What is South by South West Festival, and What Does it Offer?

SXSW is the biggest music, film and interactive festival in the world. More than 80,000 people descend on Austin in Texas to show off their start ups, watch bands, talk on panels, premiere their films or play their music. It’s been a dream for me for a while to go, and this year I made it!

And honestly, it was awesome.

Registration badges are super expensive – think £1000+ to get in to all the talks, music and films – but, there’s plenty going on in Austin during SXSW for free on the side, so if you don’t want full access (or can’t afford to), there’s more than enough music and events to experience to make your plane ticket worth it.

You might have heard of the Spotify House – launching the careers of many – and there’s the YouTube Music House, Hype Hotel, House of Vans – all free to enter, and best of all, free to drink. Each house is trying to outdo the other, and you’re the lucky festivalgoer in the middle, with all the beers.

Planning for SXSW

Austin, Texas

Before I went to SXSW I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. Any research didn’t seem to help as the more I knew the more I realised there was to know. It seemed like an absolute minefield of cool talks, great music and new films – and that there’d never be enough time to work out where I should be at any hour.

Which I found, as I discovered SXSW, pretty much summed it up.

Every hour there’s about 20 things to choose from to do. Think ‘A Conversation with Jake Gyllenhaal’ vs ‘The Future of Media Companies’ from the CMO of Buzzfeed vs free drinks somewhere vs the premiere of an indie film vs chilling with a free Maccy Ds at the McDonald’s Loft vs ‘How Virtual Reality Will Change Fashion’ vs ‘Launching a Brand’… I could go on.

You have to accept that you’ll miss a lot, but you’ll see a lot too.

The SXSW app was a lifesaver. Download it before you go and take a look day-by-day to see what’s going on. You can star your favourite events and create a custom calendar to follow while you’re there. Plans will change but at least you’ll have a rough idea of what you want to see.

Do your research but be prepared for it to change when you hear about a secret event – Justin Timberlake turned up one year, as did Kanye West.

The parties

SXSW Fader Fort

I had an all access badge, but I still avoided the big things – Fader Fort / Rachel Ray’s Feedback / Stubbs – those words meant as much to me as I’m assuming mean to you right now, but they were the parties to be at and the old timers knew it.

I went for the underdog and found smaller parties that I didn’t have to queue for, because seriously, some of the ‘lines’ wrapped halfway round Austin, almost.

The panel talks

Obama at SXSW

If you do manage to get into the panels, you could see some amazing people. President Obama did the keynote this year about the role technology plays in civil engagement. And the First Lady Michelle Obama talked about Let Girls Learn, an initiative to help the 62 million women around the world who do not attend school.

I saw M-Nus DJ Richie Hawtin talk passionately about DJing, world-leading businessman Gary Vaynerchuk swear a lot and tell us how good he is at building companies, Kelly Rowland talk about being in Destiny’s Child (with Bey!) and Amber Venz Box on her journey to RewardStyle mogul – the blogger platform that allows bloggers to earn money off recommendations, and earned her $60 million.

The talk by Kerry Washington from TV show Scandal was probably my favourite. I wasn’t familiar with her work before and didn’t know what to expect, but she was honest, insightful and inspiring. She took audience questions at the end and someone asked her how she dealt with the inevitable hate online. She replied: “I think of people like Obama, Oprah and Beyoncé. I think of all the hate they get, and how if they let it get to them, we wouldn’t have them changing our world for the better”. Deep. The audience went wild.

After the sessions the speakers will usually hang around to meet the audience (not Obama, obvs), which was cool. I hung out with British singer-songwriter and electronic music artist Lapsley, new London artist JONES and the aforementioned awesome DJ Richie Hawtin.

The films

SXSW Film logo

Get a film badge for SXSW and you’ll have access to over 500 films in six venues across Austin. Some of them are world premieres. I kind of only clocked onto how awesome this was on about day four, when I took in a double bill. As I said, there’s just so much to do I only saw five films during the whole of the festival.

The cinemas in Austin are much more than your average Cineworld – you can get snacks brought to your seat, the chairs are super comfortable and everyone claps at the start and beginning.

Keep an eye out for super scary Under the Shadow, the creepy old man in Suntan, how to smuggle drugs in the 70s in Orange Sunshine, the real life refugee struggles in From Nowhere and the true story of American footballer Steve Gleason and now ALS sufferer and Ice Bucket challenge originator, in Gleason.  All brilliant in their own way.


SXSW is held every March and has launched the careers of an unimaginable amount of people in the interactive, music and film realms. But whether you have something to promote or you just want to see other people’s creativity and innovation, I’d definitely recommend going.

There’s always the 40 hours of volunteering you can do in return for a badge - think I’m going to get on that scheme next year. See you there!