In Defense of Music Festival Fatigue

In July 1985, Midge Ure and Bob Geldof put together Live Aid, an event set simultaneously in Philadelphia and London, aimed at raising money for those suffering under the Ehthiopian famine. Its global audience topped out at just under two billion people. Every big-name musical act in the world signed up for the thing. Phil Collins made history by performing at both concerts in the same day. Freddie Mercury and Brian May ran through “Is This The World We Created?”. Whatever The Four Tops were offered up a quick and inspired five-song set that featured both “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”. David Bowie rocked “Heroes”. Sting sat in on “Money for Nothing”. “We Are the World” happened. 

By no means was this the first or fifth mega-star music festival the world had seen, of course. Woodstock changed popular culture about 15 years beforehand, remember. Then, there was what happened when the Altamont Speedway tried its hand at the whole multi-band day-long gathering phenomenon in December 1969. And this, don’t forget, was all preceded by 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival, which essentially became the template for all music festivals in the history of mankind. The Who, Otis Redding and Jimi Hendrix were just a few of the artists that helped get the entire practice off the ground.

Still, something seemed to change in 1985 when the star wattage alone from both Philly and London could have lit an entire country for days. The notion that this type of thing could benefit noble causes throughout the world proved as pivotal a moment as any when reading through the history of the music festival. Need to raise money for clean water in Africa? Call up U2, find a large, open field and watch as tens of thousands of people gladly fork over $200 a ticket to see their favorite bands perform shortened sets after the flavor of the moment finally makes it through their one hit you needed to see live.

Cynical as it may be, there is some very real validation to be found beneath such a sentence, shoehorned between the barrage of do-gooder rock stars, their kind-hearted causes and the sentiment of music festival fatigue. And with the month of June now upon us, we find ourselves right in the thick of a summer slate of live music that at this point has become as redundant as it is lazy. Whereas the art of the music festival was once something music nerds could obsess over for weeks, the corporate influence of these events has made everything from Coachella to Bonaroo an exercise in apathy and a lesson in saturation. 

“What marks 2013 out as a real worry for any self-respecting promoter, though, is the sense that the jig really is up this time, that greed and the bottom line have taken over any other priorities for good,” the man behind the blog Endless Window wrote recently. “The problems are obvious, yet nobody seems willing to address them. With too few acts to go around too many festivals, it’s inevitable that not every bill that’s advertised will be in a position to go ahead. … The established names and the cult names that have already established a reputation for excellence are likely to survive, but unless a festival can offer something genuinely unique … people aren’t going to want to go. The trickle of crowds away from British festivals towards European festivals with similar line-ups but a friendlier infrastructure and a greater sense of novelty will continue, the pool of headliners for the major festivals will become narrower and narrower, and with higher costs and fewer paying customers, corners are bound to be cut even further.” (“Festival Fatigue: Why 2013 Is Where Festivals Go to Die”.)

Indeed, what used to be the best part of the calendar year for live music enthusiasts has now become bogged down by predictability, inconvenience, conformity, and outrageous costs that keep the everyday, 9-to-5 blue collar fan away from the gate. Don’t believe me? Check out what the brilliant people at the website Nerd Wallet recently found when analyzing three different summer music fests. In addition to calculating which music festival gives customers the best value for their hard-earned money (Austin City Limits), the site also determined which gathering you might want to check out if your main interest is electronic dance music (Lollapalooza), and which act has the highest value of all artists slated to perform at the three events mentioned (Paul McCartney at Outside Lands, coming in at $154.33). (“Summer Music Fests: Which is the Best Bang for Your Buck?”, by Mike Anderson, 28 May 2013)

Actually, while such is an awfully neat way to reduce the summer festival landscape to a set of numbers and proposed value, maybe the bigger question at the core of the website’s findings lies within something almost too fundamental to be considered for dissection. That question? Wait — there are that many acts that overlap that much at each of the three festivals studied in this experiment?

It’s true. The highest valued artist for both ACL and Lollapalooza happen to be the same band: The Cure. Nine Inch Nails appears near the top of the list for both Lollapalooza and Outside Lands. Want to see D’Angelo on his comeback trek? Austin City Limits and Outside Lands will give you that opportunity. Might Phoenix or Vampire Weekend be groups that make you decide which concert you will favor over the other? Too bad — both are appearing at all three festivals under this microscope. Kendrick Lamar. The National. Kaskade. All of them are set to appear during at least two of the three events at hand. 

Yep. These days, music festival overlapping isn’t just a necessary evil; it’s a necessary necessity. With so many of these things curated throughout not only North America, but the world, it’s become impossible for festivals to offer any sense of exclusivity. More so, the practice itself has been emulated so consistently that promoters would be foolish to not include the buzzy names that typically appear on these types of bills. Or, in other words, you can justify giving St. Lucia a spot during the day only if you bring in Phoenix later that night, much like Lollapalooza is set to do in August.

Why is that? Because like it or not, there will still be a large number of people in the Chicago area who would like to see the French dance-rockers, and this midwest fest may be their only opportunity to do so. The conflict? Those who aren’t based in the Chicago area — though still find enjoyment in traveling along the festival circuit through the summer months — will have little to no reason to make the rounds, cheapening a vital part of the festival-going experience.

Maybe more problematic is how deep the artists themselves have invested in this bursting bubble. It has become more and more common in recent years for touring acts to announce a summer itinerary that is based almost entirely around festivals. On one hand, it’s hard to blame the musicians at hand because of how lucrative these propositions are and how wide the reach may extend. On the other, it makes the communal feeling of a typical concert almost nonexistent. Because while there might just be thousands of people crowding the grounds of Outside Lands who know each Paul McCartney-penned song ever written, there will always be those D’Angelo fans who more than likely have no interest in singing along to the Na-Na-Na’s of “Hey Jude”. 

In essence, the popularity and expansion of these events have diminished the excitement of the entire summer music festival exercise so much that it is now becoming almost entirely illogical to give a lot of these gatherings a second thought. Why deal with the insane prices for parking, beer and food when some of these are now being live-streamed online for free? Why use valuable vacation time away from work to deal with the insane traffic and oftentimes unbearable heat that surrounds these events? Why travel all the way to Austin, Texas, to see The Cure if you live in St. Louis and can catch them in Chicago? Why go out of your way to spend the dimes and quarters you’ve saved this year on an experience that will be replicated 25 to 30 times in 25 to 30 different cities around the world before the end of the summer season? 

“The current system and way of doing things has clearly reached the point of exhaustion,” the Endless Window scribe opined in that aforementioned piece. “Avoiding the big hitters is one thing, but when even the ‘alternative’ festivals either die out like The Big Chill, stagger into disaster like Bloc 2012 or continue to be as mis-managed as Field Day, the options for the discerning festival-goer who doesn’t want to go to an indie pop fest full of bands in cardigans that all sound exactly the bloody same are growing thinner and thinner. Unless something dramatically changes the way festivals are currently promoted and managed, crowd apathy is only going to grow and push people away, harming the industry yet further.”

Part of why festivals have thrived for so long has less to do with the artists and more to do with the atmosphere. We pay the ticket prices we pay for the memories and the stories — not the greatest hits-filled sets from acts who have just enough of them to keep fringe fans interested. The minute that the once-in-a-blue-moon element is compromised is the minute that the music festival magic begins to fade. And the second that magic begins to fade, the idea of driving to some faraway place for the ability to catch several musical acts perform in one day becomes harder and harder to justify. The profits begin to diminish. The public interest becomes clouded. And the future of the festival industry begins to be questioned.

Despite how over-saturated the market has become in recent years, I think we can all agree that it would be a shame to see this stuff face complete extinction. There was a time when festivals meant something more than a big pay day for everybody involved, a time when jealousy among fans who couldn’t make it was a point of pride, a time when tall tales of loud afternoons filled with bands about which little was known were the stuff of legend. Those days have become more and more distant with each lineup announcement and each two-weekend extension these gatherings offer. Instead, we as consumers continue to face duplicated schedules, watered-down performances and an overall dispassion for the events as a whole. That’s not to say the art of the music festival can’t be saved — it’s just that more powerful people need to take notice that its current state is in serious jeopardy. 

Hell, before too long, it might not be a bad idea to ask Midge Ure and Bob Geldof to swoop in and somehow save the day. Word has it, they know a thing or two about organizing a music festival aimed at raising awareness.  

Festival aid, anyone?