How SXSW "works"
The festival takes place every year in about the second week of March. It begins officially on Wednesday of that week, and concludes on Sunday. There are very few official Sunday activities as of 2008, just a softball tournament and a handful of low-caliber shows. All week in Austin there are even more shows than usual, always something big at Stubb's on Tuesday night, and the annual Alejandro Escovedo and Friends show at Continental Club on Sunday. (Those events not included in badge or wristband prices).
For four nights the conference music showcases take up about 60 venues in Austin, ranging from the many clubs on Sixth Street to restaurants, backyards, patios set up as temporary concert halls. The showcases at one time all ran from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. and all featured six artists playing 40 minutes each, but now there's a bit of variety. Some get started at 7 or 7:30, some will have more or less than six acts. All don't start on the hour so overlap of acts sometimes causes you to miss shows. Many showcases are produced by one label and they'll show off six hours of music by just their bands. Bloodshot, YepRoc, Misra, New West are just a few of the many labels that produce showcases. Others are organized around a different theme: all bands from Australia, all hip-hop, etc. Some are just packagings of bands that don't belong to any other group, but there is usually some attempt to put together complementary acts. For admission to these nighttime showcases, you'll need a badge, a wristband or you can pay a cover charge that varies from club to club.
The clubs you might want to hit on any given night might be all in one block of Sixth Street, or spread out around downtown Austin (or even farther). Most of these distances are walkable. Some require a cab ride, sometimes you can find the free shuttle, often you can find rides with other punters.
Parking around Sixth Street is obviously crazy and not recommended. There are some big lots that charge $10 to $15, but they fill up fast. If you're in a downtown hotel and have a rental, most of the hotels have easy access parking lots. Check for ones that let you self-park (like Omni and Hilton for two). Sixth Street is usually closed to all car traffic beginning late in the afternoon each day.
The convention center is open to pick up badges all week (the film festival is in full throttle when music attendees start arriving). Seminars, keynote, etc. start on Wednesday. The trade show doesn't open until Thursday.