How Austin Became a Favorite Festival Destination
Written by John T. Davis
In the beginning, there was the Austin Aqua Festival. In the end, it was lame.
What began in 1962 as a fun, hometown salute to Austin’s river-and-lakes aquatic benison, featuring a Little Miss Aquafest beauty contest, themed music nights and water parades, sputtered to a halt 36 years later in a dusty welter of overpriced concert acts, political acrimony and red ink.
That was then.
As Aquafest was entering its last painful throes, a handful of upstarts inspired by a New York music conference conceived of a “spring break for the music business,” and South By Southwest made its debut in 1987.
Today, thanks in large measure to SXSW and the Austin Film Festival (now in its 18th year), the Texas Book Festival (founded in 1995) and the Austin City Limits Festival (which turns 10 this year), the city has become a year-round festival destination.
Austinites, especially those living in the newly minted condo towers downtown and the neighborhoods south of the river, can’t seem to swing a dead cat without hitting some doofus with a laminated pass and a swag bag.
There is a festival seemingly every month, sometimes every week, and the diversity is astonishing: biker rallies, food-and-wine festivals, gay-pride festivals, film festivals, gay film festivals, barbeque festivals, yoga festivals, Jewish book festivals, hot-sauce festivals, and music festivals of such profusion and variety as to blow the mind and numb the ear. The city sometimes seems to exist mostly as a backdrop for one group of black-clad out-of-towners after another (“grackles with credit cards,” as writer Michael Corcoran once characterized the SXSW crowd).
A seven-page, single-spaced printout from the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau lists no less than 35 festivals during the course of 2011, and that is far from a complete list of events. (By comparison, the traveltex.com state tourism website lists approximately 247 festival events throughout the state).
“I never really have to sell Austin,” says Clay Smith, literary director of the Texas Book Festival, who travels to New York every year to meet with publishers and agents. “It sells itself. It has this sort of vibe for New Yorkers and people in L.A. They want to go to Barton Springs, to South Congress, to East Sixth Street.”
Rose Reyes, director of music marketing for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees, adding that people are drawn to Austin, thanks to its reputation as a place to have fun, be yourself and unwind.
“People really come to Austin to take it all in,” she says. “They really plan their visits around where they’re going to get their breakfast tacos. We’re a festival capital, and we love it; it helps us tell our story. People might come to ACL or SXSW, but they fall in love with the city and want to come back.”
Lindsay Hoffman, festival marketing manager for C3 Presents, which produces the Austin City Limits Music Festival, concurs, saying the citizenry plays an essential part in making the city desirable.
“I genuinely think it’s the people of Austin that make this a top destination for festivals,” she says. “Austinites are hospitable, helpful and warm, and that is so important because it’s not just what happens at the festivals, but at the coffee shop and the hotel and the gas station.”
But is it too much of a good thing?
“You’re asking the wrong person,” Reyes says. “We [the ACVB]love the city to be busy, for the hotels and restaurants and live music venues to be full at all times.”
Reyes does say the city is beginning to ration the use of popular parks such as Waterloo Park or Zilker by festival producers.
“Downtown residents might complain about the Republic of Texas biker rally or SXSW, but that’s why people want to move to Austin and live downtown,” says Reyes, who personally looks forward to the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, the Pachanga Latino Music Festival, the Fun Fun Fun Fest and the East Austin Studio Tour each year. “It’s vibrant. It’s alive. It’s a mixture of visitors and residents, and we don’t want to change that.”
It’s not only downtown-based citizens who feel jostled. Sometimes the festivals jostle up against one another. This year, for the first time, the Texas Book Festival and the Austin Film Festival are overlapping the same weekend in October. The juxtaposition has to do with UT’s football schedule. A Longhorn home game trumps everything in terms of sold-out hotel space. Organizers of the TBF, AFF and the Austin City Limits Music Festival have to float their festivals’ dates around the university’s away-game schedule, which changes each year.
Making the best of the situation, the book festival and the film festival have been working hard to create complementary programming that will allow fans at each fest to sample the other.
“It’s a really beautiful partnership because it’s two festivals that are devoted to writing,” says TBF’s Smith, alluding to the Austin Film Festival’s focus on screenwriting. “There’s a real affinity there.”
To the Austin Film Festival’s executive director and co-founder Barbara Morgan, the city has a collection of elements that make it a festival magnet.
“I think part of it is the weather, that we live in a truly beautiful place [where]people want to come. There’s a thriving art and creative community — a maverick culture. People come here to be outside and to experience that creative culture. One way that culture is manifested is through festivals.”
Then there is the university, and that endless well of engaged, excited young people.
“You cannot disregard UT in the formula of how we manage to have so many of these kinds of events and why so many of them have become successful,” Morgan says. “There’s a constant pool of potential volunteers and interns, and a constant pool of ticket-buyers — all new, all young, all excited about your event.”
Back in 1987, Roland Swenson didn’t have an event to be excited about, so he created his own. Along with co-founders Louis Jay Meyers and The Austin Chronicle’s publisher Nick Barbaro and editor Louis Black, Swenson was intrigued by the idea of a music-industry festival and conference modeled on New York City’s New Music Seminar. The end product, of course, was SXSW.
“When I attended NMS, one of the things that impressed me about it was the festival and the nightclubs,” says Swenson, SXSW’s managing director. “I thought, this could happen in Austin. Austin had the diversity of musical styles that made it unusual and desirable. And we had the venues. … When we started out, we said, this will be great for Austin’s economy, but that wasn’t our primary goal. We wanted to create an event that would expose people to interesting new things and familiar old things in one setting. I think that’s one of the draws of a successful festival: creating a critical mass by drawing all of these creative people together in one place at one time.”
Today, SXSW (which is actually three overlapping events highlighting music, film and interactive media) is the chain-smoking, over-caffeinated, cellphone-yammering, so-hip-I’m-bored-shitless 800-pound gorilla on the city’s cultural calendar. Happening as it does each March, running concurrently with Rodeo Austin and the University Interscholastic League sports competitions, SXSW turns the city into a loud and festive parking lot for pretty much the entire month.
The economic impact of SXSW and the other March events is staggering. According to the Austin Music Office, SXSW 2008 had an economic impact of $110 million, making it the city’s highest revenue-producing special event.
The Austin American-Statesman broke out some numbers for March of this year in a story published on May 15: $73.8 million in hotel receipts; 801,553 logged through at ABIA, a record; $20.8 million in wine, liquor and beer sales in downtown bars and restaurants. Not bad for one 30-day stretch in an otherwise unremarkable month.
Swenson, for his part, is not surprised at the proliferation of festivals in the city. Just look around, he says.
“Austin’s culture has always had a cosmopolitan atmosphere because of the people who come here from all around the world to teach or study at UT,” he says. “And the demographic here is pretty young, and the income is on the higher side. So you’ve got this young, active population that likes to go out and do things.”
The other big pole in the festival tent is, of course, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, which will take place Sept. 16 through 18 this year at Zilker Park. Originally founded, in part, to help build out the brand of the long-running PBS music series of the same name, the ACL Music Festival has become the rare festival entity that sells out each year, even before the lineup is announced. This year’s 10th-anniversary affair spans generations, with headliners ranging from Stevie Wonder to Kanye West.
Fans at ACL have complained of crowding and inconvenience almost since the festival’s inception. But C3’s Hoffman says the organic nature of the festival experience and the changing fortunes of the acts themselves make it impossible to precisely control events like crowd flow.
“Every year, we conduct a fan survey and use the feedback as a jumping-off point to make the festival experience even better than the prior year,” Hoffman says. “But at the end of the day, there are certain things we can’t control like a lesser-known band gaining a huge following and changing the anticipated flow of traffic in the park.”
Like SXSW, ACL is an economic powerhouse. Last year, according to economic consulting firm Angelou Economics, the festival poured some $73.7 million into the city’s economy.
Those are the sorts of numbers the city cannot ignore, especially in these difficult economic times. To that end, the City, the Austin Police Department, the Austin Music Office, the Parks Department and the ACVB have developed close working relationships with festival producers, helping with street closures, outdoor gathering logistics, hotel bookings and other infrastructure minutiae.
“When we started the Austin Film Festival in the early 1990s, I don’t think this was the direction the city was planning to go,” says AFF’s Morgan. “They were trying to lure all this high-tech business and looking at business models that were more traditional. Now they’ve picked up on the fact that, wow, this [festival industry]is a business model, too, and it’s bringing people to town.”
So, the Austin festival calendar stays booked. But might there be room for one more itsy-bitsy little festival? Something fun and accessible, homegrown, funky, indigenous to our landscape and even a little (dare we say it) weird? Maybe something with boats and a floating night parade and pretty girls in bathing suits and some mix of local music, be it Tejano corridos or east side blues or German oom-pah polkas.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to close the circle with a new old-fashioned Austin Aqua Festival.