The past few weeks have been pretty good to Texas music festival goers. The last two weekends of September saw North Texas welcome in two of its most promising events, with Oaktopia landing in Denton the first week and Index Fest taking over Deep Ellum on the next. While still young -- only two and three years old respectively -- both festivals boasted big lineups, plenty of ambition and, crucially, noticeable growth from past years. If anyone wanted signs of that elusive "signature" North Texas festival in the making, there was reason to be optimistic.
And then there was Austin City Limits Festival, which held its first of two weekends of music this past weekend for those compelled to make the trip down south. Now in its 13th year, it's hard to argue with how ACL does business; it's inarguably the state's most prominent festival outside of SXSW. Which begs the question: What can our local festivals learn from ACL? And do we even want an event like it in Dallas?
It's hardly news at this stage, but ACL is virtually a clinic on how to properly run and organize a festival. An event large enough to book (almost) identical bills on consecutive weekends while still pulling in roughly 100,000 fans over each of its six days, it also runs seamlessly. Shuttles run to and from downtown on an almost continuous basis with relatively efficient wait times, lines are reasonable for drinks, food and bathrooms, and prices for said food and drinks are cheap by festival standards. The crowds are respectful and passed out concertgoers, be it from alcohol or dehydration, are pretty nonexistent.
Of course, ACL has resources that most festivals can only dream of. Whether it means booking the biggest bands or simply building infrastructure, it's in a league completely removed from any aspiring festival. Its name alone is cache enough to attract fans: Thanks to the four-decade legacy built by Austin City Limits, fans from all across the country and even different continents will buy up tickets before they even know who's playing. (Index certainly made a push to build a buzz this year, in particular with its June party to announce the lineup.)
That's the thing about ACL: It's a major event, and not just a music festival. After all, it's booked by C3 Presents, the same company that puts on Lollapalooza. But it's not exactly a curated festival, in the vein of say fellow Austin fest Fun Fun Fun. (A bit of an irony given that Fun Fun Fun offers additional entertainment like comedy, whereas ACL is pretty well just music.) What ACL offers instead is the name recognition of artists like Outkast and Skrillex.
That fact, at base level, is a big difference from events like Oaktopia and Index Fest. At their core, both are locally oriented events. While ACL situates itself in Zilker Park, close enough to downtown Austin to be convenient but secluded enough to not be a (complete) nuisance, Oaktopia and Index embrace the neighborhood, be it the Denton town square or Deep Ellum. It's not necessarily a better or worse concept, but it's fundamentally different.
The format does pose some challenges. Having your headliners finish on the festival grounds by 10 p.m. with four hours of (predominantly local) music still to follow in the neighboring clubs is a good way to keep the party going, but it also risks turning the night into an anti-climax. Should we be excited for the headliner, or excited for the late-night party?
That's a bit of a minor complaint in the scheme of things, but it does reinforce the importance of booking the right bands (an admittedly tough task no matter the event), not only to make sure the party flows over to the clubs but also to give the festival a clear identity. To that end, Index likely overreached a bit this year in expanding to three days rather than two; bands like Local Natives, Mutemath and Dawes were popular enough at least for certain demographics, but each are essentially middle-of-the-road indie bands.
Oaktopia, to its credit, struck a good balance in presenting a diverse lineup. In fact, it did a surprisingly good job of embracing the festival atmosphere, bringing comedy acts, DJ slots (including one from Neon Indian) and a healthy array of art and other side shows. For better or worse, there's no question that Oaktopia is a Denton festival, weirdness and all.