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SXSW Music: 6 things we learned from the 2016 festival

SXSW 2016
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Paul Hudson

Another SXSW Music has come and past. How was it? Swell, thanks for asking! Amid the blur of branded events, overexcited St Patrick’s Day revelers on East 6th St and that scalding Austin sun (RIP spring, amirite?), more than 2,000 acts performed on 100 stages across the city. Both the POTUS and FLOTUS made appearances, for the Interactive and Music portions of the fest, respectively. And Drake showed up. But how does one measure the success of a music festival like South By? In number of bands seen, breakfast tacos consumed, miles walked or car accidents narrowly avoided by your Lyft driver? With this year’s SXSW in the rearview mirror, here are six things we learned at the fest.

1. For all the talk of its demise, SXSW is still big news.

A lot has been made of the diminishing relevance of fests like SXSW, particularly in terms of discovering new talent. The fest started in 1987 as a showcase for up-and-coming bands, but in recent years, the branding spectacle has threatened to overshadow its original purpose. Established headliners—which this year included Ryan Adams, Iggy Pop and Drake—draw much of the buzz away from rising talent. Still, there’s an energy to SXSW that’s undeniable, with an overwhelming number of options that allow you to curate whatever kind of experience you like. Wanna spend all five days seeing nothing but country music? R&B? Bands from the Netherlands? You can.

2. This year’s SXSW benefited from a more scaled-back feel.

There’s a sense that SXSW’s branding has been a bit over the top of late (see the giant Doritos bag stage from a few years back). Whether actual or imagined, this year's festival had a slightly more toned-down vibe—one reason might be the push to limit the number of event permits this year. Though big gigs presented by brands like Spotify, Pandora and Bud Light offered free music, often-free drinks and sometimes long lines, it was easy to fill your time with smaller showcases of up-and-coming bands and unofficial shows at slightly off-the-beaten-path venues.

3. It’s still possible to find the unexpected.

Whether it’s an impromptu 2am show in the middle of the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge (something of a tradition, which happened on Tuesday night with Philly power-pop band Sheer Mag and others) or a rumored appearance by random hip-hop/pop star (see above), there’s still plenty of opportunity to catch a riveting show with unscripted moments. On Friday afternoon, Dawn Richard’s final SXSW set was one such performance—gutsy and powerful, with the arty R&B singer cramming a giant triangular backdrop and a pair of dancers onto the tiny stage. The day prior, portland hardcore band Power Trip flatly stated, “I don’t give a fuck if you work at an ad agency, or you’re a social media guru, I came here to watch my friends fuck up a bunch of strangers!” before inciting a rather unruly afternoon mosh pit.

4. It’s better once you resign yourself to the fact that you will miss lots of things.

That 2am show I just mentioned? That makes it tough to hit the 11am set you had earmarked for the next day. Add to that overlapping set times, and the fact that most venues are at least a 10-minute walk away and you have some tough decisions ahead of you. But once you accept the fact that seeing everything at SXSW is impossible, you open yourself to moments of random discovery. On Wednesday, I found myself watching Swedish dance-pop duo Vulkano perform a spirited synthesizer-driven set in an early-evening opening slot, marking down their name to look them up later.

5. The food in Austin is as good as everyone says it is.

There are food trucks and tacos are everywhere, and if you need a recommendation ask your taxi/Uber/Lyft driver (mine recommended Home Slice Pizza, which was quite good, and volunteered La barbecue as a good substitute for Franklin Barbecue and its five-hour wait time). Even the local chains are great: taco destination Torchy’s and smoothie shop Juiceland are both worthwhile to avoid a fast-food fuel up.

6. You can still find quiet moments amid the hullabaloo.

If you haven’t heard, Austin is a great city to visit (so appealing that apparently 100 people a day are moving there), and SXSW acts as a gateway drug to its many charms. If you can’t get to Barton Springs or one of the other swimming holes during the fest, you’ll want to come back to explore more. And downtown has plenty of interesting areas once you travel a few minutes off the main strip. At sunset, take a quick walk to South Congress Bridge, which extends over Lady Bird Lake, to catch swarms of Mexican Free-tailed Bats flying out into the night. Imagine the same thing happening near Times Square, except with a fleet of rats. Okay, maybe don’t imagine that, but the point is not every city offers those reflective moments just a few minutes from the center of the action. Austin does.

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