Austin City Limits fest already working on encore

Shorter waits for buses, tickets, food are top priorities

By Jonathan Osborne and Michael Corcoran


Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Zilker Park looked a little more like Zilker Park on Monday.

Stages were coming down; trash was getting picked up; portable toilets were being carted off. The grass was a little brown and worn, but it was expected to grow back in about a week with some rain.

Hard to think that only 12 hours earlier, as the Arc Angels closed out the first Austin City Limits Music Festival, Charlie Jones and his staff were washing down success with a bottle of Patron tequila as tens of thousands danced, drank and ate their way to the end of the two-day event.

And by most accounts, Austin's answer to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival -- a comparison even Jones, the event's creator, says gets tossed around a tad too much -- was a success.

But success didn't come without some failures, which organizers already are working on fixing for next year.

Yes, next year.

New Orleans has its Jazz Fest; Newport, its Folk Festival; Seattle hosts Bumbershoot, and it's almost a certainty that the Austin City Limits Music Festival will become an annual event, attracting audiences from all over the country and possibly the world.

"The city wanted and needed this so bad," Jones said.

The maiden festival got off to a rough start when organizers underestimated the crush of fans, which led to long lines and grumbling ticketholders.

But City Parks and Recreation Director Jesus Olivares said the prospects for the city offering Zilker Park to promoters of the event next year look "really good." That announcement could come within a week. Olivares is already talking about changes for future fests.

"Next year, we'll have the shuttle situation all ironed out," he said. "We'll have buses coming from more than one location."

Two days before the event, Jones, of Capital Sports Entertainment, and co-promoter Charles Attal said they needed to sell 60,000 tickets to make their money back on the festival, which cost $1.25 million to produce. "I'm pretty confident that we broke even," Jones said Monday with a sly smile.

That should be an understatement. Final crowd estimates suggest 75,000 trampled into Zilker Park over both days. Organizers ran the show with the help of $2.5 million in borrowed equipment, including 150 walkie-talkies and 30 golf carts. They were joined by 120 security guards, 45 park police officers, 10 medics and hundreds of beer and food vendors.

And there were plenty of upsides for people who bought tickets and took the ride. The bands were timed almost perfectly. Nobody was arrested. Robert Earl Keen, the top-secret special guest act,even slipped in without being noticed until he joined Shawn Colvin on stage. Not to mention that beer and bathroom lines were a breeze.

The show outside the fences went off well, too. People avoided parking along nearby neighborhood streets. And although sound sometimes drifted into adjacent Rollingwood and West Lake Hills, organizers received few noise complaints, save when the Arc Angels did their sound check at 9 a.m. Sunday.

But there was the issue of police ticketing drivers who stopped to drop off event-goers, and there was the waiting: waiting for shuttles, waiting to get tickets, waiting to get into the show and waiting for food.

Capital Metro, which operated the shuttle system from 14th Street and San Jacinto Boulevard, added more buses when it was caught off guard by surging crowds at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Organizers are planning to curb the 90-minute lines in which some patrons waited by adding food vendors next year.

"We had enough food for 25,000 people (per day)," Jones said. "We obviously got killed."

That problem could prove to be a good thing.

"It's obvious now that restaurants will recoup the money they pay for a food booth," Attal said. "The idea is to have some of Austin's best restaurants involved, which I'm sure we'll have more of."

Not everyone was complaining about the underestimated crowd.

"We were slammed all weekend," said David Smith, whose Sweet Leaf Tea Company had a booth. "We had planned on selling about 5,000 bottles of tea and ended up doing twice as much. We had to keep going back to the warehouse until we were completely out of tea."

Every marathon music festival seems to depend on the divergent experiences of those who were there.

Jeff McConaughy, visiting from Albuquerque, N.M., recounted "the debacle at the food court," with his family waiting in line for pizza for two hours while impromptu entrepreneurs were buying pizzas by the tens and selling them at an inflated price at the back of the line. "I've never experienced anything like last night's mess."

V. McConnell e-mailed to say that reported waiting times were wildly exaggerated.

"My daughter called and told me they heard on the radio that there were 2-hour waits for the bus and everything was a mess. This was at about 1:30 on Saturday. Twenty minutes later I was on the bus," the e-mail said.

By Sunday, organizers had worked out most of the kinks.

"The change from Saturday to Sunday was a transformation, because we got one under our belt," production coordinator Dirk Stalnecker said.

Capital Sports Entertainment has a three-year deal with the "Austin City Limits" TV show to use the name in exchange for a percentage of the ticket gross. Neither Capital Sports nor KLRU representatives would disclose that amount.

Unlike South By Southwest, a mostly indoor event that caters to a music industry crowd every March, the Austin City Limits festival is aimed more at mainstream music fans. Students and young adults following the "jam band" scene headed by the likes of String Cheese Incident and Robert Randolph, two of the fest's biggest draws, were juxtaposed with older fans with an affinity for the "quality music" provided by Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Los Lobos.

The music, organizers say, will remain the festival's crowning feature.

"I had some of the bands say this is one of the best (music festivals) they've ever done," Stalnecker said. "They couldn't believe it was our first one. There's definitely room to grow here. And we learned a lot."