going to go camping. This is an adventure after all.

4. Know how to get around: Drive your car if you must, but getting around downtown Austin and points nearby is all but impossible during SXSW. Especially if you’re prowling around for day parties – remember, it’s still a work day for the people who live here and they have to park too. It’s a good idea to park at an established garage and leave your car for the day. Better yet, download the Capital Metro app and use that to purchase day passes and ride the bus. B-cycle is also a wonderful resource, weather permitting.

Music in motion – SXSW 2012. Photo courtesy of Denny Angelle.

5. Carry along your phone charging cord:  Many establishments will let you charge for a short time. Remember, turn on Airplane Mode when charging (it charges faster) and don’t forget to turn it off after charging. There are literally tens of thousands of people in one small area, and many are using cell phones so don’t be surprised if your service is slow or non-existent.

6. Live in the moment: You’re welcome to snap a few photos on your phone, but put it away after that and live in the moment.  And do you really want to be that guy who records an entire show on video?

7. Know what you’re waiting for: Yes, some day parties offer free food and drinks (and some offer free beer). Those are the ones with long lines to get in, so keep that in mind.

8. The music sets are short: If you’ve never been to SXSW before, almost all of the acts play very short sets. Just enough for you get a taste of their music, then it’s time for the next act.

The Zombies perform at Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop – 2013. Photo courtesy of Denny Angelle.

Some selected events you may want to build your schedule around (all are free, unless noted):

  • KGSR Live Morning Broadcasts – Beginning at the W Hotel at 6 a.m. Wednesday-Friday and 8 a.m. on Saturday, KGSR has the acts play a couple of songs and do interviews live on the radio. There’s a $5 cover charge.
  • KUTX Live at the Four Seasons – More acts live on the radio, this one has a $10 cover charge. Also, you can park in the hotel’s garage for $5 until 1 p.m.
  • Waterloo Records Day Party – The venerable record store hosts live music in its parking lot Wednesday-Saturday.
  • South by San Jose – A very popular day party in the parking lot of the San Jose Hotel on South Congress, this usually attracts big crowds in the evenings. There are many other live music events and restaurants nearby, so you could conceivably make this the center of your SXSW activity.
  • Southwest Invasion 2017 – This one has become more popular in recent years. It’s on the rooftop of Whole Foods Market on South Lamar, and it always has a diverse lineup. (RSVP required)
  • SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake – An official SXSW event open to everyone at Auditorium Shores. Headliners are usually big enough names that can draw some huge crowds. This year Latino bands offer a “resist concert” on Thursday, while Friday’s lineup includes a tribute to Prince by former members of his Purple Rain-era band The Revolution, along with Wyclef Jean. Saturday’s show is yet to be announced. (Admission requires a free SXSW Guest Pass; click here to get one. The Guest Pass will also allow you free entry to selected other official events including lectures, films and music performances.)

Now that you’ve been briefed – go have fun! Enjoy this crazy, unique festival that brings tens of thousands of people to our fair city annually (just please don’t move here).

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