ACL Music Fest Marks Return of Major In-Person Events in Austin
By Tara Phipps
Photography By Tara Phipps
After a year off due to COVID-19, Austin City Limits Music Festival made it back onto Zilker Park grounds just in time for it’s 20th anniversary.
As the threat of COVID continues to evolve in our communities each day, there have been several debates about the shift back towards in-person events. After the festival announced it would be back for 2021, petitions took to the internet to get the event cancelled due to the turbulent nature of COVID in Austin. On Sept. 28, the city of Austin issued the permits to hold the event and both weekends brought in large crowds.
John Kunz, owner of Waterloo Records, has been attending ACL since its founding. Originally, his tent was meant to help sell band merchandise, but soon became a popular destination for artists’ signings and interactions with fans.
Last year, when ACL cancelled it’s event for the first time since its founding, was also the first time Kunz and Waterloo Records didn’t get to participate in the festival. He had expected to come back this year, but as COVID variants created a new problem for the public, he made the decision not to attend.
“I think ACL put some great practices in place, in terms of requiring a 72-hour negative COVID test or a vaccination card for admission,” Kunz said. “But the part they also had in place I knew wouldn’t be adhered to is everyone had to wear a mask and keep it on unless they were eating or drinking.”
Per safety guidelines, attendees were required to wear masks where social distancing was difficult. This included shuttle buses, crowds and lines. Despite offering free masks at each gate entry, few citizens complied with this guideline once they were through the gates. In the Texas heat in the middle of a mosh pit, masks were nowhere to be seen.
“It was really tough to tell them after being there every year since the beginning that we were gonna take a pass this year,” Kunz said. “But I couldn’t take the chance with my staff or with band members.”
Stevie Nicks, originally a headliner for ACL, tweeted out an apology to fans, stating she was going to cancel all five performances she had scheduled for 2021 due to rising COVID concerns. She added her primary goal was to stay healthy so she could continue to perform, and wanted to be extremely cautious.
Miley Cyrus, another headliner for the event, came to ACL with a different perspective. In the middle of her set during the second weekend, she talked about the pandemic.
“A lesson we’ve all learned is that change is constant. I think we all learned that during the pandemic. It felt like it was never going to end, but it did. Here we are.”
During an Austin Public Health Q&A, Dr. Desmar Walkes said there were only four COVID cases as a result of weekend one of ACL. She added the event organizers planned to add audio reminders and more signage for weekend two, and anticipated low case numbers from the festival.
While ACL hasn’t been over long enough to decide if it was a super-spreader, several similar events have been held in the United States that could be a model for how ACL could affect Austin.
Lollapalooza, a music festival held in Chicago, had over 385,000 people in attendance and less than 300 of those attendees were infected with COVID. According to reports, the event was not seen as a super-spreader.
ACL gets a similar attendance number, about 400,000 people across the two-weekend event, so it’s likely to see similar numbers, if not lower considering the initial weekend one health report.
For small businesses, like Teysha World, ACL was the first big opportunity for sales since the pandemic.
“The pandemic took away business for a whole year,” Travis Breihan, one of the founders of Teysha World, said. “But ACL has always been a major supporter of small business in Austin. We’re thankful for their support.”
Emily Swietlike, an artist working with Teysha World, was excited about the opportunity to sell at ACL, but wary of the possibility of contracting COVID.
“I’m a COVID-conscious person,” she said. “To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be at the festival if I weren’t working and helping to support the women in Guatemala.”
While event organizers continued to attempt to create safe regulations due to COVID concerns, the crowds seemed to be mostly concerned about enjoying the music, with few attendees worried about keeping their masks on or social distancing at the stages.
Sofia Trevino, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, wanted to go to ACL to see her favorite artists live. Trevino said she felt ACL did a good job of keeping everyone safe at the event through their requirements, but still noticed a lack of masks while she was there.
“I get it’s hot, but it’s also scary to be around all those people,” she said. “During Billie Eillish’s set, one girl kept sneezing behind me [and] didn’t have a mask on.”
Trevino added she thought she could be safe and wore her mask despite the heat, and even though the threat of COVID was still there, it was cool to see everybody in one place jamming out and having fun.
“So much great music is coming out of our city,” Kunz said. “The festival influences the global music industry.”
ACL is part of the cutting edge music scene in Austin of making breakout artists, Kunz added, and while Waterloo Records was unable to attend this year, he is excited to join back next year and be a part of this important piece of Austin’s music culture.