In a small town of about 843,000, two weeks of the year are set aside for educational panels, new films, and live music. Mostly, though, it’s just two weeks of ideal opportunities for brands and companies looking to up their cool factor. They’ll team up with hip bands and blogs with much less money, pay for shows, drinks, and food (if you’re lucky), and have their name plastered everywhere. If the brands are lucky, the band will even shout them out. Austin, Texas becomes one of the very few places you can overhear two strangers bonding on a bus ride over the prospect of free tattoos at one event and then two hours later hear someone say “Oh yeah, I ran into Lady Gaga and Coldplay yesterday,” as you look on in awe eating free tacos and drinking free beer. Visitors can pay $625 for the cheapest music badge and make it all up in booze, food, and swag, or RSVP to just about all the shows for free, hear free music, drink and eat for free. Free. Free. Free. And that's exactly what I did.
Online Radio IRL
Event: The Spotify House
Drink: Unlimited. We’re talking flavored iced tea vodka mixed drinks, Honest Tea, soda, everything.
In a big outdoor venue on an early Tuesday afternoon, Spotify had an hour-long line for people waiting to binge on free drinks, ping pong, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?-type quizzes with Spotify tote bag prizes, free plastic sunglasses, free wifi and free Spotify. There was live music too, but it’s obviously not about that when Machinedrum is playing intense electronic footwork beats at 2:45 in the afternoon under the blazing sun. There were 15 people by the DJ booth and 50 on line for cocktails. Is Spotify just using the music industry for cool clout, but making a party where no one even cares about the band? Is this just one more way Spotify is sucking the music industry dry? Food for thought—another perk of the afternoon.
Perk Scale Rating: 7/10
Austin Street Life
Event: Walking up and down 6th Street
Food: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home.
Drink: That delicious water bottle cocktail.
For those not quite in the mood to sit in dark bars all afternoon, you can easily get your free music fix roaming up and down 6th Street, the main drag in Austin. In twenty minutes, I passed a Trombone Shorty-like funk band, a Mumford and Sons’ doppelganger with fewer people (maybe so they fit on the street corner?), and a solo folk-guitarist who seemed to have walked right out of Inside Llewyn Davis.
Perk Scale Rating: You can still do this in the NYC subway so . . . 1/10
Event: HE^RD x PAYPAL, Music Tech Mashup
Drink: Water coolers
Doesn’t PayPal make a lot of money? Free water is not enough to keep me interested in mediocre rock music.
Perk Scale Rating: .5/10
The Hype Is Real
Event: Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel
Food: Taco Bell. They even had a vegetarian option.
Drink: Unlimited fully stocked bar. You could even keep the Tito’s vodka cups. I wouldn’t be surprised if I found people living in this venue for the next five days. In the 700 person capacity warehouse, the Taco Bell and free drinks never run out and you can even come up with a makeshift outfit change from the free Hype Hotel t-shirts and tote bags. The only problem for those trying to move in: the speakers are insanely loud. Like, fire truck in your face levels. But for everyone else, that’s just another perk.
Perk Scale Rating: 9/10
The Indie Label Showcase
Event: Harvest Records
Drink: I had to pay $1 for a glass of water. The only reason worth staying at this disappointingly not-free gathering was the amazing music. I guess if you come to SXSW to discover new bands and not perk-hop this was the spot. I’d bet all my free drink for the week that Glass Animals and their funky, synth-heavy rock will be the next big thing. There was a badass Joan Jett lookalike in The Preatures and finally the sultry, emotional BANKS. I paid for all my drinks, but I got free earplugs so that counts for something, right?
Perk Scale Rating: 2/10 (extra points awarded for the incredible lineup)
Lauren Schwartzberg is a New York City-based writer.