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Festival Nation: Avoiding the Post-Modern Buzzkill

Mitchell Bandur
The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne crowdsurfs at Coachella

As we near the summer music festival season, throngs of sunblock-wielding concertgoers prepare to once again brave hot temperatures and crowded venues. PopMatters sifts through the myriad happenings to offer a primer for the summer.

As the lineup announcements pour in from all points of this festival-loving nation, it becomes harder and harder every year to differentiate among the gatherings and nearly impossible to make a decision on where to plunk down your hard-earned dollars. As each weekend from now until Halloween fills up with a different absurdly named festival, the average music fan is bombarded with the same bands branded and re-branded under the auspices of idealism.

Yes, the days of Monterey Pop and Woodstock are gone and artists are now more likely to value a larger paycheck than a unique collaboration or format, but do not let a lack of apparent altruism stop you from enjoying a few days of corporate-sponsored peace and love. The post-modern music festival may be a re-packaging of some distant memory of an idyllic lifestyle, but beneath the overwhelming static lurks a concentrated dose of pure musical bliss. But how does one avoid the forced fodder and discover the special moments a summer's worth of festivals affords? Besides saving the hundreds of dollars it costs to attend, information is the key. There are so many festivals out there that it is easy to be lazy and buy a ticket to the biggest all-encompassing festival on the market. In truth, these festivals are a great time and allow you to dance with the most people you will ever see in your life, but if a unique experience is what you are after, you most dig deeper into the scene. Let us examine this year's offerings in an attempt to make sense of it all.

Several production companies, in collaboration with many other entities, put on the largest festivals in the United States and each is expanding. C3 Presents, based out of Austin, is responsible for the multi-day events Lollapalooza (Chicago, IL) and Austin City Limits Music Festival and is also planning the inaugural Vineland Festival in New Jersey, now scheduled for the summer of 2009. Superfly Presents puts together Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival (Manchester, TN) and the Las Vegas-based Vegoose Festival as well as the first Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Media behemoths AEG and Live Nation have also gotten into the festival game by teaming up with some of their more focused affiliates. One of AEG's promotion divisions, Goldenvoice, created and operates the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (Indio, CA) and its newly formed East Coast mirror, the All Points West Music & Arts Festival (Jersey City, NJ), while Live Nation's Northwest booking agent, Adam Zacks, is the creator and director of the Sasquatch Music Festival (George, Washington).

Out of that group, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella are the heavyweights fighting for the title of best outdoor festival and each year most everyone focuses on the headliners as the festivals' defining criteria. If headliners are indeed the best judges, then it is no wonder why there is no clear champion. Both Bonnaroo and Coachella are banking on Jack Johnson while Lollapalooza is recycling festival favorites Radiohead (Bonnaroo 2006) and Rage Against the Machine (Coachella 2007), similar to Bonnaroo's selection of Pearl Jam (Lollapalooza 2007). Each festival also has in its possession one WTF selection: Metallica at Bonnaroo, Roger Waters at Coachella, and Nine Inch Nails over Kanye West for Lollapaloza. The only attempt by the big three to sacrifice widespread popularity in the name of preserving some type of authorship comes from the dance-orientated Coachella, which does so by placing co-headliners Portishead and Kraftwerk at the top of their bill.

Then there are the upstarts, the nouveau riche of the festival junket, but saviors they are not. New Jersey's All Points West boasts Radiohead and Jack Johnson while San Francisco's Outside Lands counters with…Radiohead and Jack Johnson. You can imagine the frustration C3 must have felt when they had to delay the Vineland Festival (which was originally scheduled to be in Philadelphia and on the same weekend as Outside Lands) until next year because Radiohead and Johnson were not available. Even the pure jam festivals fall victim to the headliner scheme. The 10K Lakes Festival (Detroit Lakes, MN), the All Good Music Festival & Camp Out (Masontown, WV), and Langerado (Big Cypress Indian Reservation, FL) all feature Phil Lesh and Friends as the headliner while Langerado co-headliner R.E.M, fresh from Austin's annual SXSW conference, also tops the bill at Sasquatch.

Festival organizers are definitely limited in their choices for headlining acts given the amount of money invested in these events, but the similarities are so striking that there must be an alternative reason for the mobile concert-goer to chose one over the other. While I can understand the Phil Lesh and Radiohead phenomena -- Lesh was a founding member of the Grateful Dead, a band synonymous with the communal festival, while Radiohead, as evidenced by its recent distribution plan, needs no help from anyone to draw upon a large and loyal fan base -- Jack Johnson may need to expand upon the bare-boned "campfire" approach with a giant light-up pyramid à la Daft Punk. There must be an impetus for the average fan to pack the van in search of heady jams other than the increasingly arbitrary headliner factor. I see two compelling reasons why someone should venture out to a music festival in 2008: supporting acts and location.

The argument can be made that the headliners are present to attract the casual spender with a penchant for purchasing, but also to sell the meat of the lineup to those without disposable income. The latter reason is more applicable to the masses, and therefore more central to our query, but the same issue of overlap plagues any effort by festival organizers to stand out. Plus, with the exception of SXSW, people will inevitably choose the familiar over the unknown, so there is really no reason for organizers to be mavericks.

Therefore, when choosing a festival one must consider the full spectrum of artists scheduled to perform that year because it is no longer assured that Bonnaroo will mainly host jam bands or that Lollapalooza will mainly host alternative rock acts. Festival patrons are forced to decide pragmatically on a year-by-year basis which event to attend rather than rely on tradition. I remember when the response to the question, "Are you going to Bonnaroo this year?" was either, "Yes" or "No", but now more than ever the response is invariably, "Who's playing?" It almost seems anti-brand to succumb to the trends of the music industry, but given that nothing about the music industry has been stable lately, it is probably a sound decision not to stake your brand on a given genre.

Bonnaroo from above (partial) (Photo by Taylor Crothers)

Without every lineup revealed yet, including Austin City Limits, it is difficult to determine which festival looks the most promising. Even with those missing facts, the range of contemporary popular music is so vast that it would be presumptuous of me to declare one festival's lineup stronger than the other. Still, I can highlight some of the reasons why to go to the festivals with announced lineups.

*The dedication of one entire stage at Sasquatch exclusively to artists from the Pacific Northwest, including Fleet Foxes, the Cops, and Say Hi, brings out the community while the inclusion of comedians like Sarah Silverman and Michael Showalter as hosts leaves little room for boredom in between sets.

*All Points West has Radiohead headlining two nights, which basically assures you will get to see them play your favorite song.

*Coachella's lineup looks like the Hype Machine threw-up all over it, but if you missed SXSW this is the next best thing for your blog-rock fix.

*The chance to see Chris Rock dictate to tens of thousands of hippies in an election year is almost as incredible as witnessing a My Morning Jacket late-night set at Bonnaroo.

*Sound Tribe Sector 9, one of the headiest groups around, is headlining Wakarusa with the Flaming Lips and their U.F.O. show, which moves this festival quietly to the top of the headliner pile.

*This year's Pitchfork Festival re-ups its collaboration with All Tomorrow's Parties to present Public Enemy and Mission of Burma performing their albums It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Vs., respectively, in their entirety, with more to be announced later.

Those are just a fraction of the many reasons to attend and if I had boundless energy and pockets full of cash I would be at every one of them. Realistically, the average fan can only make it to one or two, maybe a few more if you have summers off, but unless the lineup is exactly tailored to your tastes, there needs to be a another reason to draw you across country when a similar lineup could be right in your backyard. This is where our visual culture steps in and demands ambiance. There are some clear leaders in this category, with Sasquatch's amphitheater in the Gorge and the anything-goes Shakedown Street at Bonnaroo topping the list, but there are many more less obvious environments ready to enter the conversation.

Without firsthand knowledge of many of these festivals, I reached out to festival veteran Dean Budnick, editor of Jambands.com and the Bonnaroo Beacon for his impressions. Budnick mentioned two of the new festivals, Rothbury and Outside Lands, as interesting atmospheres due to possibility of encountering a whole new experience. Rothbury is a camping festival on the Double JJ Ranch & Resort in Western Michigan that offers log cabins and bunkhouses on site with hot showers and electricity, while Outside Lands will be more like Lollapalooza but in San Francisco's massive Golden Gate Park. In effect, Rothbury will seemingly remove the inconveniences/charms associated with campsites and Outside Lands, steps away from Haight Street, has the possibility to faithfully recreate the Summer of Love for a weekend. But, as Budnick noted, the ideals promised are not guaranteed: "Until you actually get out there and get a sense of the security, even if you're not doing anything illicit, no one wants to be surrounded by a constant buzzkill."

Aside from the surface-orientated locales, some festivals present a more interactive atmosphere. The High Sierra Music Festival in northern California offers various "playshops" and has a volunteer ambiance crew that creates and installs all the artwork on site. Bonnaroo's acoustic Sonic Stage harkens back to the days when MTV's Unplugged was reliable and the Silent Disco is an exercise in disbelief. For instance, Budnick recalled once seeing My Morning Jacket's Jim James rocking out at the Silent Disco, shedding light on the communal aspect that draws fans and artists alike to the festival.

Still, some festivals thrive on a more organic community that develops over time and among the site-specific faithful. Budnick relayed the firm advocacy of some towards the collegiality of the Summer Camp Music Festival in Southern Illinois, the Gathering of the Vibes on the Connecticut shore, and Mountain Jam in upstate New York. "It's a bit hokey," he prefaced, "but it is something of a family reunion." My colleague at Live Music Blog, Paul Kanterman, echoed the sentiment: "My wife and I tend to hit the smaller regional festivals in the Northeast like the (late) Berkfest, the Gathering of the Vibes, and my current favorite, Mountain Jam. The vibe is mellower for sure. We tend to run into the same people each year, each of us claiming the same spots on the hill." Plus, some of these smaller festivals are attached to a band in some form or another, which alleviates the headliner burden. For example, the Gathering of the Vibes started as an outlet for Grateful Dead fans after the death of Jerry Garcia and birthed a new Deadhead-like community known as the Vibe Tribe. Although Budnick agreed that the headliner alone does not draw him to a festival, in the instance that the headliner is also the host, such as Mountain Jam (Warren Haynes) or moe.down, "it adds a bit because you know they will be very present."

After exploring the myriad of reasons why some festivals work better than others, I asked Budnick if there was one factor that impacted his decision more than any other. He said that although he has some friends who have the mobility to pick and choose from the entire menu of festivals, he admits that for most people, it all comes down to an issue of timing. Going to High Sierra over the Fourth of July weekend is how some people envision their Independence Day and moe.down is usually the last hurrah of summer, especially for students. Given that most of these festivals can stretch for more than a few days when accounting for travel, a federal holiday works wonders for your schedule.

As a hypothetical situation, where money, energy, and mobility take a back seat to vibes and music, how would Budnick choose to spend his summer? He would start the summer with Mountain Jam at the end of May, continue on to Bonnaroo over Father's Day weekend in June, then hit High Sierra and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in July, and finish up with the Gathering of the Vibes in August and moe.down in September as the summer comes to a close. Budnick's choices, although based on years of experience, are really no better than yours or mine, but you must decide for yourself what you are looking for in a festival in order to enjoy the weekend. Each festival affords a unique experience relative to the location and time of the year, and, unless you are a huge Jack Johnson fan, the lineup is merely there to reinforce the atmosphere of the festival.

It's plain to see that the festival season has become a bankable arm of the music industry. It may have once been an escape from the marketing campaigns of album releases and a change of pace from the grueling schedule of endless touring that most bands undertake every year, but this is no longer the case. From an artist's perspective, the chance to see new music or reunite with old friends is refreshing, but that only occasionally leaks out from the backstage. From a consumer's point of view, it appears as more of the same, which lessens the original intrigue or novelty of a summer festival. But the music industry is changing, reacting to a digital world in which there are more choices for fans that have more autonomy and there will inevitably be less chance for spontaneity when risk management is a priority for profit margins.

If the record companies can diversify their holdings and expand their endeavors into other profitable areas that require the consumer to pay willfully, there might be less resistance to music pirating. It must be obvious to those involved in selling records that the future profits of physical recordings will soon disappear, and, as a result, they should become part of the inevitable change instead of focusing on an archaic resistance. Setting up the festival as a sub-industry will no doubt remove some of its luster and we'll have to deal with stages branded by industry, but the festival scene, like any other aspect of popular culture, will broaden and allow more music to be experienced. If, as festival-goers, we make our own choices instead of accepting what is put directly in front of us, then the same festivals you remember will be there, a bit hidden but waiting to be found.

Mitchell Bandur is a freelance writer living in Chicago. He is also part of the collective that makes up Live Music Blog and experiments with video collage.

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