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ACL Fest 2013: The Lionel Richie Conundrum

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Chad Swiatecki

Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 6, 2013

First, let’s admit the obvious. The release of the schedule for this year’s Austin City Limits Festival brought an awful lot of head scratching when Lionel Richie’s name appeared as the closing act on Sunday night.

For a large chunk of the ACL Fest customer base Richie is a familiar name but one most of them haven’t thought very much about in 10 or so years. And so despite the success of last year’s platinum-selling “Tuskegee,” Richie is a not-quite-nostalgia act playing the time slot that’s always been given to the festival’s top one or two headliners.

Let’s establish that despite a catalog of undeniable hits, Richie is in no way a headliner on this lineup. That is, he’s not an act whose appearance on the festival roster was enough to make fans lay out the $225 for a three-day pass to this year’s fest.

Looking at the 2013 ACL Fest poster there were five acts – Depeche Mode, The Cure, Muse, Kings of Leon and Atoms For Peace – billed higher than Richie, putting him in a solid position but more as a returning curiosity than a main draw. Strike one.

More evidence comes from a look at the festival’s scheduling app and totaling up how many fans added assorted acts to their personal schedule. I did this for four years here at 360 before retiring the ACL Fest Buzzmeter for 2013, but the underlying logic holds that fans “add” acts they want to see, and by that measure Richie isn’t even in the top 10.

If you use Buzzmeter rankings as a guide then Muse, Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Kings of Leon and Passion Pit are this year’s top draws and Richie falls in behind downbill acts like Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys, Wilco, Fun. and Kendrick Lamar. Buzzmeter rankings are an imperfect guide, of course, since gadget users who tend toward younger and indie bands are the dominant users, but in looking at five years of lineups there’s never been a Sunday nighy closing act lower than sixth (The Eagles, in 2010). Strike two.

And headliners get two hours by themselves at this festival, always. The Cure got two hours on Saturday night. Atoms For Peace will get two hours on Sunday night for a set on the other side of Zilker Park that largely overlaps with Richie’s 90 minutes. Strike three.

So how does this happen?

The answer might turn out to be logistics and the dynamics of controlling 75,000 or so people.

Think about what happens as soon as the festival ends with an off-the-charts performance delivered via a clear headliner like Pearl Jam, Arcade Fire or Tom Petty. You get a mostly full Zilker Park bottlenecked with the entire crowd moving in one direction at once, putting a strain on crowd management resources like police and other personnel, shuttles, lavatory facilities, etc.

Compare that with what’s likely to happen on Sunday night, when lots of festivalgoers will take a look at the post-sundown options and see Richie or Atoms For Peace. A fair amount will choose one or the other, head to the appropriate side of Zilker Park and take it all in. But a not insignificant chunk will head for the exits (since Monday mornings come early), thereby emptying the park in more manageable waves instead of one massive post-headliner crush.

It’s a savvy bit of counterintuitive booking that will create a pleasing wind down for those who stay (let’s not overlook the fact that Richie’s still an arena-level act whose Bonnaroo set drew raves) and those who pack it in, ending the 2013 fest’s first weekend with an ellipses instead of an exclamation point.