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ACL Festival may be Austin, but it isn't weird

ACL Festival 2013 Day One 3942
ACL Fest may face the same growing pains that Austin faces. Photo by Shelley Neuman
ACL Festival 2013 Day One 6462A
ACL knows how to draw the same crowd year after year. Photo by Jon Shapley
ACL Festival 2013 Day One 3942
ACL Festival 2013 Day One 6462A

Austin would be a much different city if it weren’t for the annual Austin City Limits Festival. Though hasn’t been around as long as SXSW, the granddaddy of Austin festival culture, ACL has quickly grown into a respectable — and very lucrative — event that draws international attention.

The Fest has also served as an integral tool in marketing Austin as the Live Music Capital of the World, though plenty of local residents still avoid it like Target on Christmas Eve. As thousands of people flock to the shores of Lady Bird Lake every year, ACL continues to pump millions of dollars into the local Austin economy.

But is it weird?

The ACL machine has basically turned into something resembling a large TV network like CBS. At this point, their programming needs wide appeal to attract the biggest crowds, so Muse is like NCIS — it’s a safe bet.

It's an identity question the entire city is struggling with, whether it’s a new condo threatening to block views of Lady Bird Lake, the Walton's buying property in East Austin or the loss of a food trailer park to another hotel. But perhaps it's the ACL Festival itself that is best exemplifies Austin's growing pains as it struggles to maintain its identity while simultaneously attracting as many people from out of town as possible.

The ACL machine has basically turned into something resembling a large TV network like CBS. At this point, their programming needs wide appeal to attract the biggest crowds, so Muse is like NCIS — a safe bet guaranteed to draw a crowd. Every now and then, they can get a little niche (Houndmouth) or bring in someone who has massive buzz around them (Kendrick Lamar) which is basically the CBS equivalent is bringing in Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in for a cop drama.

All of this results in a crowd consisting of families, college kids and a smattering of hipsters for street cred. Looking around Zilker Park, it’s obvious that they’ve been successful with this formula. And producers certainly do a good job of uniting people for one moment that you wouldn’t expect. After all, where else can a 40-year-old dad bond with a neon-clad frat bro over a mutual love of Wilco?

But implementing this same formula every year leads to a bigger issue: it all starts to blend together. Other than the fact that ACL gets bigger each year, the consistent formula means there are fewer special moments to make it memorable. A bunch of Billboard-topping rock bands play, you grab a Budweiser for $8 a pop, find a spot to lounge or jump into the crowd. And it will be the same thing next year, just with a different headliner from the 80s, a new Thom Yorke side project and the occasional Pitchfork-approved act thrown in the mix.

Would it really hurt to break the formula even just a little bit? SXSW has seen the same exponential growth, but also adapts it's programming, most recently adding sports to the equation. Will it be successful? Who knows, but at least it's something new. Fun Fun Fun Fest believes in adding more than just music, curating multiple events with comedy, action sports, wrestling, and a really crazy concept of having more than one hip-hop act each year. Hell, they even turned a taco cannon into a yearly headliner.

It’s not that ACL Fest needs to be a copycat and make their own taco cannon, because Torchy’s already has that covered. It’s just that every year feels indistinguishable from the last one. ACL doesn’t need to rewrite the book, it just needs to be a little less predictable.

It may never be weird, but maybe it could be a little bit more interesting. 

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