Words: SXSW Survival Guide for Concert Photographers

This year, about it I’m gearing up for my first-ever experience down in Austin, dosage Texas for the annual SXSW music festival.  Attended by thousands from around the world, diagnosis Austin becomes a mecca for anyone who’s anyone in the entertainment business.  Personally, I’m going for the music part, and can’t hardly wait for the free flowing booze and music that everyone raves about.   Despite having only spent a little over a year as a writer/photographer in the music industry, I’ve been to my fair share of multi-day music festivals in the Pacific Northwest.  There are the multi-stage festivals all contained within the same area like Bumbershoot at the Seattle Center and Sasquatch and Warped Tour out at The Gorge.  Then there’s the multi-venue festivals that can have you walking miles (or *gasp* even driving) from one show to another, like MusicFest Northwest in Portland, or the new City Arts Festival in Seattle.

I prefer the first type of festivals, since it’s much easier to stay within a contained area, and there’s nearly always a central press room to stow gear throughout the day.  Unfortunately, this is not what SXSW will be like.  I’m expecting a clusterf*ck of people and bands, all within a huge radius.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m counting on having a good time, but just the thought of navigating, shooting, and networking for 12+hours a day, seven days in a row is exhausting.

So in an effort to prepare for this madness, here’s my list of things I’m expecting, and solutions I have for them.

A daily schedule of showcases and parties.

SXSW veterans are probably rolling with laughter at this idea.  Given the hundreds of parties and events popping up on SXSW’s Twitter feed every day, it’s going to be nearly impossible to document everything I RSVP for, and totally impossible to go to them all.  I know it’s all part of the SXSW experience to “just go with it” and not have a plan, but I’m still attempting a Google Docs spreadsheet to lay out my priority parties/showcases, and have backups, just in case.

*A word on parties and RSVPs: even if you are an accredited SXSW photographer with a camera tag, I’m being told this won’t always apply to big-name shows and private parties.  I’ve been getting in touch with press folks running these private shindigs and asking for extra photo passes.  Better safe than sorry.

Location, Location, Location.

A SXSW veteran and friend sent me a map of downtown Austin, with all the major venues and hotels highlighted.  I’m casually committing parts of it to memory, and seeing just how unrealistic my already impossible schedule is. The superhuman in me looks at the map and says, “2 miles from one show to another? I can run that in under 15 minutes.”

Get juiced.

Gear-wise, I’m set with my DSLR and three trusty Nikkor lenses (with insurance for all!).  What I’m extremely nervous about is running out of power and memory.  Proposed solution:

(2) backup DSLR camera rechargeable batteries (3 total)
(2) 16-GB memory cards
(1) Nexto Extreme 500GB storage device – as recommended by Todd Owyoung
(1) Western Digital My Passport portable hard drive
(1) Cell phone battery charger

Luckily, all these things are relatively compact and will easily fit into my bag, and hopefully keep me powered.

Travel light.

Some photographers recommend bringing two camera bodies for convenience, but given my small size, I think this will actually work against me.  I’m sticking to my main DSLR body and 3 trusty lenses.  For the day, I’ll stash my gear in my trusty Think Tank Retribution 10 shoulder bag.  The laptop and MyPassport hard drive will stay in the hotel.  I’m still leaning toward carrying an extra daypack to store my non-camera goods and any merch/freebies I can find.  Wanting something lightweight, I picked up a Timbuk2 Q backpack, with a special laptop compartment (which will be vacant throughout the day).  We’ll see if I end up using it or not.

Sell yourself.

I ordered a stack of business cards from Vista Print with my updated contact info, and will have a ton of my publication’s stickers on me.  Networking at SXSW is key, and I’m ready for that!

Dress well.

I’m still stumped on this part.  Shall I bring a rolling suitcase, or a backpacking pack? Shall I bother with cute sundresses, or just stick to T-shirts? Probably the latter in both cases, but who knows.  I leave packing to the last minute, as always.  It’s not like I’m going to a third world country.  Still, essentials will be sunscreen and sunglasses; important to remember Texas weather is not Seattle weather.  And as for shoes, sticking with my trusty pair of Keds—not too casual, but still comfortable.

Some other necessities.

A stool.

Apparently photo pit access is very limited at SXSW, and given my lack of height, I worry about not getting a good view.  A SXSW veteran seriously recommended bringing a portable stool.  Still debating on that one.

A rental car.

Actually, I’m not considering this, but a SXSW vet I know is.  I suppose it makes sense—if you’re staying far away from the action, and have a schedule that’s all over the place, a car might be a good option.  Supposedly parking and rental rates aren’t bad either.  If you are staying close to downtown, however, do think about taking the R&R shuttle; it’s supposedly worth the cost.

A case of 5 Hour Energy.

I know free food and booze (and presumably energy drinks) will be free flowing, but I’m partial to my 5 Hour Energy.  I’ll probably buy a bunch and stow them in my camera bag for when I need a quick pick-me-up.  I’m definitely bringing some Airborne, Pepto Bismol, and Tylenol; the last thing I want to do is get sick in Austin.

What Actually Happened

A week later, I’m still trying to recover from the whirlwind that is SXSW.  It was my first trip to Austin and my first time participating in such a massive festival.  The experience is what many compare to Mardi Gras in New Orleans–the streets are open to pedestrians only and it seems like the entire city participates in the festivities.  All in all, I photographed over 60 bands in the five days I was there for SXSW.  Each piece of my photography gear suite was absolutely essential, especially the extra batteries,  memory cards, and portable cell phone charger.  A cell phone is your best friend at SXSW–following the essential Twitter accounts will tell you when random last minute events pop up, and your friends will be texting and Facebooking you like crazy.  All of my TBA items ended up being unnecessary, although a stool wouldn’t have hurt in some cases, and I did take massive amounts of Tylenol and Airborne.  I’d definitely add a bicycle to the list to make transportation easier.  A bike would have been much cheaper than going by bicycle taxi and less taxing on your body.

The main piece of advice I have for anyone attempting SXSW is to pace yourself.  Pick out maybe five bands a day you absolutely want to see and leave tons of room to improvise.  My schedule I made before leaving turned out to be a great guide to structuring my day, but I didn’t stick to it at all.  Also, remember to eat and hydrate.  I found it surprisingly hard to come by free food at SXSW, despite what all the parties promised.  It turns out free booze flows everywhere, but food not so much.  Nonetheless, pause every once in a while and grab a great pulled pork sandwich from one of the many food trucks parked around in the grounds.  Even if it costs a few bucks, you won’t regret it later in the day.

Bottom line: prepare in advance but expect to improvise, rest when you can, remember to eat, and just have fun!

Want to see all the concert photos and official coverage I got from SXSW 2011? Check this out.

Suzi Pratt is a Seattle event, food, and travel photographer available for hire. She is also a contributing writer at Digital Photography School and runs a blog teaching others how to start a photography business.


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