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Geek Spring Break: The Ultimate Guide To SXSW

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Every March, Silicon Valley’s tech gurus pack up their smartphones and tablets. Bands pack up their instruments. Hollywood power players pack their business cards. Entrepreneurs practice their pitches. They’re all headed to one place: South By Southwest.

The annual festival draws the best and the brightest in the music, film, and tech industries to Austin, Texas. They come for creative inspiration, for professional growth, for the experience of being at the core of a unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies.

SXSW is like nothing else on Earth. Year after year, the event is a launching pad for creative content that’s poised to be The Next Big Thing. Presentations, panels, showcases, and screenings provide buzz-generating exposure for creators and compelling entertainment for audiences. Business activity thrives at the Trade Shows and global networking opportunities abound. Industry leaders intermingle and exchange ideas, carving a path for each ever-evolving field to follow long after they’ve left Austin.

If you’re lucky enough to hobnob with the creative sparks and cutting-edge innovators of South By Southwest, here’s a look at what awaits. Your ultimate guide to SXSW.

The Story Of South By

It’s 1986. Ronald Reagan is President of the United States. The Berlin Wall is standing. Email is called ‘electronic mail.’ Music is played on CDs. And in Texas, something big is brewing.

Before it was one of the most important cultural and economic incubators of the 21st century, South By Southwest was a passion project. A small group of enthusiasts – united by a shared love of music, art, and ideas – gathered in secret in the offices of The Austin Chronicle. They convened to discuss the future of entertainment and media, and to shape the landscape both industries for decades to come.

The news broke in October of 1986: a new music festival, South by Southwest, would be launched in Austin, Texas. One hundred and fifty registrants were expected to take part in the first event, held in March of the following year. Instead 700 showed up on opening day, catapulting SXSW into instant icon status.

Growth was steady for the first seven years. South By Southwest took on a life of its own, becoming an increasingly important entrant on the annual festival calendar. In 1994, often remembered as the year of the Johnny Cash keynote and performance, two new pieces were added to the South By puzzle. With SXSW Interactive and SXSW Film introduced to the lineup, it became the event we know and love today.

South By Southwest has changed in many surprising and meaningful ways over the course of its 30-year history, but at its core, it remains a hub for the world’s most creative people to meet, learn, share ideas, and sculpt the future of their industries.

Guide To SXSW Music

The SXSW Music and Media Conference is the largest music festival of its kind in the world and the longest-running portion of South By Southwest. From the humble 700 registrants of its first year, SXSW Music has grown to over 28,000 registrants and more than 2,000 performing acts.

By day, participants attend the Music Gear Expo, the Trade Show, and a full agenda of provocative panel discussions. Topics cover every aspect of the music business and speakers come from all corners of the industry, including labels, agents, managers, manufacturers, publishers, writers, and artists. Amongst the big names who have graced the stage are Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, Bruce Springsteen, Quincy Jones, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Sean Parker, and Chrissie Hynde.

The mission of SXSW Music is lofty – to educate, inform, and bring together the visionaries who will transform the music business – but that doesn’t mean there’s no play mixed with the work. By night, thousands of bands from dozens of countries perform on over 100 stages throughout Austin. A mix of icons and up-and-comers take part, creating one of the most diverse musical programs your ears are likely to experience.

Guide To SXSW Film

The SXSW Film Conference welcomes filmmakers of all levels to five days of keynote speakers, panels, workshops, mentor sessions, and more with creators and industry leaders. Past notable speakers include Lena Dunham, Jon Favreau, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Gosling, Nicolas Cage, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Tilda Swinton, Joss Whedon, Matthew McConaughey, Danny Boyle, Seth MacFarlane, and Robert Rodriguez.

Running concurrently with the Film Conference is the SXSW Film Festival, nine days of celebrating achievements, innovation, and emerging talent on both sides of the camera. The festival famously highlights independently produced films, but is also beloved by big studios as a testing ground before wider releases. Attendees are treated to a creative combo of premieres and screenings for major motion pictures and independent films alike.

In two decades, the SXSW Film Festival has become a globally anticipated event. Today it’s known for the high calibre of films presented, for its smart and enthusiastic audiences, and for its prestigious-without-being-stuffy attitude. This entirely unique blend gives the SXSW Film Festival a distinct identity and an accessibility that sets it apart from other fests.

Guide To SXSW Interactive

South By Southwest’s most unique segment is SXSW Interactive, five days dedicated to emerging technology, digital creativity, and the gifted minds behind them. The event features presentations and panels, networking events, hands-on trainings, expos, and a trade show that celebrate all things cutting-edge and cool.

The Gaming Expo is a must-see for anyone, geek or otherwise. Free and open to the public, SXSW Gaming Expo gives consumers and game developers a glimpse at the next generation of play. Hear about upcoming releases, chat with experts, meet emerging talent, and watch tournaments. You can even try your hand at tomorrow’s breakout hits in the Indie Corner.

The other jewel in the SXSW Interactive crown is Startup Village, the epicenter of all entrepreneur-related programming. Inside you’ll find panel sessions with subjects like startup funding, startup ecosystems, and entrepreneurial best practices, as well as meet-ups and pitch events. Don’t miss SXSW Accelerator, the now-legendary competition that showcases the world’s most forwarding-thinking and relevant technology startups.

6 Tips For SXSW Survival

You’re ready to pack your bags and take the plunge, but before your book your ticket to Austin, let’s talk survival. With so much happening simultaneously at SXSW, it’s easy to get lost in the action. Nobody wants to be a burnout on Day One, so it’s important to come prepared.

#1 Pack For Business And Pleasure

South By Southwest packs a little bit of everything, which means your suitcase needs to as well. Have smart outfits in your arsenal for the professional portions and more relaxed options available for the after-parties. Comfortable shoes are a must, as is something to keep you dry in the event that Austin’s unpredictable weather turns sour.

#2 Get Tech Savvy

It’s a tech-focused festival, so it’s only natural that technology is the best way to navigate SXSW. Download the SXSW GO app to browse all events and speakers, create a personal schedule, connect with friends, explore Austin, and post on social media. And speaking of social media, you’ll want to stay on top of your feeds – it’s the best way to discover free food, free swag, free shows, secret events, and other next-level experiences during South By.

#3 Have A Game Plan

At any given time, 100 bands can be playing simultaneously during South By Southwest. There’s no way to see and do it all, so unless you want a near-fatal case of FOMO, you have to be realistic about your time. Select the events you’re most interested in before you get lost in the fray. Then again, you don’t want to be too rigid either. Leave space for serendipity and have backup options ready in case a first choice doesn’t work out.

#4 Gear Up

This isn’t the kind of Texas where “gear” means a Stetson and spurs. At South By Southwest, you’ll need to outfit yourself with an entirely different set of trappings. Have cash on hand. ATM lines can be painfully long. Pack extra batteries and a portable charger. Not only could they save your skin, they could also make you new friends or business connections when it turns out you were the only guy smart enough to bring backups. Sunscreen and a water bottle are also highly advisable.

#5 Buy A Badge…Or Don’t

A badge guarantees you entry to the official showcases and panels. That’s the good news. The bad news is buying one will set you back a pretty penny. Here are the costs (in USD) for 2016:

  • Film Badge: $695
  • Music Badge: $895
  • Interactive Badge: $1295
  • Film & Interactive: $1495
  • All Three: $1745

Thankfully, there’s more good news: you don’t need a badge to have a good time. Hundreds of venues around Austin host unofficial SXSW shows and events, many of which don’t even have a cover charge. Pro tip: the more friends you make, the more invites you get.

#6 Eat

Last but not least, make sure to keep your tastebuds happy and your stomach full – in part because it’s essential to festival survival, but especially because you’re in Austin. The Texas town is notorious for its incredible eats, from authentic BBQ to Tex-Mex to a fleet of creative food trucks. There’s even a Twitter account dedicated to getting you fed for free at South By Southwest: @thefreenoms.

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