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Considering an Austin-first policy: Should city require more local acts at expanded ACL Fest?

With a second weekend of Austin City Limits Festival looking like a certainty for 2013, some wiser souls around town like long-time Austin music critic Michael Corcoran have suggested that, as the city negotiates with festival promoters C3 Presents, it should require a set percentage of the fest’s lineup include Austin-based artists.

It’s an interesting, populist idea that could give Austin artists some extra cash and lots of fresh ears hearing their music. And for a city that prides itself on live music, it seems like a certain amount of provincialism and local pride would be expected, if not tolerated, for a festival put on by what’s pretty much a global corporation with major festivals on at least four continents.

“The city has this huge bargaining chip that they can use, and they absolutely should to give something back to local musicians,” Corcoran tells CultureMap. “You’ve got this company coming in wanting to do a second weekend and make another $15 million or whatever it is.

“Why shouldn’t they demand that you make Austin bands 20 percent of the lineup? Bands like The Gourds sell tickets. Bob Schneider sells tickets, and he hasn’t played ACL since the second year.”

 “The city has this huge bargaining chip that they can use, and they absolutely should to give something back to local musicians,” - Michael Corcoran

(Note: Schneider’s side band The Scabs played ACL in 2009, but Corcoran is close to right; Schneider last played there as a front man in 2004, or year three.)

To be fair, the festival has always featured Austin acts, with Asleep At The Wheel (an every year performer) joining Gary Clark Jr., Esperanza Spalding, The Wheeler Brothers, Quiet Company, Wild Child and The Eastern Sea on this year’s lineup. Wikipedia’s lineup history for the fest is by no means the ultimate authority, but as a general guide, it suggests Austin acts make up somewhere around 10 percent of the annual lineup.

So as a practical matter, what would such an Austin-first policy look like? And could it be workable without sapping the wider diversity of the fest’s mid- and lower-cards, since that’s where most of the Austin acts would realistically wind up?

Start with the fact that this year’s festival has nearly 140 performance slots over three days. That means a 20 percent local minimum would equal 28 Austin-based acts per weekend.

A little brainstorming of acts with Austin roots — the first pitfall of such a local content rule is determining what and who qualifies as a “local” act — resulted in the following list, which is more representative than comprehensive of the field of acts that’d merit discussion for inclusion on an Austin-first ACL.

Willie Nelson; Robert Plant and Patty Griffin; Ghostland Observatory; Spoon; Explosions In The Sky; Ben Kweller; Gary Clark Jr.; Alejandro Escovedo; Roky Erickson; Shawn Colvin; Asleep At The Wheel; Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears; Esperanza Spalding; Court Yard Hounds; …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead; Kat Edmonson; Okkervil River; The Gourds; Black Angels; Black And White Years; Scott H. Biram; The Sword; Band of Heathens; Shearwater; Neon Indian; White Denim; Bob Schneider; Grupo Fantasma; The Wheeler Brothers; Ruby Jane; What Made Milwaukee Famous; Octopus Project; Amy Cook; Cowboy And Indian; Electric Touch; Quiet Company; Riverboat Gamblers; The Eastern Sea; The Young; Lance Herbstrong; Ume; Wild Child; Crooks; Golden Boys

The first feeling that emerges after such an exercise is that it’s hardly the “little guys” that would benefit from any local content requirement. At least two-thirds of those listed above have played the festival previously or are this year, with just about all of them already having national booking or album distribution deals in place.

But it would put Austin musicians more front and center for a national audience at a festival that pretty much sells out before it reveals its lineup, suggesting that concert-goers trust the booking abilities of festival organizers.

The question, then, becomes whether your average beer-drinking festival fan would be put off by bands such as Quiet Company, White Denim and Ume taking spots from (for example) The Lumineers, Bombay Bicycle Club and Trampled By Turtles.

And then there’s the matter of whether there’s all that much benefit for a band at any level to get on stage in the late morning or early afternoon as festival fans are just starting to trickle in and only partially focused on the bands that are playing.

For Matt Hines of young Austin band The Eastern Sea, the invite to play at 11:20 a.m. on the festival’s third day this year was an easy “yes.”

“I’ve always looked at it as being one of the premiere events in Austin music, and as a band, one of the ultimate goals is to play large, national festivals,” Hines told CultureMap by phone from a tour stop in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an opportunity that’s only as good as what you make of it. And I know that playing ACL by itself is not going to break a band nationally. At the same time, I know that we’re only on the lineup because we’re an Austin band, and there’s no way a band like us would be on there if we were from Tulsa.”

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