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.
But that trait is also a limitation: Booking local bands and playing in local venues isn't going to lead to the sort of mass appeal of big-name bands playing on a proper festival grounds. It appeals to the fan of local music and the local music scene, but not necessarily to the music fan in Plano or even Fort Worth that a truly large-scale festival needs to be able to attract. The sprawl of Dallas certainly doesn't make things easy. But even Fun Fun Fun, while a preferable alternative to ACL for many fans, remains largely a regional event itself.
If any event in North Texas were to have the potential to become a large-scale, destination festival, it would be something like Suburbia, which just had its first go-round earlier this year. Organized by LiveNation, it featured the sort of big-name, band-of-the-moment hodge-podge that tends to come with the large-scale festivals, putting the likes of David Guetta alongside Alabama Shakes. But then it also has little to do with the character of Dallas and Dallas music, and not just because it's all the way out in Plano.
It doesn't have to be an either-or proposition, of course. But compared to the big corporate mentality of an event like ACL, the community driven model -- with some of the best and brightest local bands able to share a stage with the big-name headliners -- is what Dallas should want in a festival. One of the unique things about the local scene(s), be it in Deep Ellum or in Denton, is the proximity of the venues to one another, so embracing that geographical reality is a great way of building something locals can get behind.
To that end, though, what ACL can most definitely teach us is how important it is for the local support to go both ways. ACL may have corporate clout and substantial sponsor backing, but it couldn't happen without the support of the city. Some folks may gripe about the outsiders who descend on the city, but the benefits -- both financial and from a profile standpoint -- are also clear. The fact that Austin not only provides buses but even shuts down streets along the shuttle route is evidence enough of their support.
Dallas is only gradually coming around to that fact. A festival like Homegrown wouldn't have been possible a few short years ago, due to the difficulty of getting access to parks and public spaces. Index's new location was a promising one, although the dirt surface (as opposed to grass) left something to be desired. Granted, finding an ideal location near Deep Ellum is easier said than done. But a location like the perennially under-used Trinity River Basin, given the support of city officials, could really allow an event to flourish.
At any rate, as festival season begins to wind down in this part of the state, with events like Untapped still coming down the pike, there's reason to be optimistic. Given a few years, some of the still-young festivals in North Texas could become their own signature, if not quite large-scale, events. Maybe then the question won't be whether we have too many festivals, but rather which one is the best.
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