SXSW from the gutter

March 17, 2010 — March 17, 2010

making things
Figure 1: Austin NSA listening post

Financial cockup aside, the US dollar is trading pretty OK against most of the world’s currencies. Your cash ain’t worth much here, and you, the out-of-towner, have to make your bucks stretch further. Or maybe you just don’t want to spend money you don’t have to? Don’t worry, even the planet’s largest corporations are happy to use that excuse. Come in, come in. Don’t worry, outsider, I’m in your boat, probably pocketing the little packets of hot sauce as much as you are.

You should also know that neither of us is alone. This entire country is broke. You might be beset by more beggars than you are used to, unless you come from Jakarta. Actually, more than there. Maybe Delhi? I’ve not spent so much time in India, but it seems like a fair bet. But anyway, everyone here is poor, and as the Avenue des Champs-Élysées is lined with horse-chestnut trees so is every street here lined with broke people who want cash. People who not quite as broke work the bars. They expect a socially sanctioned form of alms known as “tipping”. And we are all of us a thousand miles from a social welfare system we can call our own, so get ready to skive.

1 Gig admission

First up, the most obvious expense is a festival pass. Now, I can’t say this enough.

Don’t. Buy. One.

What?, you might say, and risk not getting in to gigs?

Do not try me, I thunder at you, gesticulating in an alarming fashion. In the awkward pause I hasten to explain that, no, your pass doesn’t guarantee you getting in to gigs. You can have all the passes in the world, plus a diplomatic passport and a pair of Barack Obama’s autographed underwear and it won’t get you in to gigs. Being in the band, I am told, doesn’t always get you in to your own gigs (see “transport”, below). Standing in lines will, or watching out for the artists you want to see appearing, inevitably, in some weird unofficial sideshow a 3 minute walk from the rest of the festival with a lot more grimy street cred than the teletubby sterility of the festival itself.

Figure 2: SXSW queuing technology

True, there are some things that are off limits to non-attendees. Might you not want to get a pass for that? Well, the things that are off limits include such things as the right to stand in a queue to watch a CCTV rendition of Danah Boyd talking about privacy in a different room that you couldn’t fit in either. You could possibly fit 10 events this dull in your schedule for the week, but if that’s your idea of a good use of your time, why not just stream the entire festival off the internet? Or read the eminent speaker’s blogs? (they ain’t saying much new here.) Or, how about it, practice headbutting planks in half so you can save of axe sharpening?

Pro tip: if it’s under-publicised enough not to have a queue it also has few enough door staff that they can’t be bothered checking your credentials. You know, I do have a festival pass (bless the sponsors of my freelance lifestyle, Realtime magazine), but I left it in my bag all of yesterday and no-one stopped me. I later got into a gig carrying a random and unrelated lanyard I found on the ground. Maybe you could do that. Possibly advising you to go so far as to do the trivially easy job of forging one of these passes is crossing a line that would turn the massive legal siege engines of SXSW upon me, but I’d never advise you to do that since it’s overkill to go to so much effort to pierce such a permeable barrier as the SXSW door staff. Those staff are penniless student volunteers, by the way. Just so you know. See above, regarding how we are all broke together here.

On that note, bear in mind that not everyone who could dispense you favours identifies as a member of that student category. You might be forced to claim kinship with the upper crust, or the lower. Dress accordingly in something that readily traverse the boundaries between riding high:

Figure 3: Allow me to invest in your locative social startup…

and getting ridden:

Figure 4: …to identify park benches to sleep on.

One final time I hear, you, my imaginary naïve reader, claim that surely the pass gets you something? After all, how much can it cost? What does your thousand-plus dollars buy you? Dear reader, I can answer that: A lanyard with some shiny stickers on. A tax writedown. A bag of advertising leaflets. An elite glow. The right to stand in some of the most exclusive mass queues possible. If any of those things are particularly attractive, dive in. Especially the queues. Venues are sharply constrained and the massively oversold event precludes a certain entry for anyone except the presenters. See above re: gigs.

That said, it might surprise you that the avaricious ticket price clearly fails to cover running costs, because a every surface that you, the special attendee, are exposed to, will extract additional value from you by saturating your visual and auditory environment with advertising. Blew all your money already? An adroit sort could build a nest from discarded promotional t-shirts and save on the hotel.

2 Next: transport. No, food. Actually, transport.

There is a bike shop in town on Nueces which sponsors the festival and rents out bikes. Don’t go there; they charge as much per day as the rest of the town’s bike shop does for a week. Instead, head north upon Guadalupe Ave and check out the many bike shops that you will pass as you head through the University precinct. Also, remember this route; along here are many excellent cafes that have real espresso machines and food apart from pizzas by the slice.

For the rest of the town: There are places here selling pizza slicewise. I was not so familiar with these places, as in Sydney there are enough food options that you leave the disquieting cheese taxidermy that is the cold pizza slice, to its proper audience, which the same people who eat fried scorpions on a stick in Thailand — drunk people.

My unfamiliarity is no longer; I am now intimately acquainted. You will notice that the slices in Austin are uncommonly large. This is not a selling point; if you are eating shit, smaller is better. Your slice will arrived badly microwaved, spottily warm and wholly unsavoury. I’m told they go well with a beer, but they go yet better with so much beer that you can’t taste anything. Probably scorpions too.

Yes, some kind of culinary bomb has descended on the convention centre wreaking devastation on all foodstuffs within a kilometre, leaving nothing edible bar those slices and sundry permutations of bacon and tortillas, which, at this point in your journey, you have had enough of.

Get a Go Local Austin card. Every business that sells lunch that doesn’t suck within commuting distance of downtown seems to partake in it, and you will repay your paltry investment with the stream of 10% discounts. Their list of participating stores does double duty of lists of lunches that don’t suck.

Sorry, that was supposed to be about transport. Yes.

So, they shut off the centre of the city. Roads are blocked. If they weren’t blocked by the cops, the 12000 festival attendees’ bodies would suffice and, ultimately, ambulances fetching said bodies. Cars sit idly on the roads, gently emitting organic particulates like a reef in spawning season and precisely as sessile. Taxis and buses just about move, but walking is faster, and if you are able-bodied, by catching a taxi you are denying transport to those that need it, such as bands trying to get to their gig with heavy amps and record crates, and the wheelchair-bound. So, bikes.

3 Texas Connectivity

Figure 5: You could spill a $3 beer here and cost $8000

No-one hates public laptop users more than other public laptop users who feel their own public laptop use is more justified. The supply of wifi is plentiful at coffeeshops and no-one thinks twice about buying a $1 cup of something and leeching their power and network for 13 hours. But all the venues are crowded to the point of madness, and the network router is emitting ozone and sparks there are bands in the front AND back bars and that kind of behaviour will make you grow to hate your fellow human. Maybe, I dunno, give the computer a rest for a bit. Or hop on your bike and do it somewhere where they are missing the custom that the festival has sucked away.

4 Accomodation

If you are disorganised enough to be even reading this then you’re too late. the hotels are already booked. Maybe you couldn’t afford them anyway; maybe they are too dull. A thousand reasons therefore that you should stay with friends in town. Here are my friends in town, Diz and Greg. You can’t have them; they are taken.

Figure 6: check out that hostly style

(Thank Greg for hosting me by going to see his band Opposite Day and then buying loads of CDs. Thank Diz by, uh, being nice and appreciating good urban design.)

You might find some other likeable sorts though, on couchsurfing, where I have met many good and noble people who have helped me out.