Austin City Limits (via Instagram / @foraggio)
Ah music festivals. You either love them, or you hate them. In Australia, I’m unfortunately starting to fall into the latter camp, thanks to a combination of rule-hungry authorities and the largely immature people they attract Down Under, most of whom seem more interested in getting drunk and stupid than they do listening to some great live music in the great outdoors.
I’ve been to a few festivals, and most recently attended Austin City Limits Music Festival which, after Iceland Airwaves, is arguably the best I’ve ever experienced. It runs across two weekends, featuring some great and diverse acts, and caters for a huge crowd of music lovers. Attendance in 2013 averaged 75,000 per day, and I suspect this year was no different, despite a rainy second Saturday that probably kept a few at home. Sunday, though, was rammed full.
But there were no crazy lines for food, toilets or drinks. Everything seemed to work really well. And from what I saw, there was very little trouble – no fights between shirtless teens fuelled with bravado after a couple of light beers and ready to punch on. There were no kids slumped over kerbs, wrapped in the consoling arms of their slightly less inebriated friends. Why this is even more amazing than you might expect is that on the ground, the presence of police and security was so minimal, I barely knew they were there.
At the entrance, a few cops on pushbikes made sure people got in OK. They helped with directions and “policed” the crowd, as they should. There were no dogs sniffing everyone for drugs. No surrounding of frightened kids, intimidating them with questions about their age, or some other nonsense. There was a bag check at the entrance, of course, but once inside, nothing of note to deter you from having a great time. Get inside and enjoy yourself was the general feeling from everyone.
And the whiff of weed was thick at every stage, but no cops or stewards came rushing through the crowds to eject those partaking in green-tinged pleasures, and it’s not even legal in Texas yet. Indeed, festival goers passed around their joints reasonably freely, stranger to stranger, striking up great chats in the process, with smiles and laughter the result, not insults and fists. Kids walked through the park with parents. Babies were carried in slings or backpacks, their little ears protected by mufflers. I saw enough prams in there to suggest a creche was running nearby, too. In fact, come to think of it, Austin Kiddie Limits is in there, providing fun for families away from the crowds as well. Kids under 10 get in free with a fully-paid adult. Genius!
People carried camping chairs inside, rugs, mats, chilling by the stages of their choosing. Groups had flag bearers to make them easy to spot from distance, flown on extendable posts that stretched high in the air. Beer was full strength, beyond full strength in the craft beer tent, where alcohol volumes in some of the tipples nudged the 9 per cent mark.
And when the music played, everyone seemed genuinely interested in it, sang along, commented to each other on the merits of what they were hearing, regardless of whether they knew you or not. No mindless chat about boyfriend trouble in your ear, but a respectful crowd, all there to listen and enjoy. Each stage even had a signer for the deaf, who danced and rocked on while also signing the lyrics of Pearl Jam’s powerful tunes, or Eminem’s angry raps. I’ve never seen that before, but it was brilliant.
As an experience, Austin City Limits was as pleasant as any I’ve encountered, musically or otherwise. This city’s reputation as the “live music capital of the world” has been deservedly earned, and more than 200 live venues in this relatively small place is testament to that. People here know their shit, and love it in equal measure, and they often can’t wait to share their love of it with anyone who will listen.
So why am I bringing this all up? With the summer festival season coming soon to Australia, I guess this is an appeal of sorts to authorities there perhaps to come here to Austin and learn how to run an outdoor music event properly, not in the amateurish fashion in which they do now.
Everything that is done at the entrance of Big Day Out, St Jerome’s Laneway, and other festivals I’ve been to in Australia, was pretty much not done at Austin City Limits. No dogs, no confiscation of chairs, flags or water bottles. No over-zealous ejections when joints were lit up. No drink tokens that never add up. Police helped people rather than looking to bust them for something trivial. Stewards did the same, and danced along when they could to the music.
Conversely, local authority thinking in Australia seems to dictate that if you remove the fun before it’s even started, everything will be all right. However, that tactic generally tends to put your average festival goer offside. It promotes the very thing it’s designed to avoid – trouble.
Kids try to sneak things in, get angry when they’re caught out, drink too much because they’re upset about being policed so tightly, bad elements turn up to exploit those kids further, and the whole thing generally turns to crap inside a fews hours. The music plays on in the background, but it’s almost a sideshow at times to the behaviour of the buffoons in attendance.
And I remember at Laneway this year umbrellas being confiscated at the entrance. And it was raining in Sydney. I mean seriously. What the hell? “Bring a poncho,” they tell you. Umbrellas do get in the way for other festival goers, admittedly, but you get my point. People wear Camelbacks at Austin. And guess what; they fill them with water!! Would never happen in Australia. Off your back and in the bin. You can also pass in and out of ACL five times in a day if you want. No pass outs of Australian festivals. Why?
It’s depressing when you know it can be done so much better. So come on, Australia. Why not practice the laid back attitude the world misguidedly things characterises our nation. Make festivals worth going to. Provide some venues for bands in Sydney particularly. Renovate pokie rooms into live venues. Toss out the machines and bring back the humans. Loosen the reins on us all. Let life be lived, rather than controlled.
It’s not going to hurt us. On the contrary, it’ll improve us greatly.