Fabulous Festivals : The Gratis Side of SXSW in Austin, TX

As one of the largest festivals of its kind in the world, South by Southwest (SXSW) down in Austin generally needs no introduction to most (and if it does for you, consider this post it).  The Interactive portion of the event has forged its way as THE leading spot for the newest and most creative in technology and design.  Focusing on "undiscovered" and new directing talent, the Film festival is also a place to see the first screenings of a few big budget films as well.  Finally, the Music aspect is considered to be one of the largest in the world with over 2,000 "official" performers, and hundreds of bands you can see in "unofficial" venues.

With badges and wristbands for the full event going at over $1,000 a pop, however, it can be easy for us folk on more of a shoestring budget to chuck this social frenzy into the ol' "someday" bucket and call it good.  Good news!  SXSW has spawned (and even sponsors) so many free concerts and events outside of the convention center that's it's possible to get a pretty good "South by" experience without a lot of moolah (save that for some breakfast migas instead).  All of Austin is on board, and that's music to our budget traveling ears wanting a pretty healthy chunck of the festival action!

Arriving in Austin on a Friday, I immediately headed to the first of my weekend-O-free-SXSW events:  Flatstock:

Sponsored by the American Poster Institute, Flatstock displays the work of the best music and gig poster artists, and is a celebration of all things letterpress, wood block, and design.  If you love art, music, design, friendly poster-makers, or all of the above, I highly recommend a swing by for some incredible poster lovin'.

Wandering out and around the convention center, there's always something going on, and it seems that every space, store, bar, and restaurant becomes a venue.  Most of the shows are free and many of them even serve free food and beer!  A good tip if you're arriving from out of town and aren't privy to the SXSW scene yet:  know that many shows require an online RSVP in advance.  You can do this on sites such as Do512.com (choose the shows you want to go to or RSVP to as many as you can/want to get you covered), RSVPster.com (where, for a fee, it will go ahead and just RSVP you to every event going on), and Facebook.  

Moving down onto the madness of historic 6th Street ('Dirty Six' if you're a true local), the music parties thread in and out of the dives, through the streets, and even up onto rooftop bars.  You're pretty much guaranteed a good time at any place you wander into (although for the freebies and acts that you really want to catch, your best best is still to go the RSVP route mentioned above).

You know how sometimes when you're in a crazy, crowded place and you just happen to run into someone that you know completely unexpectedly?  Well, for me this came in the form of the Violin Monster, who I saw and photographed in the streets of New Orleans just a few months ago in January (you can see him in this post).  Yeah, the Violin Monster and I go way back...

Once the night settles in, the streets and bars swell with even more people, more music, and more impromptu food carts and trucks.  The bigger free acts take the stages, and it's all just so, so good.

Being that SXSW lasts for 10 days, you can pretty much party yourself into a stoop so low that not even a sunglassed, bouffant-ed, free-Lonestar-weilding Southern lass could get you out of.  I'm saying that it's important to pace yourself if you're going the long haul, and especially if it's for more than two or three days.  There's a lot of great music and a ton of free-food-and-free-booze parties, so it's best to have back-up plans for your back-ups, and schedule in a lot of downtime at the ridiculously addictive food trucks planted around town.

If you find yourself particularly skilled at celebrity-spotting and think you won't see any without the coveted wristband, remember celebs too sometimes have cheap-skate blood running through them, and can be found in and out of the free shows alongside us common folk (here, Pete Wentz and who I can only imagine are his biggest fans):

The best part of the free side of SXSW?  The surprises!  From secret or impromptu shows under bridges to getting taco recommendations from a cowboy dressed in drag, showing up in Austin without an official SXSW wristband will still gain you admission to one heck of a good time!