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My Secret to Attending Austin’s South by Southwest Festival for Free

SXSW music and fun without the $2,000 price tag? Yes, please.

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The Zombies - SXSW 2023 - Photo by Chia Hsien Hu

If you live in Austin, you either love or hate South by Southwest. The internationally recognized film, music and events festival attracts over 300,000 people to the city each year. And with university students also out for spring break, the city feels like a madhouse. 

Photo by Liliana Hall

But not everyone can afford to pay SXSW’s steep all-access price tag of nearly $2,000. Nor should you. I live in Austin and attend South By every year, but I’ve never paid a dime. I don’t even pay for parking, since I get around with my trusty moped. 

It’s hard to replicate Austin’s vibe for music, cinema, comedy and culture. Since SXSW checks all the boxes I love, I’ve considered putting savings aside to get the full experience, as my colleague Dashia Milden did with her sinking fund to pay for Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour. But between paying off student loans and saving money, I know it would be a huge hit to my finances. 

With a bit of elbow grease and planning, I’ve managed to see some of my favorite bands at SXSW over the years for free. (Am I lucky or is the city just that cool?) In 2018, I caught the band Real Estate playing in CBS’ Studio 6A. In 2019, I randomly came across a free Joan Jett and the Blackhearts show at Stubb’s. The same thing happened in 2022, when I managed to see Japanese Breakfast playing in a courtyard outside Urban Outfitters. 

SXSW is full of surprises, but you have to put in some work to find the good stuff. Here’s how you can tap into this year’s festival on March 8-16 without breaking the bank

How much I’m saving by planning ahead 

Frugality is an occupational hazard of being a personal finance editor. Whenever I’m able to do something enjoyable that’s also budget-friendly, it makes me feel good to write down how much I’m saving. That way I can keep track of my budget and stay on top of my savings goals. 

South by Southwest FestivalCost
SXSW platinum badge$1,990 or $2,095 (walk-in rate)
Parking in downtown Austin$2/hour or flat-rate $30+ a day
Food and drinks$50/day
Total savings March 8-16 (9 days) ~ $2,815

I’m already saving thousands bypassing the official badge and getting around town on my moped (which is free to park anywhere in the city). The biggest expense will be food and drinks, but many brands are eager to get publicity at SXSW, so it’s easy to score freebies

SXSW events you can attend without a wristband

Purchasing an official badge to SXSW for $1,990 is your key to all official festival events and conferences. But it’s not the only way to get up close and personal. The SXSW Community Concerts at Lady Bird Lake (Auditorium Shores) is the largest stage at SXSW and it’s free to the public.

Photo by Liliana Hall

Last year, I saw the British psychedelic pop band the Zombies play in honor of their long-awaited induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I left feeling the same way I felt after having the privilege of seeing Paul McCartney in 2018 – but that’s a story for another day. 

This year, Austin-based artists Joe “King” Carrasco, Patrice Pike & Friends, Ian Moore, Vallejo and Bob Schneider kick things off on March 14 in honor of the legendary music club Steamboat, which closed in 1999 after a 22-year run. On March 15, three legendary funk artists are taking over the stage: Bootsy Collins, Riders Against the Storm and Zapp.

Rolling Stone will be hosting its Future of Music showcase for the second year in a row, featuring Peso Pluma, Teezo Touchdown, Faye Webster and more. This four-day music event takes off March 12 at ACL Live at the Moody Theater in downtown Austin. Admission is on a first-come, first-served basis, and anyone without SXSW badges must RSVP for admission (an RSVP doesn’t guarantee admission though). 

Marshall Funhouse (run by the music equipment company) is taking over a city block for three days of games, food and live music featuring the Black Angels, Shannon and the Clams and many more on March 13-15. This is an official SXSW event, but you can attend for free by RSVPing here

You can find a complete list of free SXSW showcases and events here

How to attend SXSW for free in 2024

Though you don’t need a badge to experience SXSW, keeping track of what’s open to the public and what isn’t can feel overwhelming. Here’s what I do to find SXSW events and shows to attend for free: 

Follow these social accounts

If you don’t usually use Instagram or X, formerly Twitter, you’ll want to make an account to stay updated on all things SXSW. Here are some accounts you should follow:

  • @do512
  • @atxconcert
  • @whenwherewhataustin
  • @thedirtyteam
  • @austin_monthly
  • @austinchronicle
  • @rsvpatx

RSVP when necessary

Most events require an RSVP if you aren’t attending with an official badge to help event coordinators anticipate a headcount. It’s important to note some venues are more strict than others, but one thing is for certain: You’re going to stand in line for any event that’s free. 

Hang out on Rainey Street

The Rainey Street Historic District is one of Austin’s most popular streets, lined with restaurants, historic bungalow bars and food trucks. But during SXSW, branded pop-ups transform nearly every local venue and bar on the half-mile strip for festivalgoers to enjoy. And, of course, it’s free to the public. Previously, brands like Doc Martens, Lululemon, HBO Max, Comedy Central, Lush Cosmetics and so many more have transformed these spaces, making them nearly unrecognizable to folks who frequent spots on Rainey. 

Photo by Liliana Hall

Last year, HBO Max’s “coffeehouse” featured an HBO documentary filmmaker roundtable, a fireside chat with Gabriel Luna from The Last of Us, and music performances from Ambar Lucid and DJs Chorizo Funk and Gabriela Alma Lopez-Bucio. The two-day event was open to the public for free. 

Dr. Martens was well known for taking over the infamous Container Bar on Rainey Street, but since the bar’s closure in 2022, the English footwear and clothing company has relocated its pop-up to Clive Bar. Dr. Martens’ SXSW pop-up typically features back-to-back days of live music and free tattoos from local artists. I’ve gone every year since 2018 and managed to catch bands like the Black Angels, Muna, Crumb, Divino Niño and more. And yes, it’s free to the public. 

How to find unofficial parties and free shows

Since we’re on the topic of SXSW, it’s worth noting many unofficial SXSW events occur all over the city and keeping track can be just as challenging. These events typically highlight local bands and other artists not featured in the official SXSW showcases. But my usual suspects when it comes to hunting down the best unofficial events include the following:

Stop and smell the savings 

Having a realistic savings strategy is essential for balancing a healthy financial life, but it’s also important to participate in things that bring you joy. That’s why attending SXSW is part of my “soft saving” strategy, allowing me time to be fulfilled and enjoy myself while staying within budget and saving for the future.

Liliana Hall is a writer for CNET Money covering banking, credit cards and mortgages. Previously, she wrote about personal credit for Bankrate and She is passionate about providing accessible content to enhance financial literacy. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in journalism, and has worked in the newsrooms of KUT and the Austin Chronicle. When not working, she is probably paddle boarding, hopping on a flight or reading for her book club.
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