In case you're thinking of going next year
If you're not from Austin and think you're going to the South by Southwest music festival, think again. 1300 bands in 5 days is a music lovers dream. Bands covering every music style from all around the world play fill nearly every bar in downtown Austin. To see any shows, you need either a badge or a wristband. People who pay the music conference fees (about $500) get in to any show they want by using their conference badge as admission.
Music fans can pay $125/$150/$175 to get a wristband, and that wristband will get you into the music shows as well. The price depends on when you buy your wristband; this year the first 2000 were $125, the next 2000 were $150, and any remaining ones were $175 (up from $110/$130/$150 last year). 4600 total wristbands were sold this year; the first 4000 sold in one day, two max per person. The remaining 600 were $175, cash only, and had to be worn immediately after purchase "to prevent scalping."
If you didn't get a wristband through the normal channels, plenty of people were selling theirs online. There were at least 260 SXSW eBay wristband auctions and 300 Craigslist wristband sales listings, most of which sold for over face value. If you're not from Austin or have a friend who's willing to brave hours in line, then you can always get gouged by the scalpers since Texas has no anti-scalping laws.
I emailed the SXSW music people about this. They said that the wristbands are sold as a "courtesy" to Austinites in exchange for having their town invaded. Anyone not from Austin who can't be at Waterloo Records on the magic day when wristbands go on sale is SOL. A coworker of mine got a less cordial letter -- that SXSW is about the conference and not the fans. If you can't get a wristband, then please pay the full music conference fees or shut the fuck up. Or words like that.
But that's not the full extent of SXSW's indifference to music fans. Buying a wristband does not guarantee you admission to the shows. People with badges always get in first, even if there's 200 wristband wearing fans who have been waiting in line for the last three hours. In short, if you have a wristband, you're probably going to spend a night wandering up and down 6th Street instead of listening to the music you paid for.
I don't know about you, but paying a scalper $250 for a wristband because you couldn't buy one in person isn't very courteous; at least ten percent of all SXSW wristbands were sold online. Courteous is not selling only 4600 wristbands and then giving priority to the music execs who have badges paid for by their companies. SXSW is Austin's premier music festival. It's the party that put Austin on the map. And it's fuckin crazy that they would treat music as such a commodity when it should really be about the fans.
One example will clear this up. I saw Sleater-Kinney play a kick ass show on Tuesday night. Admission was an SXSW badge -- that is, only people who paid the conference fees could get in. When S-K asked the audience how many people are from Austin, maybe 10% cheered. And that doesn't count the remaining 2/3 of the people who were busy having conversations and weren't watching the show (read as: business people). If real S-K fans were in attendance, you wouldn't be able to have a conversation over the music, dancing, and noise.
Every person who goes to Austin for SXSW should know that if you're buying a wristband, you're gambling with your money. In my opinion, you're better off spending that money on 4 days of great meals and drinking. That's what I did with the money I saved by not getting a wristband. And let me tell you -- I had a better time than I would have if I had gone to those shows. And I didn't even have to deal with the crazy SXSW traffic and parking.
There's one last thing that's been bothering me. It's "South by Southwest, Inc." They're a business. How much money are they making of everyone? Let's go through this:
- Speakers don't get paid to speak at the conference (though they do get a free badge)
- Bands don't get paid to play at the festival (but they get free wristbands)
- People shell out hundreds of dollars for wristbands and badges
- Companies pay tens of thousands of dollars for SXSW sponsorships
Other than paying rent for Austin Convention Center, SXSW Inc must be making tons of money off this. Yeah, if you're from SXSW Inc and are reading this, go ahead and refute this all you want. But all of us who know you've raised wristband and conference fees by 5-10% each year for the last few years know better. We're getting screwed.
I loved the years I went to SXSW, but there's no way I'll ever go to the music festival unless someone else pays for it. Or if they have some kind of lottery system for purchasing wristbands along with online purchasing. And give wristbands the same priority as badges. And make sure that wristbands can't be sold for more than face value.
Of course, a free platinum badge for next year would get me there as well... More on my SXSW and Austin experiences later.