Yesterday, the lineup for this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival was announced, and I was generally impressed with what I saw, though not immediately. After taking us back to 1994 with Dave Matthews Band last year, festival organizers decided that further time travel would be appropriate, as The Eagles are slated to be this year’s headliners. That’s right, your dad’s favorite band is headlining ACL. Equally as puzzling are the other two headlining acts, Muse and Phish. The former gained popularity in the US with their association to a certain vampire franchise, while the latter will likely divulge into 20 minute jam sessions, resulting in a total of three songs during their set. I guess organizers are counting on Phish-heads spending a lot of money that weekend.

Of course, like last year, the lineup really takes form when you ignore the headliners. With bands such as The National, Spoon, Sonic Youth, LCD Soundsystem,  The xx, The Flaming Lips, and The Strokes, and artists like M.I.A. and The Mountain Goats, this year’s lineup is stacked with quality acts that will make paying a scalper an inflated price for a three-day pass worth it. Of course, there were a few surprising omissions this year. Pavement, who may never make a Texas stop on their reunion tour, were not on the bill, as well as The Arcade Fire, who are touring again after a two year hiatus. This makes me all the more interested to see what Fun Fun Fun Fest will offer come November.

While this year’s fest looks to be a real winner, I say it with a heavy heart, as music festivals like ACL and SXSW are both a blessing and a curse for the Austin music scene. These festivals have done wonders for the Austin economy. Just ask any hotel manager or bartender on 6th Street, and they will tell you that these festivals often garner them the most business. Additionally, they have established the city as one of the most important music markets in the country. If you can make it in Austin, you can make it almost anywhere. However, there are many drawbacks to these extravaganzas that make me uneasy as a music fan and as an Austin resident.

One of my problems with festivals is that you don’t get to experience the bands in their full element. With the exception of headlining acts, most of these groups only get to play 25-30 minute sets, as they are on a rigid schedule to make sure things don’t fall too far behind. This sort of rushed environment can have a direct effect on them, as they are forced to play condensed set lists and have very little time for interaction with the crowd. They also have the added burden of competing with groups on other stages, and as a result, only the group’s biggest fans will stay around for their entire set. While these festivals are a good opportunity for groups to make money, they will unlikely be held as their favorite gigs.

Secondly, as a  concert goer, a festival experience is far less intimate than seeing a band play an established venue. The open spaces and gigantic crowds can make it hard for people to hear, let alone see, the groups that they paid at least $85 (the price for a one-day ticket) to watch. Oftentimes, getting close for a band that you really want to see means claiming your spot early at the expense of experiencing another group’s set. Also, much of the atmosphere created by a venue, like the easy going vibe of the Mohawk or the old-time feel of the Parish, is absent at outdoor festivals like ACL. Your experience is more likely defined by the weather or your tolerance to Dillo Dirt than the music.

Perhaps the most distressing thing about the culture of festivals that surrounds Austin is that they keep many bands from coming to Austin at different times of the year. While some bands will play shows independent of the festivals around the same time, most groups use them as the Austin stop on their tours. For example, The Decemberists gave a full show at Houston’s House of Blues the night before they played ACL last year. The festival appearance was their only performance in Austin in 2009, and there’s no doubt that many of their fans who couldn’t afford a ticket were left out in the cold. The same was true for Arctic Monkeys and several other groups. This year, this will most likely be the case for The National, who as of now have no plans for Texas outside of their ACL appearance. This means that many people who have waited since 2008 to see the group will have to pray they come in Spring, assuming they don’t choose to do SXSW. As someone who goes to a lot of shows, this is infinitely frustrating.

When you’re a city that bills yourself as the Live Music Capital of the World, one would assume that quality bands would be coming at all times of the year. However, cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are more common tour stops for many of these bands, and their only interactions with Austin will be at festivals like ACL and SXSW. These festivals are murder on the pocketbook, and do not provide the same experience as seeing a band at a venue. While I will do everything I can to be at this year’s Austin City Limits, I would rather see a band play The Mohawk any day of the week.

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