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Will large music festivals be back this fall? ACL Fest aims for an October return

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include the Bonnaroo lineup which was announced on March 31. 

After a year spent huddling in our homes unable to gather with small groups of close friends, let alone the thousands of sweaty strangers we used to rock with at concerts and festivals, music lovers are slowly reemerging into the world. As vaccine rollouts continue, more clubs are beginning to open their doors and more artists are playing gigs. But when will music festivals be back? 

Austin's biggest outdoor music festival is banking on a return this fall. The website for Austin City Limits Festival has been updated with a message that says, “We can't wait to see you Oct. 1-3 & 8-10, 2021 back in Zilker Park.”  

Festival organizers have not released any details about capacity or safety restrictions. In a normal year, the festival draws 75,000 people daily to Austin’s city center park. (We have reached out to ACL Fest organizers for comment and will update as we learn more.)

We also don't have any information about who's playing the festival or the going rate for this year's wristbands. That part is not unusual. In pre-pandemic times, we could generally expect a lineup drop and on sale date by late April. 

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ACL Fest normally draws 75,000 people daily to Zilker Park. The festival has announced dates for this fall, but has not released information about capacity restrictions or COVID-19 safety protocols.

Meanwhile, some events across the country remain on hold or have rescheduled because of the pandemic. In January, health officials in California canceled the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival set to take place in April. When the festival, which brings 125,000 revelers to Indio, Calif., was forced to cancel in April 2020, organizers initially aimed for a return in fall of 2020 before pushing to this year. Now, according to a report from entertainment industry publication, Variety, the festival will not take place until April 2022.  

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is another spring tradition that has shifted this year. The event normally takes place in April. This year, it’s scheduled for October 8-17, overlapping the second weekend of ACL Fest. Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival usually takes place in June, but this year the 80,000 capacity music and camping spectacular that takes place in rural Tennessee is aiming for a Sept. 2-5 showing. On March 31, Bonnaroo announced a star-studded lineup that includes Lizzo, Foo Fighters, Tame Impala and Megan Thee Stallion. Tickets to the event are now on sale for $339 for a four-day pass. The website does not include any reference to COVID safety adjustments or protocols. 

At a panel of music venue leaders at the virtual South by Southwest Music Festival this year, Dayna Frank, CEO of First Avenue in Minneapolis, said venue owners in the Midwest are closely watching what happens with ACL Fest’s sister event, Lollapalooza in Chicago. If the event, which generally happens in late July or early August, takes place it could signal the return of large tours to the region. 

“We’re kind of hanging on for the fall,” she said. 

The Chicago Tribune reports that festival co-founder Perry Farrell (lead singer of ‘90s rock outfit Jane’s Addiction) wants the festival back this summer. 

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“If we can all stay on course, get vaccinated, stay socially distanced and masked up, maybe — please, God, maybe — we’ll get to go to Chicago in early August in one capacity or another. If it’s not a giant Lollapalooza, it might be a half-capacity Lollapalooza or no Lollapalooza maybe. But I want there to be a Lollapalooza in some capacity so bad,” Farrell said in an interview with iHeartRadio’s Jason Rockman that was posted to YouTube on March 27.

In an interview in early March, James Moody, owner of the popular Red River Cultural District club the Mohawk, told the Statesman he believes ACL Fest is likely to go forward with some sort of a reduced capacity event.

“They're known for being bold,” he said. “If the numbers work in their favor, they'll do it. If something crazy happens, they still have the room to shut it down. And so, you know, they've got all the way up until the summer to make that decision.”

Moody, who noted his opinions were “just me guessing,” said he believes the return of ACL Fest could be a “bellwether moment” for the Austin music scene at large. 

“I don't envy them,” he said, “because being the first big festival to come back to Austin is risky.” From a public relations standpoint the festival is in a difficult position.

“But if things do go well scientifically in this nation and you're seeing, you know, Austin handle itself properly under the rebound economy happening, if they hit it right at the right time, it might inject the right money and optimism into the community that Austin needs,” he said.

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