10 Things I Learned from Volunteering at SXSW

Submitted by scarlett on March 20, 2006 - 4:34pm.
When I learned that my friend from high school was in charge of staffing all the venues and still needed more volunteers, I decided to take the plunge and give it a shot. As volunteers, my crew’s jobs would be to help move equipment between sets, answer questions for audience and crews, keep fire exits clear and keep people from smoking. Sounded pretty simple. In addition to hearing some amazing bands for free – including Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and a surprise performance by the Flaming Lips – I quickly learned a few truths about volunteering for SXSW…

1) There are 1,800 different terms for the restroom, depending on your nationality. This became one of the jokes of the week, as the most common question that we repeatedly answered was how to get to the bathroom, delivered with various accents and terms for the washroom. By the end of the week, you could almost recognize that desperate look in someone’s eyes and you would simultaneously answer, “Around the light booth to the left, down the hallway to your right.”

2) Australian bands love tight pants. Our first night of performances was sponsored by an Australian record label and the performances ranged from synthesized-driven electronica to the-next-Led-Zepplin rock-out. One thing remained the same: Australian stars love their tight, tight pants. Maybe it makes taking a “walkabout” easier. Whatever the reason, they can pull it off. Americans, please do not try this.

3) There is only a single music stand in the entire city of Austin during SXSW. One of our musicians forgot their music stand for their sheet music, and despite trekking around to various venues to find one, we came up empty-handed. Actually, we found a single music stand but the owner “didn’t feel comfortable” with it leaving the venue where he was performing. Apparently music stands are quite valuable. Who’d have thunk it?

4) Being on stage has a magical transformative quality. In other words, you are sitting in this long, narrow room that used to be the venue’s kitchen and is now being used to store the bands’ gear and often, the band members themselves. The most punctual band members are dutifully sitting and waiting for their turn on stage and you can sit and chat with them, share a snack or laugh about some of the graffiti on the wall. It’s cool. Fast-forward 30 minutes to see this same person on the stage, crooning away in the spotlight and suddenly you are retroactively start-struck and suddenly wish you had talked more to him/her in those boring moments before they became the rock star version of themselves.

5) Girls from around the world think that Austin = cowboy boots. By the end of the week, I was wishing that I had kept a tally of the number of cowboy boots that I saw sported during the festival. And we’re not talking about real ride-your-horse-to-town boots but cutesy pseudo cowboy boots paired with springy skirts. Or an occasional pair of leggings thrown into the mix to make it interesting. I was disappointed not to see more pseudo cowboy hats similarly worm by city slickers.

6) Famous people get smushed in the crowd, too. Among the most famous faces we saw trying to squeeze their way through the crowd were Elijah Wood (also saw him earlier in the week eating a burger at Casino El Camino), Norah Jones, Lance Armstrong, and (I think) Seth Green. We, as “official volunteers” tried to try to play it cool (yeah, right) even when Norah Jones asked us where the bathroom was.

7) There really IS a limit to how much Roppolo’s Pizza you can eat in one week. Yes, fast downtown dining is pretty limited, especially during SXSW, so the old delicious stand-by is buying a slice out of a window on 6th. Fast-forward to day three and you never would have though it but you are actually tired of pizza. Which pushes you down to experience your first “Best Wurst” hotdog, complete with sauerkraut and chile mayo, which turns out to be one of the most delicious things you have ever eaten while standing on a sidewalk. But then again, maybe you are just hungry.

8) If you are in a crowd and someone is yelling at you to “Make Way,” for Pete’s sake, please move. Those people struggling to carry the awkward armful of gear are not trying to be “mean” or “treat you like cattle” (contrary to the many responses we received while trying to cart equipment from one end of the venue to the other). And when we are holding you back from going to that apparently hidden bathroom so that we can move all the equipment down a single tiny hallway, cut us some slack. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of a high-hat carried by a 5’5” roadie from Newark. Trust me.

9) Don’t sit behind an amp if you are watching a rock band. You know on tv when you see someone rock out so hard that they thrash the stage and destroy their equipment? From a distance = very cool. From two feet behind the amplifier unexpectedly smashed by guitar = a little scary.

10) Volunteering for SXSW crew is like summer camp. At the end of the last night, you would have thought our crew members were long lost family members, with the extended family being the bar staff at the club. Oh the good ol’ days of being thrown together with four strangers, spending 40 hours with them over four days, and then wondering if you will ever see them again. To the crew of Eternal, we will always be BFFs. Stay Cool Over the Summer. See you next year!