It's SXSW's worst kept secret: you don't need those pesky wristbands, badges, or money in your pocket to get in on the action. Sure, the big showcases are still roped off to the credentialed crowd, but it's still fully possible to catch almost any of the 5,000 + featured acts, all without paying a goddamn dime. Of course, that offers with it another challenge: how to make sense of the insane glut of free showcases, parties, and random happenings carpeting the city for the week? Speaking from my extensive experience as a SXSW skinflint, let me start you with a scaled-down guide to some of the major free parties happening during this year's festival.
And remember: we're talking Austin here.
Waterloo Records Day Parties (11am-7pm, March 14-16, 600 N Lamar Blvd)
Though located a little bit off the main action, Waterloo has always offered some convincing reasons to make the trek to 6th and Lamar for their parking lot showcase. With seven performances spread over five days, this year's lineup has a lot to recommend it, from Tegan and Sara and Ra Ra Riot, to thrift shop enthusiast Macklemore all featured. Waterloo also adds bonus points by reaching beyond the usual hype artists, with shows from Emmylou Harris, Billy Bragg, and Richard Thompson.
Showdown at Cedar Street: (11-6pm, March 15-17, 208 W 4th)
Nestled under the trees off 4th Street's Cedar Street Bar, Filter's three-day showdown has for years offered consistently strong lineups, this year pulling Local Natives, Charlie XCX, Surfer Blood, and Shout Out Louds. But given the venue's tiny size, Cedar Street is no surefire bet. You'll likely need to be there by noon to have a prayer at getting in for each day.
Fader Fort (Noon-9pm, March 13-16, thefader.com/fort)
The festival within the festival, Fader's corporate fortress has become the symbolic center of SXSW's unofficial circuit. The Fort has long held the gold standard for free shit, typically offering at least one free mix-drink or beer option and enough promotional teas, granola bars, and other small fare to prolong the requisite food cart visit for a couple of hours. Of course, its notoriety has made it a bitch to get into, with the line just to get a wristband to stand in the entrance line stretching a quarter mile last year. Even though no one is yet announced for 2013, past performers — Erykah Badu, Kanye West, Rick Ross — suggest it may be well worth the hassle.