Just over a week has passed since a gunman opened fire on attendees at Las Vegas' Route 91 Harvest country music festival as they watched Jason Aldean perform. With 58 killed and hundreds injured, the attack sparked national conversations about how to define terrorism, enacting stricter gun control measures, and festival safety.
Those dialogues inevitably continued throughout the debut weekend of Austin City Limits 2017 (Oct. 6-8), which was the first major U.S. music festival since the Las Vegas shooting. Among participating artists, workers and patrons, the tone almost unanimously veered toward a defiantly optimistic sentiment in the face of the attack.
“There are so many people here -- it’s a victory of life, you know?” said 22-year-old Juan De Bleser of Cologne, Germany during a conversation with Billboard on Sunday. “We’re not afraid. This is our victory. For every one person that is crazy there are a million that want the best for the rest of humanity.”
Juan’s friend, 23-year-old Tesi Aguirre of Monterrey, Mexico expounded upon that enthusiasm by drawing a parallel to the aftermath of the massive earthquake that killed hundreds and injured thousands in her home country just a few weeks prior: “I think that as humans, we strive for safety and things like that, but if you think about it, for example, in Mexico we had an earthquake and no one expected that. They traveled from Puerto Rico,” she added, gesturing to other friends in the group, “and they can tell you a ton of stories about what happened there. And we’re here, right? So you can look at things as natural disasters or manmade disasters, but I think what happened in Vegas is a manmade disaster, and as humans we just have to come together and fight it.” (She later added via text: “Both Puerto Rico and Mexico are still standing, so the U.S. can for once learn something from us. No fear.")
In response to Chicago-based friends who backed out of ACL after hearing the gunman had possibly targeted Lollapalooza (also produced by Austin-based company C3 Presents), 42-year-old April Riggs, a local employee of fest sponsor High Brew Coffee and frequent international fest-goer, echoed that solidarity in her comments to Billboard on Saturday: “I’m not some badass, but I don’t worry about it … I travel the world,” she said. “I did think twice before I got on the London Underground with all the bombings that have happened, but I’m still gonna do it. I’ve been in car wrecks, I’ve been in bike wrecks, and I still ride a bike, and I still drive a car. I equate this the same way – you’re not taking festivals away from me. “
Across the board, people expressed a sense of safety in the liberal hub of Austin and especially at the festival, which is removed from the sightlines of any buildings tall enough to harbor an active shooter. Additionally, ACL underwent stringent safety checks in light of the events in Vegas, according to a statement issued by Austin Police Chief Brian Manley on Oct. 2.
“There will be large number of officers in a concentrated area at this festival,” he said. “Actually, from that perspective, it’s going to be the safest part of the city to be in during both weekends just because of the sheer numbers of officers that will be present.”
Despite those assurances, ACL Fest offered an unprecedented no-questions-asked refund option to ticketholders in the event of any reservations about attending. Organizers informed Billboard on Sunday that refunds were minimal and, in fact, were exceeded by week-of ticket sales.
“It did cross my mind (to get a refund),” said 47-year-old Michael Casamassa of Austin, who spoke to Billboard Friday with his 3-year-old daughter Isabella perched atop his shoulders. “But what ultimately swayed me was that I want to make sure my daughter has all the experiences that she can growing up … to make sure that she’s nurtured and understands the bigger picture of things. We have several friends [who] have kids, and they’re all here. At the end of the day, we have to live our lives and that’s maybe the best message you can send.”
Even 32-year-old Ricky Paredes and 25-year-old Edith Covarruvius of Canyon Lake, TX -- whose close family friends were at the Las Vegas country fest and aided some of those injured in escaping -- said they never considered backing out.
“We bought our tickets on pre-sale before we even knew who was gonna play,” said Paredes. “And we did talk about refunds, but not in a serious way. We knew that we were not going to change our mind about coming to the festival, and when we saw how good security was checking everyone, we felt safe immediately.”
“You can’t always listen to the sensationalism of the media,” added Covarruvius. “If that’s the case, you’re going to be afraid your whole life … because anything can happen anywhere.”
Several performing musicians likewise spoke candidly about defying such fears by upholding live music as a cornerstone of human empathy; JAY-Z reminded fans Friday night that “love will always conquer hate”; Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea referred to it during the band’s Saturday headlining set as “a big fucking bubble of love that protects us all the time"; Vegas group the Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers encouraged people to “[never] let any motherfucker get in the way of what you wanna do”; and rapper Ice Cube took the most head-on tone with his Saturday evening statement: “I'm so happy to be here showing the world that we aren't scared of that bullshit in Las Vegas. I'm glad y'all came … because it's nothing but love here.”
During a backstage interview with Billboard prior to his Friday afternoon performance, Lukas Nelson (eldest son of Willie) added his two cents on the matter by poignantly tying in the passing of Tom Petty the day after the Vegas shooting (the Heartbreakers frontman was honored throughout the weekend by way of various tributes, including Nelson’s own take on “American Girl” to conclude his set).
“Tom Petty dying [after the shooting] really hurt -- it was a double whammy,” he said. “But one positive thing that came out of it, a gift that Tom gave us, is that instead of the fear or the steady kind of lull that we’d all be feeling after this shooting, we got to blare Tom’s music in our cars and homes, and it really lifted my spirits up in another way … I saw a shooting star when he left. I don’t know why he chose to leave when he did, but it kept us out of fear, so I’m grateful to him for that, too.”
Determined to strike down any rationalization to give into fear rather than ardently pursue compassion, Nelson added, “[The Vegas shooting] was an attack on [the way music lifts you up], on the freedom it brings, and we can’t let those people win who would want us to stop gathering in large crowds and having a good time. We have to keep going out in force and spreading love through music.”