SXSW 2011 is coming!

The South by Southwest Music Conference is fast approaching, and with it comes a whiplash-inducing amount of music industry visitors and fans from every corner of the world. The conference is actually broken up into three parts — first, there’s an interactive festival that features the brightest minds in social media, web journalism, widgets and buzz-creating. Then there’s a film festival, where some of the biggest critical darlings premiere and bring with them Hollywood’s finest. Finally, and most excitingly for me, there is a four-day music festival that has grown from a conference-oriented event to break bands, to a blurred line of parties and official panels for rep labels and passionate fans alike, and bands who formed just a few months ago to those who have been filling stadiums for years. It’s a hodge-podge, and it can be incredibly overwhelming if it’s your first time attending the conference. This is just a short preview to get your feet wet; we’ll run a follow-up with band recommendations and more extensive tips and tricks as the festival gets closer.

The SXSW Music Conference runs from March 16 to March 19 this year, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit how excited I was that the kickoff lands dead on my birthday. The conference has always landed on my birthday week, and I’ve attended every one since 2006. There are three ways you can attend the conference, and they all have benefits and drawbacks. First, there is the option to pony up for a badge. At this point, Music badges will run you $750. That’s a pretty penny, but if you can dish it out, the badge unquestionably gets you the most access during the conference. I’ve been lucky enough to get badges through press outlets or generous birthday gifts every year, and it’s been wonderful. The Music badge has allowed me to listen to Neil Young and Pete Townshend rap on life and music, got me into a packed Stubb’s to listen to the then-brand new Hazards of Love front-to-back by the Decemberists, and to talk to Teitur and almost get him to sing me a song on my birthday (he forgot, but I never will — you owe me “Amanda’s Dream,” good sir!) I got to network at panels with really cool music folks, and wander around to any party my wild heart directed me to (once I was of age, anyhow).

That said, if you can’t afford a Music badge, don’t despair! You can purchase a Music wristband for $165. There were still some available at press time, but they’ll likely go fast. When you’re in line at most events during SXSW, the badge holders are let into venues first, and then wristband holders head in behind them. There are some badge-only events, but in the past, wristbands could get you into most shows.

After badge and wristband holders are let into venues, the general public is allowed to buy tickets to specific shows until the venue capacity is reached. This is not a surefire way to get into a show, because there are usually a LOT of badge and wristband holders — especially for shows with bigger headliners. Still, if you’re in Austin during SXSW and don’t have a badge or wristband, you can still see tons of music for free. Many parties are free and open to the public with an RSVP; your best bet for tracking these down would be SXSW Baby! and Showlist Austin.

You can also volunteer to work SXSW and attend shows that way. I’ve never done this, but I’ve heard great things from friends; it’s an excellent way to get better access in exchange for your time, doing fun work at events. You can find more information about that here.

Once you decide how you’re going to do SXSW, the next big question is — who will you see out of the thousands of bands rushing to pay stages in Austin? We’ll have a more extensive breakdown of our recommendations later, but I’ve found in my previous years that if you know you love a particular artist on a lineup, you should invest a little time and check out the other bands playing that lineup, because they can be great new discoveries for you; that’s exactly how I first saw Janelle Monae. In terms of the big names hitting SXSW, the most exciting confirmed giants will be Bright Eyes, making their only currently listed Texas appearance on their The People’s Key tour. Not only are they performing, but they’re playing Auditorium Shores, which is a free outdoor performance that anyone can attend. The entire lineup for their Saturday performance is stellar — there’s the experimental-pop ensemble Man Man, indie collaboration Middle Brother (featuring players from Deer Tick, Dawes and Delta Spirit) and folky New Yorkers the Felice Brothers. In addition to this fantastic set, rumors abound for other big-named secret appearances by bands like the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and (be still, my heart) Radiohead. Queens were reported as being confirmed by the Austin Music Source, but the rest are still just rumors.

Another great free option for folks is the Fader Fort. A major selling point for this event, for those interested in this sort of thing, is an open bar. Musically, the Fader Fort is really impressive, too — I attended for my first time last year for a short 2-hour block, and got to see Neon Indian and Local Natives, some of the hottest up-and-comers at the festival. For all of you trend-chasers, the Fader Fort is a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the next big thing. Plus, it’s just a fun layout, and totally free with RSVP. Just make sure you plan ahead, ‘cause it can get super crowded by the time big secret headliners (like 2009’s appearance by Kanye West) hit the stage.

There you have it — a crash course in some of the most general bits and pieces to wrap your head around pre-festival. Look out for a more in-depth guide to the bands, and most importantly, as with any festival, remember your number one goal should be to enjoy yourself.

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