GREAT MUSIC, BUT IS THE AUSTIN CITY LIMITS MUSIC FESTIVAL SIMPLY TOO BIG?

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Pros: Great headlining bands and a lot of really cool supporting acts; definitely an experience….

Cons: Agoraphobia

Started in 2002 as an extension of the PBS live concert series of the same name, the Austin City Limits Music Festival has quickly become regarded as one of the best large-scale music events in the country, with attendance expanding from 40,000 in its first few years to nearly 100,000 some ten years later. Taking place over the course of several days in early October at Austin’s Zilker Park which offers a breathtaking view of the downtown Austin skyline, the festival is produced by the C3 Presents promotion which also stages the Lollapalooza festival which occurs annually in Chicago, and attracts prominent musical performers from around the globe as well as promising up-and-coming artists. In addition to the music lineup, the ACL Festival includes a lineup of activities for children and also showcases local artists and food vendors in an attempt to feel more like an all-encompassing event experience (as might be expected, all food and beverage available at the festival is on the pricey side).

breathtaking view of downtown
A breathtaking view of downtown Austin seen behind one of the two main stages.

Austin City Limits splits its varied lineup of over 100 musicians and groups between eight stages, with set times that begin in late morning and run through 10 PM. Ticket prices for the festival fall in the $250 range for a three-day pass or $100 for a single day pass. Obviously the thing that sets ACL apart from other Austin festivals is the quantity of well-known, headlining artists: the 2014 lineup of the festival (which took place on the weekends of October 3-5 and 10-12) included sets from artists such as Skrillex, Eminem, Outkast, Pearl Jam, and Beck. For me though, considering that by the time the main acts begin, there’s some 75,000 trying to cram around the main stages, the undercard which is built around less high-profile but still outstanding artists, actually provides the more attractive shows. 2014’s festival included day-time and early evening sets from such groups as Lorde, Lana Del Rey, The Replacements, Spoon, Chvrches, AFI, Tune-Yards, The Head and the Heart, St. Vincent, and dozens of others (not sure I’m proud to admit that I caught Iggy Azalea performing her 2014 hit “Fancy” live….). There’s a nice variety of all sorts of music represented at the festival, from hip-hop to country-western and folk, and even if some of the music wouldn’t be attractive to all festival attendees, perhaps the best thing about the festival is that one can discover and experience a wide variety of music that he might not otherwise have had the opportunity to.

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Much as rain is always appreciated in Texas, it leads to Zilker Park turning into a mud bog.

In 2013, the festival (which runs from Friday to Sunday) was expanded from one weekend to two, with the headlining artists appearing both weekends in an attempt to limit the crowd that would attend on any one day, but having attended the festival both before and after this change, I’m not sure that this effort has really had any effect on the number of people who attend each day. To me, the expansion was just an excuse to draw in more people to the festival, thereby increasing its revenue: 75,000 is still a large amount to squeeze into the 350 acre Zilker Park, and by the end of any given day when the crowd is at its largest, just making your way from one end of the park to the other becomes a chore. At any large festival like this, seeing all the performances one would like becomes all but impossible: though the set-times are somewhat staggered (less so as the day goes on), an attendee has to “choose his battles” so to speak and to some extent plan out his “must-see” list. I also should say that it’s increasingly difficult to get a good vantage point for the headline bands playing at the festival unless one is willing to “camp out” at a stage well in advance of their set time. Though there is a chair-free zone around the main stages, the standing-room areas immediately around the stages quickly fill up and remain extremely crowded as the day turns into night.

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A further problem with the expansion from one weekend to two deals with the performers themselves. Though both weekends of the festival feature what is essentially the same lineup, the expansion seems to have had an adverse effect on the bands that are booked for the festival in the first place. Not every group would be willing to “honker down” in Austin and the surrounding area for a two week period, and the quality of the lineup from top-to-bottom seems to have diminished in the past couple years. When I attended the festival previously in 2012, there not only seemed to be more bands playing at the festival, but the overall strength of the lineup as a whole was greater. Additionally, set-times appeared to be staggered a little better during the 2012 event, making it possible to see at least some of the set that most bands were playing if one wandered from stage to stage throughout the day. The groups featured on 2014’s schedule mostly began their sets at the same time, and there honestly only seemed to be a handful of groups playing at any given time: by mid-afternoon, the number of performances going on at any point had dropped to three or four. This only increased the number of people watching any given show at any given time and also made it more difficult to navigate the park from one end to another – particularly when a group like Lorde was booked at a secondary stage smack bang in the middle of the venue, essentially cutting the main stages off from one another.

ACL
ACL: It’s an experience for sure.

Ultimately, the massive crowd at Austin City Limits Music Festival is for me, the main drawback of the experience: there simply seems to be too many people at this event. By the early evening, it’s increasingly frustrating to have to negotiate a sea of chairs, blankets, and their occupants in the area between stages – especially in low light conditions, and standing half a mile from the stage isn’t an especially great vantage point to view any concert even with additional speaker installations and huge video display screens that show what’s happening on stage. For me, when placed alongside a comparatively (much) smaller festival like Fun Fun Fun Fest which takes place in early November, ACL just seems like an overcrowded mess. Sure, one can see some great shows during the course of the day, but the large crowd makes it difficult for most people to really get the experience out of the festival that they might want. On the other hand, many younger people attending the festival seem mainly interested in drinking as much beer as possible and acting like a fool when electronic groups such as Skrillex, Calvin Harris, or Zedd begin what is essentially a huge rave-like concert once the sun goes down. As much as that sounds like something a younger version of myself would have really been into, as I get older I find myself appreciating more small-scale shows more than the balls-to-the-wall free-for-all that a large-scale festival like Austin City Limits would provide.

Oh sure, ACL is supposed to be like this…

…but this is sometimes what it seems to turn into…

To be completely honest, I think the organizers of the ACL Festival do about as good a job as they can ensuring the festival runs smoothly and most attendees at the festival are understanding with regard to their fellow attendees (I actually encountered more moronic behavior at a Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers concert I recently attended in Dallas than I did at the entire ACL festival, which was a bit of a shock). I have seen some really amazing performances the times I did go to ACL, but I also was very much ready to leave at a certain point during each day due simply to becoming frustrated with dealing with the immense crowd. Though the lineup of artists performing is frankly unbelievable, in all likelihood most festival-goers won’t be as close to the action as they would like or be able to see all the bands they would want to see, even if they are increasingly aggressive in making their way from one stage to the next. As much as I would call ACL worthwhile and generally enjoyable as a populist music festival with (obviously) mass appeal, I would personally be more likely to choose to go to a smaller and more manageable festival in Austin; both November’s more niche-oriented Fun Fun Fun Fest (my choice for best festival in Austin) and the spring’s Psych Fest fit this bill nicely.

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