Gig Business

A Newbie’s Guide to SXSW

from our friends at Sparkplug

By GigSalad

This is a guest post written by Sparkplug, the online marketplace where musicians rent instruments, gear, and space. 

It’s that time of year again! SXSW Music is this week! If this is your first year (or you’re returning but want to be more prepared this year), here are some tips to make sure you make the most of the conference and have a great time in the process.


Plan in advance!

Don’t wait until you get to Austin to start planning your schedule.  Create a Google doc a couple weeks out and write out all the shows/panels/parties/etc that you want to attend. Or download the SXSW app and customize your schedule in the app or online. You can synch your calendar or access your schedule or document on the go.  Only using the official SXSW app/scheduler is great for quickly adding panels and shows to your calendar, but it doesn’t let you add customized events (like interviews or meetings) and doesn’t include unofficial parties.

How to make a (realistic) SXSW schedule:

  • Write down all events that you are interested in, even if they conflict. – You probably won’t make half of them, but you don’t want to base your schedule on making one event.  Plus, if you don’t know the Austin area well, you may end up far away from the event you thought you’d attend but close to another great one.
  • Include all necessary details. – You will most likely never look at the flyer/invite again so write down everything you need to know now, including time/date, location, name of party, and maybe a reminder if you’ve rsvped already, who invited you, or if there will be free food/drinks (never underestimate the importance of a free breakfast taco at SXSW).
  • Mix it up. – There to check out music and party? Look into panels that might interest you or the trade shows.  Only focused on networking and business development? Go to some parties that also include live music and free food/drinks.  The point – don’t only focus on one type of event.  SXSW has so much to offer; you may be surprised at what you find most valuable.
  • Print it (multiple times) / Email it / Save it to all devices.  Your phone will die, you will lose your first copy or give it to a friend, you won’t have reception.  Make sure to print physical copies of the schedule and also keep a back up online somewhere and easily accessible on your mobile devices.

How to find events:

  • Start with the official SXSW events. – Know that if you don’t have a badge, you probably won’t be able to go to these.
  • Like the ‘Unofficial SXSW Guide‘ on Facebook and check out the parties they list. – Non-badge friendly!
  • If you’re there for the music, check out your favorite artists’ website or track Austin that week on Songkick. Many shows aren’t officially through the conference, so you can see tons of music that isn’t listed on the official website.
  • Ask your friends/bandmates/colleagues for their schedule or if they recommend any bands, events, etc.

Be realistic about your schedule: You will not follow it.

So you’ve made a detailed schedule and mapped out what you’ll be doing every minute from 9 am to 2 am every day of the festival? Perfect!  Now, you’re not going to follow it.

Use your schedule as a reference.

Don’t get too caught up in following your schedule perfectly.  Start each day with 2 – 3 events that you definitely want to attend and set out as if you will actually make it there.  See where your other listed events logically fit in between as the day continues.  Location, scheduling, and who you run into at events will affect the rest of your day.  Don’t be afraid to veer off your plan and head with a friend to something they have scheduled.  That’s the best way to discover great new music, food, people, and networking.  If you have a buddy with you, make sure you take time to do your own thing if you want to see something different than them.  Flying solo is one of the best ways to meet people in general.  If at the end of the day, you only made your first ‘planned’ event, don’t be upset with yourself.  There’s always tomorrow to catch that informative panel or take advantage of free BBQ.  Plus, you probably had a better day by being spontaneous and not forcing yourself to attend things that didn’t make sense in the moment.

Playing a show?

Spread the word!

There are thousands of showcasing artists at SXSW. How do you get people to come to your show? Free tacos and beer don’t hurt when you’re trying to bring in crowds but don’t forget to promote it via your email list, website, and social media, like you would a regular show.

Be understanding if not everyone makes it.

It’s very likely that some people that swore they would check out your showcase don’t end up making an appearance. It’s busy in Texas. Things run behind, new meetings and events pop up or cause a change of plans. Don’t have any hard feelings if someone doesn’t end up making your show.

Book your backline.

Venues may not provide the backline that you need. Make sure you get your rider to the showcase production managers or coordinators as far in advance as possible to see what they have. If you need to rent something, search Sparkplug for affordable rentals from local musicians and companies or book via the Sparkplug iPhone app

Listen to your body.

SXSW is exhausting!

That fact will never change but don’t kill yourself or change who you are.  If you’ve never been a morning person, this isn’t the time to assume you’ll be making an 8:30 am panel or coffee meeting.  If you like a lot of sleep (like me), don’t spend the first couple nights at shows until 2 am.  I was so proud of myself that last year I was in bed by midnight for the first two nights.  I felt refreshed during the next days and wasn’t completely burnt out by the weekend.  Make sure to eat properly and regularly (free breakfast tacos are awesome only if they’re not your only meal of the day), drink lots of water (watery beer does not count), wear sunscreen, and take naps/downtime when you find a lull in the action.

And a word on packing…

This may seem obvious, but don’t overpack or bring things you will never wear.  If you’re a gym-rat, assume you will go once on the first day you arrive and never again.  Check the weather before you leave.  You may be expecting sunshine, shorts, and tank tops, but there have been years where jeans, coats, and boots were more appropriate.  Even if you have meetings or a formal dinner, you will not wear a suit or anything formal at SXSW.  Don’t forget sunglasses (or a cute hat if you’re a hat-person).  The sun gets brutal.


Schedule commitments strategically.

You don’t need to keep business and pleasure completely separate. Feel free to mix business and your scheduled events.  If there’s a friendly contact that you want to reconnect with at SXSW but don’t necessarily need a formal ‘meeting’ environment, suggest that you attend a showcase or party together.  That way, you won’t have to miss checking out the great band you wanted to see or supporting a colleague’s showcase, and you can also have some hang time with your contact.  People go to SXSW to network, so your contact will appreciate you introducing them to whoever you came to see at the event. 

Don’t forget to check your schedule before you set up meetings.  Some events may be ones you won’t want to miss, and it can be tough to get in touch with people to change plans in the moment. Instead, look at where you’ll most likely be and plan meetings around those times/locations.

If you can, get mobile phone numbers from folks you’re meeting up with and make sure they have yours. People aren’t on email as much while in Austin, so it’s best to have a number to text in case things don’t go as planned.


Bring a phone charger wherever you go.

You will need it.  And you will meet more people through it.  The phone charger is a great networking ice-breaker.  Someone may ask to borrow it and then they’re bound to talk to you or at least buy you a drink. Power outlets also end up being a good social hang out area (especially if you’re flying solo and awkward) where you are forced to talk to other people because you can’t distract yourself with a mobile device.


Take a minute to listen to the music.

Yes, SXSW has become overrun with people who come to Austin just to party but don’t over-focus on the business side.  We’re musicians and work in music because we love it.  Use SXSW as an opportunity to reconnect with your love of music. Discover new things.  Don’t just talk at a party or play Words with Friends on your phone while waiting for your set to start – listen to the band playing.  You never know who will be your next great collaborator or inspiration.


Follow Up.

It’s Monday morning after SXSW.  You’re exhausted, dehydrated, sunburnt, and have 300 unread emails in your inbox….

First, drink some water, sleep, respond to urgent matters, and call your mom so she knows you survived.

Then, make a pile of all of the business cards and postcards you collected at SXSW.  Divide this into 2-3 sub-piles: (1) the people you met and actually had a conversation with that are ideal collaborators, business partners, opportunities, friends, etc., (2) the people you met but didn’t really speak to long but seemed like they could be a good person to keep in touch with and know in the future, and (3) people that gave you their card when you didn’t want it or did something to offend you during the course of your conversation with them. A couple tricks to remembering people: Take notes in your phone or write on the back of their business card to trigger your memory.

During the first couple of days after SXSW –

Write everyone in pile 1 a personal email.  Subtly remind them how you met and ways that you might be able to work together.  Be specific and follow up on your conversation.  If you had told them about a great restaurant in Brooklyn, send them the info.  If you suggested that they would find an industry organization valuable, remind them of the details and invite them to join you at an event.  If you’re in the same city, suggest that you get coffee or lunch once the post-SXSW craziness has died down.  Then, actually get coffee or lunch once the post-SXSW craziness has died down.

Within 2 weeks after SXSW –

Send a brief note to everyone in pile two.  Yes, you can write the type of detailed email that you send to the Pile 1-ers, but you may be swamped with work and not have enough time post-SXSW to do it.  In this brief note, remind them of who you are and where you met (if you remember).   Remind them of what you do and how you might be able to work together, complement what they do.  Give them your contact info.

Throw away the business cards in Pile 3.

Or, if you’re an office-hoarder, put them in a drawer and never look at them again.  Trust your instincts – if you didn’t love meeting someone the first time, you probably won’t want to connect with them again.  If they email you first, of course respond, but protect yourself and move forward in the relationship cautiously if you felt that they were creepy/unprofessional (it happens).

Listen to all the great new music you discovered!


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