[27 June 2013]
Rock ‘n’ roll has always been about excess, and nothing is more excessive than the summer festival. Still, a critical examination of the east coast’s newest and most ambitious upstart, Red Frog Media’s Firefly Festival, begs one to question if all the excess isn’t perhaps too much.
On the face of things, the Firefly Festival is about the music. It is about the music, right? Well, yes and no. The Chicago-based Red Frog Media came into existence in 2007. Until last year’s inaugural event at the Dover International Speedway in Delaware, Red Frog had focused almost exclusively on fun runs and other sport-related fundraisers for various charities. The vision behind the Firefly Music Festival was a bold foray by a largely uninitiated company into the festival market.
And ‘market’ is the proper terminology here. It isn’t hard to see that along with the rise of digital consumption, super festivals have proliferated. There was a time when the three-day mega event hosting every single popular group on the radio was relegated to a handful of big names that drew national attention. There was Woodstock and Live Aid, for instance: neither was annual, both were very big deals. At the same time there were regional events that operated on a much smaller scale. The Newport Folk Festival has been running almost without interruption since the ‘50s. The same goes for the New Orleans Jazz Fest. But everything began to change in the ‘90s.
Region by region, festivals were becoming the norm. Chicago’s Lollapalooza was one of the first to offer multiple stages, and a little multimedia festival based out of Austin, TX called South by Southwest was a mere shadow of the weeks-long, city-wide effort it is today. As the millennium approached even more festivals began to pop up. Coachella gave the Altamont-stained west coast a late introduction to legitimacy, but not before beating out the mid-Atlantic’s Bonnaroo. At present, there are over 2,500 separate media, cultural, and event festivals in North America alone. That brings us to Firefly, the most recent and perhaps most ambitious of them all, which returns us to the normally quiet and unassuming NASCAR fairgrounds in Delaware.
As a town, Dover’s previous claim to fame was a small shout-out in the cult classic Wayne’s World. But thanks to the Firefly Festival, that may soon change. For 2012’s inaugural event, 30,000 people descended upon town. This year, that number swelled to well over 60,000, nearly twice the population of Dover. If organizers are to be believed, next year’s turnout will double that. In a pre-show press conference, Delaware Governor Jack Markell noted the $12 million in capital generated at the first year’s event. You do the math. Double that, then double it again for next year’s projected growth.
Since we’re on the subject of numbers, process this. Firefly is a three-day event with four main stages that showcased 72 billed artists this year alone. Median ticket price for the weekend ran around $260 per head, dependent on timing and not including lodging or other travel expenses. Add corporate sponsorship from Heineken, Toyota and many other multinationals and the bottom line becomes very attractive for both the local community and the industrious people of Red Frog.
Festivals are big business, and with the ongoing decline in NASCAR ticket sales in a flagging economy it seems the fairgrounds at Dover Motor Speedway were ripe for an event like Firefly. Greed is a bottomless pit, but there’s no reason to compare Red Frog to Halliburton yet. It’s also much easier to feel good about the waste of a rock n’ roll lifestyle after noting the six million dollars Red Frog has raised for St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital since 2007 through events like Firefly. Furthermore, it gets hard to look at growth as a four-letter word when one considers the positive economic impact on the hyper-local community of Dover. So, if the site is available and the market exploitable, if there’s room for growth and the entertainment promised is equal to the ticket price, is there any reason not to be excited by Firefly’s success?
Commercially it makes all the sense in the world. But we’re forgetting the human element in all this. To the audience is all the hassle really worth it? Although this year’s event saw a curb in what could be described as year one’s paramount technical failures, Firefly still wasn’t without faults in its execution. Mass confusion amongst staff and the logistical nightmare created by the swell of 60,000 attendees all jockeying for position on high profile acts was burdensome. Three days of excessive consumption, little sleep and sweltering temperatures was pure exhaustion. I’m sure many in the crowd began to appreciate the freedom and ease of just listening to the radio at home.
To foreshadow everything, two of the most anticipated acts dropped out before the first power chord was ever struck. All respect to Friday’s headliners the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and bassist Flea’s hand-walking abilities, but it’s questionable whether another opportunity to see the Lumineers or Earl Sweatshirt will arise. Replacement act Ben Harper softened the blow somewhat, but his lackluster performance was still a disappointment. And while various acts like Matt and Kim, Sister Sparrow and the UK’s Django Django surprised by the vitality of their performances, their underdog energy and crowd-riling showmanship, other more highly anticipated sets fell short of expectations.
The worst offender was MGMT, who took the energy of an exuberant crowd, combined it with an impressive light show and then merely loitered on stage. Then there was the ongoing tragedy of Passion Pit, whose lead singer Michael Angelakos just couldn’t seem to catch a break. Many are familiar with the psychological and medical issues he’s experienced in the past 18 months. Last year Passion Pit cancelled last minute. This year, mid-song “Little Secrets,” his voice cracked then gave out completely. Sadly, the set ended 30 minutes early. What was more frustrating was Dan Deacon’s set. The artist did absolutely nothing wrong, was presenting nothing less than his very best when the sound system gave out on him repeatedly. The frustration wrought across his face as he hurled accusations at the Firefly technicians was that of righteous indignation, an emotion he honestly couldn’t be blamed for.
So was it worth it? All the time, the exhaustion, and one must never forget the money? Rhetoric holds no answers, but I can tell you there was a little piece of the Lord in the performance of Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. I’d do it all over again for the pure emotive expression on her sweet face, the gut wrenching pain and ineffable beauty in her brand of blues-infused gospel pop. There’s very little potential for artist connection in a crowd of 60,000, but if anyone had the power of presence to instill a sense of shared intimacy amidst the throng, it was Ms. Howard.
Another feeling that won’t be easily shook was offered up by the Avett Brothers. Few other acts had the ability to crush with lows and lift with highs, sometimes both within the span of the same four minute song, as this southern quartet. And as critical and experienced as we all like to think we are, there was something magical about dancing along to “American Girl.” It is a song that likely played some small part in the very conception of many of the twenty-something attendees. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers might be old news when compared to the glut of young and exciting new groups, but we’ll see about Foster the People or Kendrick Lamar in another five years. Mr. Petty is a legend, not an act.
Festivals mean big money, and while Firefly doesn’t do much to separate itself from the other big names, it does accomplish the basic agenda of a major festival. It squeezes everything the casual fan could possibly want out of the last year’s worth of pop music into the span of a single event. Firefly was a good excuse to let the frat boy get just as weird as he’s always wanted to be. It allowed shy girls to show a little skin and perhaps imbibe a chemical they really knew they shouldn’t. Festivals bring new generations into the music fold, they place families and CEOs into the ranks shoulder to shoulder with hopeless dreamers and hippy drifters. They’re either the best or they’re the worst, and since I don’t have to choose, I guess I won’t. But what is certain is the ten year lease on the festival grounds. Firefly will be in Dover next year - so will all the fans, all the bands and all the hype. Whether the motivation behind it is as bleak as the bottom dollar or solely focused on the captivating power of live music is yet to be seen, but it might as well be enjoyed.