"Badges.. ? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" -- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
No disrespect to my friends who paid for (or whose employers paid for) badges to the music portion of South by Southwest this year, but I have to say it's my strong feeling that the laminates are not necessary. If you work in the industry, sure, I can see how it would be important to be admitted to industry-only events. But if you just want to see good music, hop a plane to Austin, crash on a friend's couch, and don't worry about no stinking badges. You won't need 'em.
Historically, this may not have been the case, but my experience was that even without a badge, you will be forced to choose at every hour of the day between several excellent shows you'd like to be attending. Though you are no one of influence, you will nonetheless be plied with a wide range of free booze, food, and of course music. You'll be awed by a band's performance one minute and have them standing next to you in the crowd, nodding their heads to the beat the next, close enough to touch. If you like live music, Austin is a playground during the days of the conference, and that holds true no matter how you're credentialed.
The sole remark on the SXSW music conference here covers the negatives. I posit that the first step toward having a better experience is not spending any money in anticipation of it. Our expectations are often lower for things that don't cost several hundred bucks. The other steps I'd recommend are as follows:
The unofficial shows are also called day parties or side parties. Bless the blogosphere, these things are tracked and collated in multiple formats by numerous different people and sites from the moment details are released. Some people will tell you don't plan, because you won't make it to the things you want to see. I disagree. An obsessive knowledge of who was playing where helped me out, and also most of my friends at various times. Like, what else are you going to be doing for the year leading up to South-by? I organized every piece of information I came across, then filtered it down at the last minute to something resembling an itinerary (albeit an itinerary spanning several dimensions, allowing me to be in multiple places at once). I put this information in the calendar on my phone, but I saw plenty of people with printouts they'd clearly formatted themselves and even tidy, hand-drawn versions of Google calendars with neat rounded boxes outlining the day's events.
My planning recommendation is to write down the time and location of every set you might want to see. This allows you to rough out an itinerary that will minimize conflicts, and gives you a Plan B (or C or D) in case you run into problems. By problems, I mostly mean lines.
Don't stand in lines
Unless you're really freakin' picky, you'll have more options than you know what to do with. Thus, it makes no sense to wait for two hours in the hot sun to possibly get into a venue by the time the band you're interested in begins their set. Just move on to a smaller band, or a party without free shots or lacking the endorsement of Perez Hilton. I had to pull myself aside for a few reality checks when I found myself feeling overly committed. Most bands playing are not huge names. That's the point. So while you may want to see Blitzen Trapper and are excited to do so at a price tag of $0, it's far from being the sort of once in a lifetime opportunity that justifies standing in a line that, judging by its length (several blocks), should terminate at a pile of unattended hundred dollar bills. Nearly all of these bands will come through your town, and you'll be able to see them for $12 or so in a nice club, at night, with few enough people that you'll be able to actually get up to the stage.
Don't buy drinks
Lucky me, I figured this one out on Day 1, when I attempted to order a vodka and Monster (one of the events sponsor's) and was asked for $7, cash only. Prices on Sixth Street go up on all sorts of things during SXSW, and price gouging on booze seemed to be the norm. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to get free beer and cocktails, and those places tend to be pretty empty while the day parties are going on. This means you can walk right in, straight up to the bartender, and order your libation. You drink it, ignore the shitty band they've got onstage, and head back out to your next destination.
Pick up wristbands and laminates as early as possible
There are a handful of conference-long parties that can be relied upon for free booze, pop, and water, as well as a place to sit the fuck down. For the past couple of years these have included Fader Fort, the Purevolume House, and others. These all seem to work on the same system, wherein there are two lines outside the enormous venues: one for people who've picked up their "credentials" (generally involves showing an ID and getting a wristband or cheesy laminate), one for people who have yet to do so. Toward mid-day, the former line is non-existent while the latter spans up to half a mile. Best bet is to stop by while you're out getting coffee the morning of the first day and pick up the necessary items at that time. If you did need a badge for some reason, this is the same time you'd want to be down at the Convention Center getting that, so it works out nicely.
Dress for comfort
No doubt this seems obvious if you've spent any time at music festivals, but consider that a music festival generally spans, what, two miles? SXSW is the size of the city. Official events seem to all take place in the same ten blocks that comprise Austin's downtown, but day parties happen all over the fucking place. Most of the same clubs that will host the night's badge-holder parties have shows during the daytime, but there are also parties ranging in size from a back parking lot to a one-acre junk lot south, east, west, and even north. Buses get full, cabs are something you have to fight for, and you can easily find yourself on your feet from the time you leave in the morning until you come home to collapse at.. morning. This calls for something more than your trusty old Chucks. At minimum, I'd recommend insoles, the more decadent, the better. I also just discovered support hose which, old lady connotations aside, are awesome. Sheer Energy is not a fucking misnomer - those things saved my life. Aside from your lower extremities, wear loose warm weather clothing and sunscreen and you should be ok. If you plan to go to shows in any of Austin's "parks" - large plateaus of dust punctuated by mean-limbed trees and legions of port-a-potties - you may also want a scarf or bandanna to tie over your face.
By evening, even the indoor bathrooms at clubs were running out of toilet paper. In a port-a-potty, even if there is paper, it may not be anything you'd want to touch, let alone rub against your nether regions. As with most music festivals, having your own supply is useful and, if you're a chick, pretty much a necessity.
Take it easy with the booze
Not only do you want to be able to hold it until you can find a real bathroom where no one has peed all over the seat, you want to be alive tomorrow. If you drink everything that's offered to you, you're going to be really impressively fucked up. And you might sleep through your chance to see your favorite band playing in an alley with birds singing during the soundcheck. Fuck Rock the Rabbit, fuck Vice Saves Texas, I can't imagine a more worthwhile part of SXSW. Even if you can power through a hangover, it's likely dehydration and exhaustion will catch up with you and you'll be kicking yourself because you were in bed when you could have been doing something awesome.
Again, it's possible to spend no money at SXSW. If you spend nothing, you're out nothing if the day doesn't go quite as you'd pictured it. If you give yourself a hangover (or a sunburn, or wicked gnarly sleep deprivation), write the day off and take care of yourself. If you manage to miss every single one of your favorite band's free shows, it's ok, you'll have other chances. If you can't find your friends, consider that it's kind of fucking awesome that you all had so many appealing demands on your time that you couldn't sit still long enough to meet up. Don't sweat the interminable soundchecks, the drunk UT students yelling inane conversation over your favorite song, the foot pain, the heat, or the fact that no matter what you do, you can't possibly see everything. From the time you see your first band or drink your first lukewarm Shiner, it's all bonus. And even if you manage to find something to completely ruin SXSW for you, there's always next year.