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The Austin City Limits Music Festival scales back its own explosive growth

Three years ago, the organizers of the Austin City Limits Music Festival worried if anyone would show up at Zilker Park for the unveiling of their multi-band, multi-genre event. These days, their bigger concern is keeping too many people from showing up.

Over its first three years, the ACL fest has been an undeniable aesthetic triumph, but it's also battled the kind of logistical headaches that come when tens of thousands of people land in the same space at the same time. Last year, the festival's most popular stages became so packed with attendees that music fans were left with two unappealing options: Watch the proceedings on the giant video screens that flanked the bands, or jostle your way toward the stage and face the fact that you'd be stuck in the same spot for hours (essentially eliminating the prospect of catching more than a handful of bands in one day).

Death Cab for Cutie reflects ACL's eclecticism.

"After last year's festival, it was pretty loud and clear that capacity was an issue," says Mark Higgins, director of communications for Capital Sports & Entertainment, the festival's promoter. "So this year we took that into account and scaled back the tickets 10,000 a day. We're hoping that'll satisfy the fans, which is the most important thing to us."

With this year's capacity capped at 65,000, the festival sold out its three-day passes well in advance of the September 23-25 gathering, with only a small number of one-day passes for Friday remaining as the festival approaches.

"As quickly as the tickets went out of the gate last year, it's probably not unrealistic to think we could do 100,000," Higgins says. "But you know, we could put 100,000 in there and sell as much as we like, but I think we'd lose a bunch going into next year. So rather than take a chance, we cut it back a bit."

Thievery Corporation

On a purely musical level, the ACL fest has been a perfectly eclectic marriage of its namesake public-television show and Austin's legendary commitment to live music. The TV program's name gave the festival instant credibility while the festival's youth appeal revitalized the TV program's image. While the television show built its reputation as a haven for outlaw country and rootsy singer-songwriters, it has expanded its focus in recent years to reflect the impact of the festival. This year's festival features quintessential ACL artists such as Asleep at the Wheel, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Kathleen Edwards, and Lyle Lovett, but it also ventures into the brainy art-pop of Spoon and Wilco, the dreamy alt-rock of Death Cab For Cutie, the sacred-steel pyrotechnics of Robert Randolph & the Family Band, and the ambient, groove-oriented trippiness of Thievery Corporation.

"We try to stay true to the brand and the musical heritage of the show," Higgins says. "It would be easy to take a chunk of the budget and go throw it at a big band and try to get some huge Rolling Stones-type act. But that's really not what the festival is about. And the fans tell us what they want to see: We have jazz, blues, country, rock 'n' roll, alternative rock, a little bit for everybody. It's something we take into account."

If ACL shies away from obvious multi-platinum acts, they made an exception with the ultra-popular British band Coldplay, which closes out Day Three. Higgins says "there was some interest from them last year, because it's a market they do like." He adds that because the performance comes at the end of the group's American tour, they're planning to hang out in Austin for a couple of days after the festival wraps.

Austin City Limits Music Festival

Fri, Sep 23-Sun, Sep 25

Zilker Park
2100 Barton Springs Road, Austin
877-FEST-ACL or

Notwithstanding past issues with overcrowding, the ACL fest has been unique in its commitment to family friendliness. The festival includes an Austin Kiddie Limits stage - complete with kiddie beach - featuring child-oriented performances from the likes of Sara Hickman, the Biscuit Brothers, and the Palm Elementary School Choir.

"We look at a lot of the other festivals around the country, like Coachella or Bonnaroo, and they're not too family friendly," Higgins says. "We don't want people to look at this festival and say, 'I can't bring my kids to this thing.' It's not the kind of thing where the kids would be out there for 10 hours, but they can do their thing for a while."

Higgins says the process of putting together the festival has become a year-round event, with organizers taking a short break at the end of September and convening in October to begin planning for the following year. "We don't rest on our laurels," he says. "You look at festivals around the country where they've had a few years that are successful, and it only takes one or two bad shows to turn things around."

By Gilbert Garcia

Selling the revolution

Steve Earle: Bringing his Chevrolet-approved anthems to ACL.
One of the most talked-about movies of the year is Hustle and Flow, that piece of updated Blaxploitation in which a pimp sets his sights on the music business. In the real world, of course, it's usually the other way around: There are precious few musicians who are unwilling to pimp their songs out for use in a soda or sneaker commercial, and few celebrities willing to concede that endorsements like this are a moral issue worth discussing.

Fans might expect that Steve Earle (who is performing Friday, September 23, at the ACL Festival) would be one of those rare artists who would rather hock his guitar than rent out his anthems. Especially over the last couple of years, as the songwriter has become increasingly vocal about lefty politics - often, as on his pre-election tour, preaching so much that the music itself suffered - and set himself up as a beacon of integrity in a nation all too happy to cave in to corporate rule.

Guess who's a whore now?

The title track of Earle's most recent album, The Revolution Starts Now, is a desperate cry for Americans to rise up against their dishonest leaders. Earle reached back to '60s anti-war protests and to Gil Scott-Heron's socially conscious proto-rap, trying to turn sparks of dissent into an administration-toppling bonfire.

Now, The Revolution Starts Now is the background music for a Chevrolet commercial.

Yes, that Chevrolet. The car company whose Suburban laid the groundwork for the SUV trend - the SUV trend that senselessly multiplied America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil - the Middle Eastern oil that plays a much bigger role than Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Bush Administration's decisions to go to war - the war that Steve Earle has spent the last few years getting self-righteous about. Earle's revolution used to be about stopping a war; now it's about glamorizing the gas guzzlers that make such wars necessary.

Earle's record label wouldn't put me through to the big man. The blog on his web site makes no mention of the ads. Sites where fans are voicing their bewilderment have, as far as I can see, gotten no response. The only official word out there is from Earle's manager Dan Gillis, who told the Chicago Tribune's Mark Caro: "It's just a business decision we decided to make, and we went with it."

Wow. Dollars over principles. Sounds like something Steve Earle might write a song to protest. Maybe he could sell that song for a Prius commercial.

By John DeFore

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