The Good Listener: How Can I Experience SXSW Without Actually Going?

Even if you're missing SXSW, lots of people are taking pictures of it for you. (Adam Kissick for NPR)
Even if you're missing SXSW, lots of people are taking pictures of it for you. (Adam Kissick for NPR)

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside laminates containing SXSW's most coveted VIP party passes, all of which are set to arrive the day after we leave for Austin, is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on SXSW envy.

Kerry writes via email: "Every year, I tell myself, 'This is the year I finally take time off and go to Austin for SXSW.' Every year, I put it off too long and finally talk myself out of it. And then, for weeks on Twitter and on Pop Culture Happy Hour and All Songs Considered, I feel like I hear nothing but people taunting me about all the fun they're going to have, or are having, or just had at SXSW. Instead of living vicariously through them, it just makes me feel like I'm missing out.

"While it would be nice if you told me that SXSW is actually a waste of time and I should stop feeling bad about missing it, I'll ask a more realistic question: What's the best way to get the most out of SXSW, and to discover the most bands, without being there? I know you're going to tell me to download The Austin 100 — I've only heard you talking about it on PCHH every week since January — and you'll probably tell me about whatever else NPR is doing down there. But what else? Or am I doomed to sit at home while everyone on Twitter discovers great new music and tells me all about the awesome party I'm missing?"

First off, kudos on the expert prediction of what I'm most likely to say in response to this question. Yes, everyone should download or stream The Austin 100 — with 100 songs by artists worth discovering at this year's festival — which just happens to be stuffed with great music, most of which you won't have heard before. As much as it's meant to serve as Cliffs Notes for people attending SXSW, for most people it's really just an excuse to check out a bunch of amazing new stuff. And you should absolutely follow along with NPR Music's coverage next week, not least because it'll contain a bunch of music you'll love, whether or not you get to see it live as it happens.

Then, I'll meet you partway on the sour grapes. I love SXSW, this will be my 19th year attending, and the festival has sparked wonderful connections and successes in my life and career. I owe it a lot. But it also is a lot — a lot of logistics, a lot of crowds, a lot of lines, a lot of money spent getting and staying there. On certain nights during peak hours, it's treacherous to travel from venue to venue on 6th Street because SXSW essentially sets a music festival on top of Mardi Gras, complete with thousands of noodleheads who've come to stand around, get wasted and urinate on police horses. The festival is worth it, to me and many thousands of others, but it's not always music's Garden Of Eden, either.

But, yes, SXSW is the center of the music universe right now, and it's hard not to feel like you're missing out when everyone in music is tweeting about their new discoveries, musical epiphanies, and shocking stunts of the variety you'll only see at SXSW. ("Kanye West showed up at the Fader Fort astride an ocelot and told me about an app that will change the way we vape!") But the festival's best and most basic feature is the way it gives attendees a new list of favorite bands, and you can cobble that list together yourself if you're willing to wade into a sea of braggy tweets and articles listing the festival's greatest discoveries. It'll be tempting to mute everyone tweeting about SXSW, and to avoid the sites that offer constant updates, but don't. Let it overwhelm you a little — that's part of the experience, and I've got a few tips for duplicating the best parts of that experience at home.

There are so many hi-tech ways to organize, catalog, stream and store music nowadays, but really, all you need to get started is a piece of paper on which you write down every band someone mentions that sounds interesting. Yes, you can stream or download 100 of them here as a way to get started, and you can listen to next week's All Songs Considered SXSW preview discussion to glean a bunch more. Apparently, there are even other reliable sources of music recommendation — I mean, I assume there are — whose staffs are paid to crank out recommendations. (For starters, peruse the lists at Rolling Stone, Billboard, The Daily Beast and elsewhere.) You don't even have to hear the music to start putting together a meaningful list; every time a description sounds intriguing, make a note to revisit it later. When you hear a compelling-sounding recommendation from one of those braggarts on Twitter, jot it down; if nothing else, it'll make Twitter feel more forgiving during SXSW.

You won't have to do this for very long — start with the early lists of "Bands To Watch" and finish with the postmortem roundups of stuff people actually loved — until you're left with a master list. Then, you'll have to do a bit of scrounging. If you're a Spotify person, for example, start dumping a song or two by each act into a master playlist; you can even cheat by glomming onto other people's Spotify-based SXSW recommendations. You could queue up a zillion YouTube videos, or scrounge up free promotional MP3s off bands' websites. Heck, SXSW costs enough that you could buy 300 MP3s on Bandcamp, Amazon, iTunes, wherever, and still spend less than you'd spend on a single plane ticket. The important thing is to build yourself a nice, juicy playlist of promising bands you think you might like.

Now, here's the fun part: Wait until you've got yourself an optimal late-spring/early summer weekend. Scrounge up some sunshine, and some outdoor time, and maybe even some friends. Score yourself as much BBQ as you can safely haul out of the grocery store, put some cheap beer on ice if that's your thing, set up a nice speaker system, and throw yourself a two- or three-day feast of warm-weather music discovery. It can be in your apartment or on a patio, or wherever you're most comfortable and at ease. The important thing is that you're happy, having fun, swimming in exciting new music, and not paying $200+ a night for a hotel room downtown.

Oh, and be sure to brag about it endlessly on Twitter. You've earned it.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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