Playback: ACL Fest Then & Now

What's changed and remained the same for ACL Fest over its 13 years

Gary Clark Jr., seen here at ACL Fest 2012, played the inaugural Zilker Park fall classic in 2002.
Gary Clark Jr., seen here at ACL Fest 2012, played the inaugural Zilker Park fall classic in 2002. (Photo by Gary Miller)

May 2002 wasn't so different from today. Hole in the Wall was going out of business and Austin's venue owners were at odds with the city over noise ordinances. That month, Mayor Gus Garcia summoned the press to Zilker Park to announce a music festival named after Austin's world-famous television concert program. The event's organizers weren't yet named C3 Presents, instead referred to as "Lance Armstrong's management company."

The festival, held that September, hosted 70 acts over two days for $40. Some 35,000 fans turned out each day to see a lineup including Emmylou Harris, Wilco, and a reformed Arc Angels, whose headlining set was introduced by Armstrong. Chronicle Music Editor Raoul Hernandez noted in his review of the latter that the lighting in Zilker was problematically dim, but found the scene nonetheless inspiring: "Looking out across the fairway that lay in front of the band, silhouettes festivaling about like from a Sixties-era concert documentary, one couldn't help thinking Austin might just be the Live Music Capital of the World."

Flash forward 13 years: The Austin City Limits Music Festival is now two full weekends, 140 acts, and, according to online ticket marketplace StubHub, ranks first in fall festival sales worldwide, bringing in roughly 75,000 festgoers per day. ACL's promoter, C3 Presents – formed by Charles Attal, Charlie Jones, and Charlie Walker in 2007 – has conquered the festival world with a plethora of international gatherings; Lollapalooza's now in five countries, and there's a curiously named new export called Auckland City Limits.

Last fall, C3 sold a controlling stake of its locally sprouted company to industry leaders Live Nation Entertainment.

"For us, it doesn't mean anything drastic," Attal told the Chronicle. "We're staying C3. There's nothing changing in our business model. There's no Live Nation employees coming in to run our company.

"Live Nation wanted to buy it, because we're growing in the festival market and they wanted to grow in that market as well," Attal added. "We needed each other."

Locally and nationally, C3's become a conduit for larger industry entities wanting a piece of the festival action. This summer, C3's ticketing division, Front Gate – the market leader in festival ticket sales – was acquired by their closest competitor, Ticketmaster, an affiliate of Live Nation.

"Ticketmaster needed a partner who could be their festival ticketing arm," confirmed Front Gate President Maura Gibson. "Festival ticketing is a lot different than doing arenas or clubs because you have a nontraditional space and on-site responsibilities. It's more production."

Gibson, who declined to answer how much the company was sold for, says Front Gate still handles all of C3's local accounts including Stubb's and Emo's. "The separation of church and state between Front Gate and Ticketmaster remains."

"This is really about the technology that Front Gate has, which is where things are moving," adds Catherine Martin, Ticketmaster's VP of communications. "In return, we're able to provide some scale for Front Gate on the marketing side."

Locally, C3's most valued business relationship may be with Austin's Parks & Recreation Department, which remains ecstatic about ACL's continued use of Zilker Park.

"It's the largest earner of all park events," says Jason Maurer, events manager for the department, explaining that all parkland gatherings pay a rental fee, but ticketed events pay more based on entry price. ACL Fest pays $3 per person, per day. Last year, that totaled $1.4 million, in addition to the millions C3 has donated to the parks department. "You can say there's impact because of closure of the park, but they're also giving money back into the system. C3's gone above and beyond. They live here and work here."

Maurer says all park events have a new contract each year, but no terms regarding price or reservation changed when the local company went corporate.

"C3 Presents is still the name on the contract," he notes.

As much as the infrastructure has changed since ACL Fest's 2002 baptism, the music has more. The only remnants from the introductory outing are yearly shoo-ins Asleep at the Wheel and Gary Clark Jr., who was an unknown teenager at the first fest, which featured a predominantly local and decidedly rootsy lineup.

Those early years never predicted 2015's abundance of rappers (Drake, A$AP Rocky, Chance the Rapper), EDM stars (Disclosure, Flosstradamus, Deadmau5, Bassnectar, Nero), and pop-makers (Florence + the Machine, the Weeknd). The lineup has plenty to offer to ACL's older demographic, yielding smatterings of country (Dwight Yoakam, Sturgill Simpson), arena rock (Foo Fighters, Strokes), NPR darlings (Decemberists, Alt-J), and big buzz up-and-comers (Leon Bridges).

Just don't expect Lance Armstrong to introduce any bands.


ACL Notes

• Student stampede! Two people received ambulance rides after a ticket line offering discounted ACL wristbands to students became unruly Saturday morning on Barton Springs Road. University of Texas sophomore Diego Mejia told KVUE he received six stitches on his leg from a metal barricade that was pushed onto him.

Mother Falcon, before releasing third LP Good Luck Have Fun with a gig at Empire Control Room on Wednesday, back Tim Kubart as "the Space Cadets" on the Austin Kiddie Limits stage, Friday 2:30pm and Saturday 2pm. Singer of kid-friendly anthems, Kubart hosts the Sprout channel's Sunny Side Up Show.

Alabama Shakes tapes its second Austin City Limits episode on Friday at the Moody Theater before their soulful Southern storm hits ACL Fest's Honda stage, Saturday 6:20pm.

• Livestream ACL Fest: shut-ins and non-ticket-holders tune in at www.redbull.tv/aclfest, where some 70 performances, including the Strokes, Deadmau5, and Of Monsters and Men, will be broadcast live. Last year they only did this for weekend two.

KGSR wakes you up with pre-ACL morning shows on Friday and Saturday at Threadgill's World Headquarters. The concerts, running 8-11am Friday and 8:30am-noon on Saturday, feature 13 ACLers including Houndmouth, Moon Taxi, and Shakey Graves. $5 entry benefits HAAM.


Half Notes

Euphoria Fest filed suit challenging the Travis County commissioners' authority to impose additional restrictions to the state's Mass Gathering Act. In August, the commissioners set earlier music curfews, 11pm Sun. through Thu. and 1am Fri. and Sat., on events outside Austin city limits. Scott Davidson, who handles permit applications for Euphoria and other events at Carson Creek Ranch, says late-night programming is key to Euphoria's existence as a camping festival. No other county in Texas has such stringent music cutoffs.

Chad Goldwasser, the energetic owner of Pure Gold Realty, has acquired the Chicago House building and will convert it into Downtown's newest music venue: Tellers. Goldwasser purchased the lease from Doug Guller, owner of the Parish and Scoot Inn, and has a 20-year option on the building, which was a singer-songwriter haven from 1987 'til 1995. Tellers opens Friday.

The Saxon Pub is the subject of a new documentary, pending Kickstarter funding to the tune of $45,000. The Saxon looks back at 25 years of South Austin strumming through live performance footage and interviews with artists who call it home. "Joe [Ables] is moving this place in a couple years [to St. Elmo Public Market] and I want to document it now so we can shoot in the original place," says director Jeff Sandmann, who won the owner's approval on the project. "It's not about me, it's not about these walls, it's about the people who came in here and made it happen – this reputation we have all around the world," says Ables. Saxon's Kickstarter runs through Oct. 20 and contributors can nab sweet rewards like guitars signed by Saxon favorites.

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