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A SXSW Guide to Earning Your Access Instead of Paying For It

Do you ever feel like entertainment industry conferences, festivals, or networking events are out of reach? Why are these conference price tags so unrealistic for the “average joe” to pay for? Why do these events feel so unattainable especially now, in these unprecedented times of layoffs, twin strikes, and a slow trickle of content being greenlit? 

Unfortunately so many professionals in the industry are still faced with unemployment. And for those struggling to stay afloat, attending events like these can mean the difference between making a valuable networking connection…or not. 

Even with a job, your chances of getting your ticket paid for is very slim. There’s few too many employers in the industry that offer to pay their employees’ way to conferences. My previous employers were never one of those, and for years I assumed those conferences were out of my reach…until I discovered volunteering. 

Every year in mid-March, a convergence of music, film, comedy and tech happens in the heart of Austin, TX. South by Southwest (SXSW) is a mountain of opportunities for those attending. And having a badge can get you access to nine jam-packed days of premieres, screenings, mentor sessions, panels, workshops, happy hours, meetups, screenings, activations, award shows, and so much more. It’s a career playground for professionals and a hot spot for networking. 

If you want to attend SXSW, you can get a badge in one of three ways:

  1. Pay the steep fee for a Music, Interactive, or Film & TV badge – next year’s pricing starts at $945 and increases heavily over time. If you want full access to all three tracks, you’ll need to pay even more for a Platinum badge which starts at the low, low price of $1365.
  2. If you’re employed, you could muster up the courage to ask your employer for a badge…cross your fingers and hope for the best.
  3. OR – do what I did… and sign up as a volunteer! This can be a huge opportunity for those with flexible schedules or anyone unemployed looking for a chance to learn and network with other like-minded industry professionals.

Like most of my colleagues in Unscripted TV, I’ve been unemployed since May of 2023.  Since January of 2024, there was zero indication that the industry’s momentum was going to change anytime soon, so I signed up as a SXSW volunteer at the end of January.

Volunteering: How Does It Work?

To sign up for volunteering at SXSW, you can visit their volunteer website and fill out an application form. The application process is straightforward and allows you to choose your availability and preferences for volunteer shifts. 

Volunteering at SXSW requires a minimum commitment of 40 – 56 hours in exchange for the same badges and access to the festival that other attendees are paying for. You’ll need to volunteer 40 for either a Film & TV, Music, or Interactive badge, and 56 hours for a Platinum badge. This can feel like a big commitment of time but you can usually knock out your hours in 4 shifts or less.

Volunteer sign-ups start two or three months ahead of the festival, so be sure to get on the mailing list and sign up with enough time to select a crew and schedule that works for you. 

  1. Select Your Crew – The festival itself is spread out all over the downtown area of Austin and needs all kinds of volunteers doing different jobs. You could opt for the “Sessions” crew and be responsible for scanning badge holders in and out of scheduled panels, sessions, or workshops. Or the “Transportation” crew, driving VIPs to and from the airport, theaters, events, shows, etc. Each crew offers a unique experience and opportunities to get involved with like-minded individuals. Check out all the Crew options and descriptions here.
  2. Select Your Shifts – When volunteering, SXSW requires a total of 40 volunteer hours to earn a Music, Film & TV, or Interactive badge. If you want the full access Platinum badge, you’ll need to volunteer 56 hours. Depending on the crew you picked, you can choose four 10-hr days to fulfill your required hours. There are other shift lengths available as well as weekdays and weekend shifts. Make sure to schedule and show up for your full required hours or you could have your badge access revoked. Note: Don’t worry about feeding yourself while volunteering. Shifts longer than 8 hours will get you a meal ticket to several food trucks just for volunteers.

    Hot Tip: Sign up to work your volunteer shifts at SXSW EDU, which happens the week before the full conference begins. This allows you to get most or all of your volunteer hours completed ahead of time so you can fully enjoy your badge access during the conference!
  3. Select Your Badge – With four different badges to choose from, Music, Film & TV, Interactive, and Platinum, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one for you. Since I chose the Film & TV track, I’ll be focusing on my experience with the Film & TV badge access. Check out more details on badge access here.
  4. Use Your Badge – After confirming your shifts, pick up your badge at Registration on the first day of the conference, or as soon as you’re able. Even if you haven’t worked your first shift yet, you now have full access to all Film & TV premieres, screenings, panels, sessions, events, activations, happy hours, opening parties, awards shows, and more!

If you’re unsure or have any questions, reach out to vol@sxsw.com. The staff is so friendly and genuinely wants volunteers to get the most out of their volunteer experience.  

My Personal Volunteering Experience

My overall review: I genuinely had a great time volunteering. I picked the Sessions crew and my shifts consisted of scanning badges, monitoring room capacity, radioing in room status for the SXSW app, greeting speakers, and answering attendee questions like “Where is Ballroom D?” and “If I leave to go to the bathroom can I come back in?” Very straightforward and fun; especially if you enjoy interacting with the general public.

For the Sessions crew, our shifts began at 8am. We had an hour lunch with a free meal at the volunteer food trucks, and were dismissed an hour early every day around 5pm. Technically this means we worked a total of 35 hours instead of 40, but 5pm is when all sessions are wrapped for the day and our crew managers didn’t want us hanging around when we could be out at the festival enjoying our badge access. A nice little perk! 40 hours, or rather 35 with early dismissals, sounds like a lot but my days went by so fast. 

As I mentioned in my ‘Hot Tip’, the key is to schedule as many shifts during SXSW EDU, which is a separate conference, specifically for educators, happening the week before regular SXSW programming. That way, you can maximize using your badge during the festival days instead of working your volunteer shifts.

Overall, the Sessions crew worked out perfectly. During shifts, our crew managers encouraged us to request to sit in on some of the panels/sessions we were interested in seeing.  I was able to listen in on a Megan Markle/Katie Couric/Brooke Shields panel and a panel with Director Alex Garland and Kirsten Dunst on the new movie, Civil War. And an early shift meant I still had time to catch some of the premieres and screenings in the evenings.

I also quickly realized how many volunteers were from out of town. They stayed with family or friends and utilized Austin’s commuter train or public transportation to get downtown every day for their volunteer shifts. 

If you live outside of a 70 mile radius from the Austin area (Killeen to San Antonio), all you need to provide when registering to volunteer is a local Austin address and your arrival and departure dates. Once your application is approved you can also access the best available rates on SXSW hotels in case you don’t have a family or friend to stay with.

I don’t have any complaints about my volunteering experience. But if I did have one critique on the festival as a whole… it would be line management for the big movie premieres. There were some awesome premieres (Road House, Civil War, 3 Body Problem, Immaculate, etc.) but after waiting for almost two hours twice in a row and not getting in, I gave up. I had lost precious festival time and decided there were other events, like the nightly Film & TV Happy Hour or various Meet-ups, that would’ve been much more beneficial and timeworthy. And as of the time that I wrote this article, only a week after SXSW two of those premieres are already available to watch on streaming services.

As a volunteer, you play a vital role in ensuring the festival runs smoothly and successfully. Without volunteers, SXSW would not be possible. From the get-go, the staff and crew managers made a huge effort to ensure my volunteer experience was enjoyable and worth my time. And while I hope I’m fully employed for SXSW 2025, I will definitely try to be a volunteer again next year. 

Overall, volunteering at SXSW is a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself in the vibrant and dynamic culture of the festival, meet new people, and gain valuable experience in the entertainment industry. If you are considering volunteering at SXSW, I highly recommend taking the plunge and becoming a part of this exciting and unforgettable experience.

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