How this year’s ACL was different — for better or for worse

Chris Duncan

With every new iteration of the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival comes a slightly different approach, and this year’s two weekends were no different. But these changes beg the question of whether or not they were for the better.

On one hand, additions to the festival grounds provided patrons with key resources they needed to have a fun time. With high temperatures and little cloud coverage, the new wine lounge and several other areas provided a retreat from the shining sun. As crowds grew throughout the day, attendees stayed put compared to previous years, opting for shade, proximity to water and comfort over the better views of performers.

Additionally, both the food and band selection this year was noticeably varied and improved compared to previous ACL festivals. Vendors such as Shake Shack and East Side King spiced up the festival’s cuisine offerings, and there seemed to be more focus on bringing in smaller genres of music, from reggae to jazz, and even noise bands.

On the other hand, the cost of attending ACL went up, food prices were as high as ever and tickets still sit at a fortune for some. Although efforts to streamline festival transportation came with good intentions, not enough notice was given to rideshare drivers and bikers, leading to a bit of chaos on Austin roads during peak travel hours on Friday.

The festival grounds’ expansion birthed the new Barton Springs stage, but many attendees seemed to be completely unaware of its existence. The stage allowed ACL to book more bands, but that portion of the park felt a bit out of the action, lacking the audience many other stages had. The additional lack of trees and shady areas may have contributed to this. On the flip side, Zilker felt less crowded than previous years, giving traveling parties a bit more space to breathe moving from stage to stage.

The biggest and arguably most heinous difference compared to previous years is the replacement of local art with sponsors. In ACLs of the past, art vendors and showmen could be found front and center near the food area, but C3 Presents chose to place this year’s limited art exhibitions and vendors on the far corner of Zilker. This made way for a plethora of corporate sponsors, including large lounges for Miller Lite and State Farm and even a two-floor American Express experience. Although most attendees don’t seem to care, ACL is most certainly narrowing in on national music rather than more community-driven art.

All of these adjustments and tweaks bring ACL’s appeal closer to younger generations, which makes sense as a business move but pulls the annual shindig a bit further away from its roots. However, given how great some of the improvements are, it’s hard to say the festival is making any poor decisions.