Faster Than Sound: ACL Fest’s Recipe for Success

Essential ingredients for a modern edition of our city’s largest music festival

Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas O'Connell, who also performs at ACL Fest, in March at Fader Fort during SXSW (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Last year's Paul McCartney mania could have left ACL Fest 2019 looking like sloppy seconds.

"That was a tough year to follow up," admits Amy Corbin, lead talent buyer for the two-weekend convergence.

The veteran curator, backbone of local promotions powerhouse and Live Nation festival specialists C3 Presents since its launch, called in from her on-site trailer Monday morning.

"There's no formula," she adds. "We just start with a wish list, pray it happens, and make adjustments where we need to."

Despite potential Macca hangover, Corbin's 2019 handiwork pinpoints the 18-year-old endeavor's modern niche as a forward-looking grab bag. Although she claims there's no secret recipe for her team's fall classic, "Faster Than Sound" can make a few guesses.

First, preheat Zilker Park to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, add:

A Balanced Diet

For years, ACL straddled origins as a roots-centric counterpart to the namesake TV show and its modern status as a fanny-pack prom for area high schools. The split becomes especially apparent in 17-year-old pop sensation Billie Eilish. Her spooky, ASMR-ish whispers on Gen Z ennui, performed last weekend on SNL, correspond Saturday with hometown blues guitar hero Gary Clark Jr.

Later that night, multihyphenate mogul Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, makes good on a 2018 cancellation during legendary Eighties Brit goths the Cure. This may be Glover's final set as the hip-hop project. In August, he announced to a massive Outside Lands Festival audience that it was his second-to-last show. Here's hoping lineup mate 21 Savage joins onstage for viral collab "This Is America."

Guns N' Roses uphold the obvious legacy stronghold, trailed by Third Eye Blind and Thom Yorke Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, an audiovisual project from the Radiohead frontman. Finding middle ground, Texas country rebel Kacey Musgraves and modern psych standard Tame Impala's balanced fandoms transcend.

Eilish, reigning stream queen with the ninth-highest monthly Spotify listener count on the planet, is joined in the Top 100 by unpredictable Bronx star Cardi B (35), "Truth Hurts" takeoff Lizzo (63), and nuevo flamenco singer Rosalía (94). Also in the youth bracket, L.A. indie-pop trio Lany returns after teenage fans camped overnight outside their Stubb's show in June.

Equal Parts

For the second year in a row, festival tracking group Book More Women recognized ACL Fest for leading major U.S. gatherings in gender diversity. The group, known for editing lineup images to point out the stark disparity, reported a 45% standing of women and nonbinary artists at Zilker this year, matching 46% in 2018.

Amy Corbin leads the lineup formulation with talent buyer Margaret Galton.

"If we feel like we don't have enough [women], we try to actively engage with that," explains Corbin. "It's a pretty unique position to make those decisions and give somebody a platform."

During a music industry panel at September's annual Babes Fest, moderated by your columnist, Galton confirmed this.

"I'm fortunate that C3 is something crazy like 65 percent women," she said. "I've been shielded from the boys' club that you see at agencies or management companies."

Last year, Book More Women nudged ACL on Twitter to include women in the top eight headlining spots. For 2019, Eilish shares the top listing with split bookings of Cardi B (weekend one) and Robyn (weekend two).

Amy's Touch

More insight from Amy Corbin on how the 130-act sausage is made:

Austin Chronicle: What was the strategy for following up 2018?

Amy Corbin: The same as it is every year. As soon as the festival's over, it's, "Oh crap, we've got to start all over." Putting all those pieces together takes seven to eight months. There's artists that we send offers every year, so we're patient. If it doesn't work this year, then it'll work someday. Maybe, please!

AC: Does ACL have to satisfy more age groups than most major fests?

AC: Yes. I think it's indicative of the city that we live in. Austin supports live music, no matter what genre it is. You know fans will appreciate something more than at other festivals targeted to specific demographic. People bring their kids out, more so than around the country. Music is part of the DNA for people who live here, which makes the job a bit easier.

AC: Have any genres emerged as more necessary within the fest?

AC: It's sort of a time capsule. This year we have more Latinx, next year it might be something else. For us, it's just being mindful and booking a little something for everybody. That has been the ACL thing since day one.

But, there's never a mandate. You want EDM because it's fun to dance to, you want good R&B, you want good rock, and you want something that's going to blow your mind away – like jazz or world music. We want a surprise element of: "What's going to be fun for six days?"

Bonus Helpings

In 2017, the fest debuted the headphone-distributing Silent Disco concept, which now holds court all three nights under the Tito's tent. Organizers hope to tap a similar fan interest with the brand-new Bonus Tracks stage, rounding up live conversations in the musical, wellness, and culinary arenas. The smörgåsbord convenes near the shaded wine lounge.

"A lot of people listen to podcasts right now, and it's important that [ACL] evolves with what's happening within its community," adds C3 Experience Director Shelley Phillips, who leads the long-gestating spin-off stage. "These extra experiences really help to keep it fresh."

NPR's All Songs Considered hopped aboard, kicking off Friday with host Stephen Thompson and indie rock stronghold Jenny Lewis ahead of her evening set. Homegrown frequency KUTX invites local singer Savannah Welch's new podcast Enough About Music, where artists chat about anything but the craft. Phillips drew on Austin Food + Wine Festival involvement to team with foodie mag-turned-YouTube juggernaut Bon Appétit.

Editor-at-large Andrew Knowlton hosts daily, inviting chef video star Brad Leone and viral New York Times recipe-maker Alison Roman.

ACL Notes

Austin City Limits, the PBS live concert legacy, pulls headlining sweatpants-lover Billie Eilish for her first episode taping on Friday, Oct 11. The quintessential broadcast's 45th season will also include Jack White side project the Raconteurs tonight, Thursday, and Spanish pop sensation Rosalía on Tuesday.

Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group, released a "scorecard" tallying major festivals' use of facial recognition technology. Concern spread when one of the world’s biggest promoters, Live Nation, owner of ACL promoter C3 Presents, invested in facial recognition tech last year. Concerning the issue, C3 provided the following statement: “We do not utilize fascial recognition technology at any C3 festivals and we currently do not have any plans to do so.”

New at the Fest: First up, ACL promises more lanes at each entrance. In the ACL Cares section with tabling community orgs, the Hi, How Are You Project launches a new lounge to promote mental health conversations and honor recently passed great Daniel Johnston. Also, Austin's oldest restaurant, Scholz Garten, partners to provide pub grub in the Beer Hall.

Check out our daily ACL coverage with previews, reviews, interviews, photos, and more.

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ACL Fest 2019, C3 Presents, Amy Corbin, Margaret Galton, Billie Eilish, Donald Glover, Book More Women, Bonus Tracks, Fight for the Future, ACL Cares

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