Memory of a Free Festival

Even before the temperatures start their creep toward the 90-degree mark, the signs are everywhere: another summer-music-festival season is about to begin. The emails, the colorful banner ads on websites, the news flashes with recently added headliners — it all gives the impression that we should be completely obsessed with every little detail about the festivals if we care at all about music. The festivals tout themselves as being important cultural experiences and irresistibly fun musical escapes: mini-Woodstocks designed to make a community of music fans feel like a part of something larger than themselves. It’s hard not to get excited about being a part of something — and the festival lineups are incredible. All Tomorrow’s Parties bills itself as the ultimate music experience, a sonic art exhibit curated by bands and musicians, with different festivals occurring throughout the year in the U.K. and U.S. One glance at the lineup for this year’s ATP in the Catskills in New York is enough to send a music fan’s salivary glands into overdrive: My Bloody Valentine, Built to Spill performing the entirety of Perfect From Now On, the Meat Puppets playing Meat Puppets II. But a glance at the ticket prices is more likely to feel like a blow to the jaw: $225, and a minimum of $450 for accommodations. The question for All Tomorrow’s Parties is not “what costume shall the poor girl wear” because the poor girl can’t even go. Granted, ATP is the Cadillac of festivals. But even the AMC Gremlin music festivals are more than many can afford these days. Ever since the one-day touring festival (like Lollapalooza, the Warped Tour, and Lilith Fair) gave way earlier in the decade to stationary multiday extravaganzas such as V-Fest, Coachella, Sasquatch, Lollapalooza, Rothbury, and Bonnaroo, summer concert experiences have become more and more for the music elite, leaving ordinary fans out. On many levels, multiday festivals can seem like a good idea: Not only do they supply more band for your buck; they’re sort of musical vacations, unofficial conferences of ardent music fans. They are good for small bands too, giving them access to massive audiences and priming their chances for success as the traditional music business is dying out. Anschutz Entertainment Group’s Don Strasburg is producing the Rothbury festival (taking place July 3-6 in Michigan and featuring the Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, and Widepsread Panic) and the Mile High Festival (July 19-20 in Denver, also featuring the Dave Matthews Band, as well as John Mayer and Tom Petty). He points out that there are three tiers of musicians performing: the big-name headliners, the smaller-time bands that, as Strasburg says, “are really great but people won’t make an over-the-top commitment to go see,” and then up-and-coming bands who many festival-goers will see for the first time. Hence, more than one stage is needed to accommodate the multi-tiered hierarchy, which leads to more costs. But perhaps despite himself, Strasburg gets to the heart of the issue when he raises the idea of “over-the-top commitment.” As inclusive as the festivals can seem, lineup-wise, multiday festivals also shut out and stymie fans who lack the wherewithal to make a trek to remote regions and give over several days to concertgoing. With ticket prices hovering at about the $200 mark, the cost of attendance leaves out a significant number of would-be festivalgoers, and their out-of-the-way locales leave out entire populations who can’t afford to travel or are unwilling to spend their leisure budget to basically camp out in a field for a few days. At many festivals, amenities cost extra; showering is only available for those willing to plunk down even more money.


Also, festival going requires a certain kind of existence that is not only hard for many to fathom, but for some, impossible to endure. Fans with health issues or disabilities would need to fork over more money for better accommodations or not go at all. Morgan Schlaline and Tiffany Johnson, avid music fans and musicians themselves, went to Coachella in California in 2004 because the lineup included Radiohead, Beck, the Cure, the Flaming Lips and, the pièce de résistance, the Pixies. The tickets came out to $331 for the both of them — a fairly large chunk of their monthly income. Plus, they both had to take off a day from work for travel. It wasn’t worth it, Schlaline says. “The lines were long for everything, the sun was hot everywhere, and the walk back to the car was exhausting at the end of the night. We camped out, and sleeping in the heat-retaining tent was horribly horrible. Both day’s highs were near the 100 degree mark” — unseasonably high, but not by much. “We didn’t even go to day two because the day before had sucked so much.” Sound engineer Mike DeCicco has been to Coachella more than once, but did not go this past year. “It hurts too much,” he says. “Camping at Coachella sucks as much as sucking can suck,” he says. “Hot tents, annoying hippies playing ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ poorly at 1 a.m. in the tent next to you, Port-A-Potties that are closed because they’ve overflowed with hippie poo, communal showers… not co-ed so it’s lame. Sleeping in the car in a McDonald’s parking lot is way, way, way better.” And while seeing and discovering a lot of bands at once is fun, many of those same bands will more than likely play a more intimate venue in a city near you, maybe even more than once in the coming year. “Most of the bands that play Coachella — not the headliners — those are the type of bands that come through and play smaller venues on a regular basis,” DeCicco says. “It’s cool to discover all of those bands, but I’d rather do it slowly over the course of the year.” The multiday-festival model is apparently so successful for bands and the entertainment industry that few in the industry want to criticize them. But because of the expense, a troubling rift opens between the ideology behind these festivals and who actually ends up attending. The website for the Rothbury festival quotes poet Walt Whitman: “The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges, or churches, or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors, but always most in the common people.” But can the common people actually attend a festival like Rothbury? Strasburg argues that ticket prices are reasonable when you take into consideration the sheer cost of putting on an event on the scale of a multiday rural festival like Rothbury. “If you decide to do a large scale event, if you say ‘I want 25,000 to 30,000 people to go to a certain place,’ there are just costs associated with it. The police, the water, the bathroom, the insurance, the stages,” says Strasburg. “The reason why these festivals are multiple days is so it can be cheaper, not more expensive, because once you’ve created that infrastructure, the best thing you can do is to use it.” This year, Rothbury will be entirely sustainable, with numerous green innovations in place like the option to purchase a Green Ticket which allows festivalgoers to offset their travel to the festival, replacing disposable items like plastic cups and trashbags with compostable ones, and full-service recycling. But just like most ecofriendly consumer choices, buying a green ticket and offsetting carbon emissions comes with a higher price tag: A festival can go green only for those who already have plenty of green to begin. Seth Hurwitz, chairman of IMP and producer of the Virgin Mobile Festival (V-Fest) in Baltimore (August 9-10; headliners include Bob Dylan, Nine Inch Nails, and the Foo Fighters), also argues the ticket prices are fair: “We really try to keep it affordable. We should have raised prices last year, and definitely this year based on the economic matters…. The cost for fans comes to about $5 an act, so it’s really a great deal.” “It’s an incredible value,” says Strasburg. “Generally festivals average around $80 to $90 a day for the total experience,” which, he points out, is not much more than going to see one band perform in an arena.


But that Costco approach to concertgoing in bulk doesn’t necessary suit the average music fan, who may not have the resources to pony up $250 a ticket for 30 or 40 acts in one big lump. This bulk-buying mentality rewards consumers with more disposable income, letting them spend less per unit the more they consume. But not all concertgoers are die-hard fans of 40 bands, or want to spend 72 hours watching music in one weekend. Some would rather and could more easily afford to pay $40-$60 to see one or two bands they really love closer to their home, with less of a time investment as well. Of course, most summer festival-goers aren’t going purely for the bulk value; they’re going for the experience and to be a part of an ad hoc community of music fans in a carnivalesque atmosphere. But what kind of community is it, really? The sheer scale of many of these festivals may even undermine the formation of a community— there may be one community forming by one stage, another by another stage, and yet another by the bathrooms. The communities formed are not based on the music being performed, but on the experiences of the people in any given area. These kinds of communities form all the time; the music need not even be there. And look back at the lineups cited for Rothbury and the Mile High Festival — many of the festivals’ lineups are indeed that similar, which brings up the question: How unique and special are these festivals, really? The multiday rural festival experience is geared toward a certain kind of music fan: one who values the large-scale push of a crowd more than the actual music performed. How much connection with a band can be made when one is thousands of feet away from the stage? How warmed up can a band really get in a 40-minute set between other bands, for an audience that is likely to be already exhausted from too much listening? If you’re hot, tired, greasy and malnourished, you probably aren’t going to engage too deeply with the music you’re hearing. Can you have a festival experience that is transcendent without being excessive? Strasburg believes that anything smaller scale than Rothbury the average multi-day festival would be pointless — the cost of infrastructure and compensating the performers and other personnel wouldn’t make it worth the effort. But with bands performing simultaneously on three stages, attendees aren’t really able to see it all. What if the three bands you’re excited to see all end up playing at the same time, so you can only see one or small snippets of all three? Where is the value there? Multiday festivals may have had their start from anti-establishment sentiments that sought to create a sense of community based on live music. If the festivals create a community, it’s composed only of a specific demographic and is rooted not in an egalitarian spirit of sharing musical joy but the machinations of large-scale entertainment-production companies. Take Lollapalooza, for instance. Once Perry Farrell sold the festival to the William Morris Agency in 1996, the touring festival nose-dived and was revived in 2005 as a onetime, multiday event in Chicago. Making it a multiday festival may be more profitable for the production company and more manageable for the bands involved, but it shuts out the legion of fans who are too young or too poor to attend such a large-scale event or too rurally isolated to be able to travel to Chicago. It’s not, therefore, the same Lollapalooza many thirty-something music fans remember from the 1990s, and there is no way it can be the same kind of cultural force for the current generation of music fans. Many festivals began as free or cheap events to celebrate music and culture and music as a force of societal change. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has been running strong since 1970, with ticket prices still in the two-digit range per weekend: to attend the 2008 festival for all 10 days costs a total of $140. Independent festivals dedicated to the performance and proliferation of music as a cultural force somehow manage to remain affordable. One key factor is location: Urban multiday festivals are on average cheaper, since the ticket prices do not need to include the cost of 24-hour security, staff and amenities. The Village Voice’s Siren Music Festival is even free — held at Coney Island July 19, the one-stage festival will feature more than a dozen bands and, according to the festival’s Web site, usually draws, on average, 100,000 fans. Festivals like Noise Pop, held in San Francisco, The Athens Pop Festival in Georgia, and the New York City Pop Festival spread bands out SXSW and CMJ-style over a number of venues, eliminating the need for festival-specific infrastructure. In many ways, the urban model is much more realistic, and less excessive: rural festivals, since they can get huge, do. Rural festivals are the music-festival equivalence of suburbia: excessive, sprawling, not very cost-effective, and culturally damaging. It seems the real motivation behind the summer festival is not so much a celebration of music, but a celebration of capitalism, something the festival-goers might be shocked to realize.