The badge is the premium ticket available for SXSW and at $550 (if you buy early, $695 if at the conference) it's pretty steep. What do you get for your money?
First chance at admission to every venue during the nighttime showcases, even if there are hundreds of wristband-holders in line. There will be high-demand shows where only badge-holders get in.
Access to the trade show, convention center (with bathrooms, air conditioning, shelter from rain, etc), seminars, keynote and other addresses, and several shows a day on the convention center stages. In 2007, for instance, that included a great Daniel Johnston show.
A big, hunkin' bag of swag that is mostly useless, but at least has lots of music mags and some fun little guitar-shaped flashlights and crap like that. And some invites to parties and coupons for daily free drinks at the SXSW welcome tent.
Access to housing through the SXSW Housing Office. This is not only your best chance at getting into one of the core downtown hotels, but you never, EVER get aced out of reservations as has happened at several other hotels.
Entry to an ever-increasing number of day parties set up by the conference to compete with the overflow of non-conference day parties. For what it's worth, it's not difficult to talk your way into these parties without a badge.
Most important is the advantage in access to shows, especially if you plan to try to hit many shows at different venues around town. If you're just gonna go to one club and stay there all night, don't waste your money on a badge. But when you want to try to see acts, especially high-demand acts, at different clubs at, say, 10, 11, 12 and 1 ... a badge can help. When you come strolling up to a club just a few minutes before showtime, there is often a pretty good size line of wristband-holders. Badge-holders can often walk right in. The most common showcase set-up is six acts, each starting on the hour beginning at 8 p.m. and playing about 40 minutes. That gives you 20 minutes to get to the next club you want to hit. After a walk, or cab ride, you're likely to be barely making it. The badge can be the difference between getting in to that show or finding a second option.
Also key if it's important to you is the access to the keynote addresses. Sitting right up front for interviews with Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Iggy Pop and others is pretty cool.
Bottom line is that you're paying a premium truly to get into just a few shows you won't get into with a wristband. Most wristband-holders will tell you they saw all the shows they wanted to see. But they probably sometimes went into a club an hour or two before the show they really wanted to see to guarantee they'd get in, or saw lots of second choices. Not that that is bad. The wristband is really plenty for most people, especially with the flood of day parties now. But if you want to get as close as you can to a guarantee you'll see everything on your wish list, the badge is the thing.