The moment the “Star Wars” theme plays this Friday at Zilker Park will mark the 10th anniversary of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
The festival has come a long way since its inception in 2002. Initially marketed as more of a local festival, capitalizing off of the branding of the pre-existing television show “Austin City Limits,” ACL stands among the big four — along with Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza — in the sphere of music festivals today.
Whenever a staple of indie music hits mainstream, it’s often contested and rejected by early adopters, something Austin, on the forefront of music, has a lot of. Even so, ACL has managed to effectively dodge the designation of a has-been or sellout, earning and retaining its status as one of the most coveted music festival tickets. It is in this aspect that ACL has been able to retain and thrive from the balance of local versus national acts, with which local bands such as Sound Team can share a lineup with behemoths such as The Killers.
The festival has also given the Austin scene more than just notoriety. After parties, concerts and other promotional events have extended the sanctioned music showcase out from the confines of Zilker Park and into a city-wide spectacle.
Unlike the general benefits a city derives from a large-scale event (e.g. increased revenue at restaurants, hotels and other tourist-related markets), ACL’s influence extends to more niche levels of the local economy. Local venues benefit from it all, especially from after shows that sell out in higher frequency than in any other time of the year. Tickets for the Cults and the Smith Westerns sold out in a matter of minutes and hours this year. Local artists often get the chance to open at these events, exposing themselves to the slew of tourists visiting the city for the festival. Events created in response to the festival, including Ditch The Fest Fest, can never truly escape the shadow of ACL because it thrives solely on ACL’s existence. The disgruntled hipsters gets their own event, and C3 Presents looks good without losing any market share, creating a win-win scenario for everyone.
But as much as ACL has advanced, which is evident in its focus on audience experience — such as charging your cell phones at the Google+ Lounge and refilling your water bottles at the CamelBak Filling Stations — and on generating money into the city, the festival has failed to improve where it has needed to most: its relatively lackluster lineup.
ACL has traditionally put out a praiseworthy lineup. In 2008, the headliners included the Foo Fighters, Beck and The Mars Volta. However, in recent years, the festival has not stepped up its game to match its increased notoriety as its counterparts, Coachella and Bonnaroo, have done.
Coachella’s 2011 lineup, featuring the likes of Daft Punk, The Beastie Boys and Odd Future, sent the Internet music world into a frenzied state of frothy salivation, and Bonnaroo achieved a lesser but similar effect with Girl Talk, Eminem and The Decemberists. Even Lollapalloza, ACL’s C3 Presents-owned counterpart in Chicago, arguably superseded the live music capital of the world. Lolla 2011 included talent ranging from breakout acts such as Skylar Grey and Ellie Goulding to mainstream darlings Eminem, The Cars and the Foo Fighters.
While analysis of festival lineups is subjective to each individual, ACL’s lineup can be criticized on an objective level in regard to the press each band receives.
Each festival operates, more or less, on a system that involves booking huge bands and then supplementing the lineup with scores of lesser known indie rock groups. The problem with ACL, this year especially, is that most of those groups have received extremely little press within alternative and indie media. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who has heard of Ha Ha Tonka, The Cavesingers or Reptar. I get paid to write about music, and I don’t even know who those people are. Bonnaroo, on the other hand, had “lesser” acts such as J. Cole, the Cold War Kids and the Smith Westerns.
Neither ACL nor C3 Presents have an excuse to lose out to these festivals. Coachella is in a desert in the middle of nowhere. And Bonnaroo happens in the southern summer heat of rural Tennessee.
Austin boasts tremendous amenities to rival both of these places with a vast array of hotels and accommodations for travelers and a city full of music-hungry fans. Perhaps C3 Presents is getting lazy because it can count on the city to attract music lovers with these features and sell out ACL. If the festival is actually about the music and the art, then this shouldn’t be the case. Money is always a factor in deciding things, and this is okay. A problem arises, though, when the supposed music capital of the world gets upstaged by a desert town of 70,000.
Even so, other Austin music festivals, including Fun Fun Fun Fest and South by Southwest, have managed to acquire an arguably better lineup — maybe not megastars such as Kanye West or Arcade Fire but an overall breadth of performers. If this trend continues, it’s only a matter of time before the rapidly growing Fun Fun Fun Fest gains more mainstream acts and becomes Austin’s premier music festival.
ACL as a whole is extremely beneficial for many sectors in the city of Austin. In spite of this, the festival has a long way to go before it blows up to its true potential, and no amount of propane will help it get there.
Printed on September 15, 2011 as: ACL nails balancing act between local, national