An alternative guide to SXSW

Skip the panels and drop the event schedule. The creative chief of Austin-based ad agency GSD&M shares his tips for how to get the most from South by Southwest

Locals tell me I’m supposed to hate on South by Southwest because I live in Austin and that’s what locals do. So, we’re supposed to hate on the things that helped put us on the map? Screw that. I love SX and all the crowds and mayhem and debauchery. It’s easy to forget that SXSW started as the anti-event with no giant big-name headliners. It was truly about going home ahead of the curve with some intel on what the future held. We may have deviated a bit but it can still happen. You just have to wade through the BS. 

Most of the exciting things at SX happen on the fringes. I personally can’t stand being at most of the events in the Austin Convention Center – 90% of the time I feel like it’s just hungover panels justifying what everybody already knows about the industry. Truth be told, I don’t think you need a badge to access the most exciting stuff. Well okay … minus seeing President Obama give the keynote. 

My must-sees are still Flatstock, the Gaming Expo and the SX Create showcase. It’s a great way to see what the kids in the garages are making these days. It’s less polished, usually in beta mode, and ripe for seeing trends and inspiration. These people will be our bosses some day.

I get way more inspired once I throw away the three giant, telephone book-sized event schedules and just wander and see where the day takes me. Walking from place to place is where you discover the most interesting things. It’s cliché but it’s true. Just wander into whatever looks or sounds interesting to you. This is especially true for SXSW Music. Just wander. Don’t stress about trying to get into wherever Justin Timberlake is — because you will just be squished and drinkless even if you do get in. I generally plant at the Mohawk or somewhere off Red River that has a full showcase and sip on beers and enjoy music all day without running from bar to bar chasing the hands on my watch. 

I’d say the same rules apply to food. Uchi, Franklin Barbecue, Guero's Taco Bar and all the usual suspects are great Austin icons — but they are best enjoyed any time that is not SXSW. Just go a mile further outside of the city and you can find great food that won’t be a four-hour ordeal. Gourmands on the east side is my favorite Austin easy food and drink lunch place: broccoli cheese soup that is essentially a drinkable bowl of queso, great Bloody Marys and just far enough out to be manageable people-wise. And any trailer that serves breakfast tacos will suffice when searching for Austin breakfast tacos — I have yet to meet one I haven’t liked — though I do believe Sarah (GSD&M’s resident breakfast taco lady) may be the best. 

Parting words would be just to enjoy the experience and the people. The truth is you can follow the highlights on any form of social media. It’s still pretty easy to convince your boss that that you’re soaking up SX like a sponge. Your best inspiration will be found by going in fairly blind. The best story I heard last year was from a reporter at this publication, who ended up two-step dancing and hopping on a horse heading down South Lamar at 2 a.m. That’s much more interesting than racing to a convention room to get the news out that Periscope 2.0 just released.

Jay Russell is the chief creative officer of GSD&M. 

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