The sweaty, three-day, five stage, 130-band extravaganza that is the Austin City Limits Music Festival celebrates its 10-year anniversary this weekend.
The festival has taken the ACL name places Ed Bailey, ACL’s vice president of brand development, never envisioned. Twelve years ago, he sat down with the KLRU staff and its board of directors to expand the brand beyond the long-running public television series. Never did he imagine that during the next 10 years, the festival would have hosted performers such as Spoon, Pixies, The Strokes, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay, Bjork and Kanye West.
“Ten short years ago, all you had was the television taping six floors up in the communications building in the University of Texas,” Bailey said. “Amazingly, all this came just from that.”
The non-profit KLRU wanted to create a festival that would add another dimension to the ACL live music experience while staying true to the show’s vision. The vision is, in Bailey’s words, “to create a space where bands just let loose with their fans.”
To create this, KLRU outsourced production of the festival to a group of business partners that would eventually become C3 Presents, the music industry powerhouse that’s also responsible for Lollapalooza.
“There was no long-term deal; it was all, ‘Let’s go do it,’” Bailey said. “‘Let’s try to make it stand for what the TV show has always represented. Let’s take what we could do in a year’s worth of television shows and do it in a weekend.’”
Within a span of three or four months Charlie Jones and Charles Attal, the future co-founders of C3 Presents, developed a two-day festival with five stages and 67 bands. One-day passes were $25. Organizers had expected between 20,000 and 30,000 to attend, but 42,000 people showed up on that first Saturday in 2002. The first festival, which featured an array of artists from Gillian Welch to String Cheese Incident, set a precedent of eclectic line-ups that the festival has kept as its popularity has grown during the last 10 years. Some highlights of the decade include Pixies in 2004, Coldplay in 2005 — the dustiest year in the festival’s history, Dave Matthews Band in 2009 and the Flaming Lips’ infamous bubble entrance last year. This year’s festival features less well-known groups Reptar and AWOLNATION, as well as international superstars such as Stevie Wonder.
After a record 75,000 people attended on the Saturday in 2004, promoters lowered the festival’s maximum capacity at the request of surrounding neighborhood associations. A new contract last year with the City of Austin authorized C3 Presents to sell up to 75,000 tickets, and attendance last year was around 70,000 each day.
Bailey said the reputation of the ACL television show helped contribute to the success of that first festival. Now that the festival is an established destination, it brings major bands to the television show that might not otherwise have made the trip. In past years, Pearl Jam, My Morning Jacket, Wilco and The National have all doubled dipped, performing for both the festival and the show, and this year Austin City Limits Live will be taping Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Randy Newman, The Head and the Heart, and Gomez over the festival weekend.
Looking forward, ACL must continue to adapt by making content of the festival and television show directly accessible from computers and phones, Bailey said.
Last year, a number of performances at the festival were made available for live streaming for the first time. This weekend, C3 Presents is making 35 performances available for live streaming through the online magazine “Spacelab.”
“The business models of the record industry and the business models of television have changed so radically that if Austin City Limits is going to be in the conversation 10 years from now, we’re going to have to do a massive amount of change,” Bailey said.