It has become something of a cliché to say that Austin is heating up. Whether it’s in reference to Austin’s booming tech sector, its increasingly unwieldy population, or its scorching summer temperatures, the phrase “heating up” encapsulates numerous aspects of where Austin is in 2016. Of those “heating” features, the most relevant for attendees of the 2016 Austin City Limits (ACL) music festival—the 15th year of the event—is temperature. Austin is one of the fastest heating cities in America, and despite the wave of listicles about autumnal garb and pumpkin spice lattes that has followed its predictable course online, Austin continues to sting of summer. The thousands upon thousands of festivalgoers that will stampede South Austin’s Zilker Park for the final weekend of ACL will have to contend with lingering heat to keep alert and energized throughout each of the festival’s three days.
Based on the list of performers at ACL 2016, humid heat will hardly be an obstacle for attendees, who are being treated to a top-notch roster of musicians. The headliners alone are arguably worth the price of admission: Radiohead (Friday), Kendrick Lamar (Saturday), and LCD Soundsystem (Sunday). Also performing on Sunday is the British alternative rock act Mumford & Sons, a group of semi-disguised automatons whose set overlaps with LCD Soundsystem’s on that evening. With the LCD reunion being one of the more chatted-up events in the music world in 2016 and Mumford & Sons continuing to move a lot of product, there will be some who have to make a tough choice in the festival’s final two hours, much in the same way one might struggle between Torchy’s Tacos or Taco Bell for post-festival grub.
Two years ago, writing in the now-defunct web publication Wondering Sound, Grayson Haver Currin predicted that the summer music festival bubble is “about to burst”. Currin’s claim is rooted in the undeniable surplus of music festivals not just in the United States, but the rest of the world as well. These festivals must all draw from the same stable of performers: for example, anyone booking a festival in 2017 better make sure she can get Frank Ocean top billing, given how stellar of a 2016 he’s had already. Some bands have the resources and aptitude to hop from festival to festival—Radiohead is a good example of this in 2016—but many festivals overlap, and most artists have touring schedules that can’t be entirely centered on festivals. Currin’s article asks a question whose answer is still being figured out in real time: what happens when an overcrowded festival market competes for the same performers? It won’t take long in working out an answer to that question to realize that the festival market is in a predicament. ACL, Coachella, Lollapalooza, and their ilk remain popular events each year, but things can’t remain that way forever.
Case in point: the 2016 Sasquatch! Festival in Washington State, which like ACL celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2016. The 2015 iteration of Sasquatch! welcomed 25,000 attendees to the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington. A year later, only 11,000 people showed up. The Oregonian‘s David Greenwald identifies a few probable explanations for this precipitous decline in numbers, including a weakened Canadian dollar and a relative lack of star power previously seen at the festival. But it’s one thing for the numbers to wax and wane; it’s another for them to be halved in only the course of a year. With the network of music festivals in the US becoming increasingly vast—Austin still has one more festival to go this year, the Sound by Sound Fest in November—it’s still unclear where exactly the dominoes will begin falling. For now, there are warning signs.
Though some new and lesser-known festivals will suffer from the “festival bubble”, there’s no reason to suspect ACL specifically is in any precarious position. Due to its linkage to the long-standing and widely respected Austin City Limits concert series from which it gets its name and its location in the “Live Music Capital of the World”, ACL is by any reasonable account likely to remain a staple of the festivalgoing experience. Still, ACL’s stature in the festival industry does not mean it is immune from the situation of the market at the present.
In reporting on ACL 2016’s final weekend, I will provide rundowns on the appealing array of artists performing at the festival. This year’s ACL isn’t just flashy headliners, though the festival conveners did knock one out of the park in their big-ticket bookings. Other artists that will feature in PopMatters‘s coverage of ACL include the rising UK rock outfit the Struts, Canadian electronic act Tennyson, and folk songstress Amanda Shires, among others too numerous to list here.
But special attention will also be paid to the cultural phenomenon of the festival itself. Some festivals have become notorious for letting the culture of the festival take over the music itself—ostensibly, the whole reason the festival exists in the first place. I can’t remember the last time someone told me about a killer Coachella set, but I do remember seeing countless reports of celebrity sightings and pictures of festival SWAG (that’s “Stuff We All Get”) across my social media feeds. Given that Austin prides itself on music culture, there’s good reason to believe that culture will in some way inform the experience of the festival.
But with all the ongoing changes in the city of Austin and the culture of music festivals writ large, it’s hard to imagine ACL not changing alongside them. Looking at the big sponsor stages that encircle the Zilker Park grounds (Samsung’s stage hosts the headliners), it’d be tautological to say that ACL has evolved into something much larger than it used to be when it kicked off 15 years ago. Part of attending a music festival, especially one as popular as ACL, is paying attention not just to who is up next on the performance checklist, but also noting how the shape of the festival experience itself has transformed, and is transforming.
For updates on ACL 2016 weekend two, check in with PopMatters daily throughout the weekend for full-day rundowns of noteworthy performances, eccentric festivalgoers, and the creative ways people will undoubtedly come up with to cope with Austin’s seemingly infinite heat. There might even be a few taco recommendations, because no event coverage in Austin would be complete without several references to that most revered of Tex-Mex culinary staples.