The average concert hall is not an aesthetically ideal space. Even at the most sanitized New York venues, you encounter a mass of sweaty bodies, a dirty bathroom, a floor coated with sticky beer. The concert is not a reprieve from a hectic day in the city—rather, it is a more extreme version of New York consolidated into a tiny room: crowded, loud, and smelly.
The music festival, on the other hand, is not a microcosm of the city that encompasses it, but something carefully engineered to be like an oasis. New York’s Electric Zoo—just one of the many festivals organized around the increasingly homogenized electronic dance music known as “EDM”—is a prime example. The festival takes place on Randall’s Island, and the small piece of land in the East River, with its wide-open spaces, allows the reality of the surrounding city to fade from the mind. There are sufficient activities at Electric Zoo to distract you from the tedium of school or your internship awaiting you back in Morningside Heights. In this way, it’s really the perfect backdrop for three days of back-to-back sets of dance music.
But with festivals like the Zoo, the music is truly only a fraction of the experience. It’s also about the endless amount of vendors selling fried food and tacky T-shirts for ridiculously steep prices. It’s about the social exercise of dressing up, among other “life-enthusiasts,” as the Electric Zoo FAQ calls the festival’s attendees, in attire not acceptable for almost any other situation (butterfly wings, furry boots, neon wife beaters, and layers of brightly colored bracelets). It’s obviously about escaping, and—for some—about drugs, which can induce a state of ecstasy that only intensifies the sensation of escape.
The modern festival has become an increasingly popular way to view live music, but it’s a misconception to believe that this type of event is merely replacing the old-fashioned concert. Rather, it’s an entirely new sort of experience, one where decontextualized musical acts become only one of several sources of diversion in an imaginary world that values entertainment over any semblance of artistic expression.
The Trappings of a Modern Festival
There are several factors that make festival-going attractive. I interviewed many people who consider the experience to be a regular part of their social lives and a quick, cost-efficient way to watch some of their favorite bands. Electric Zoo may cater to a specific set of rave-loving young people, but if that isn’t your thing, there are countless other festivals that will probably appeal to your taste. But even with a less commercial event that consciously caters to more “serious” music fans, there is the sense that the event, as a spectacle, transcends the experience of a smaller concert.
For a subset of festival attendees, that transcendence is linked to drug use. Grace McCreight, a Barnard College senior and the general manager of Barnard’s radio station, WBAR—where I am also a DJ—noticed the specialized role that drugs play in the festival scene when she attended this summer’s Governors Ball—another large music festival that takes place on Randall’s Island. According to McCreight, people use drugs to assert the idea of the festival as a chance to act carelessly. “A significant proportion of festival attendants are not regular concertgoers and aren’t aware of the social rules surrounding concert attendance,” she says.
Of course, for all the euphoria they can generate, drugs are equally capable of destruction. The three deaths at this year’s Electric Zoo signaled that there is something sinister lurking underneath this facet of the festival’s utopic façade. These drug fatalities perhaps function as an apt metaphor for the general danger of the festival’s oasis-like space, where the pressure to have fun leads to a denial of actual experience. Each drug high will eventually be followed by a nasty comedown—and with every denial of reality, a certain darkness threatens to follow.
But festival-going need not be tinged with risk. McCreight, for example, enjoys the comprehensive quality of the festival culture. Speaking about her experience at Governors Ball, she says, “It’s an exciting atmosphere, with lots of things to do and see. The food and music and entertainment are all part of an adventure all over the fairground that’s enjoyable to explore.”
Joe Bucciero, WBAR’s treasurer and a Columbia College junior, sees a disparity between the festival and other live music shows. Bucciero has attended the Pitchfork Music Festival in his native Chicago multiple times and says, “A festival’s always much more of a social outing than a smaller concert. With the large amount of bands, you’re almost encouraged to never watch a whole set.” The festival, he adds, “is often a tool to let music lubricate your having of a great time.” But Bucciero doesn’t necessarily view this as a bad thing: “One cool side effect is, maybe you’re just chilling at a festival and you hear something that sounds good and you see a set that’s great by a band you’d never heard of. That’s very possible at a festival and less so at a smaller concert, where you very well might know the bands playing.” Bucciero brings up the point that the festival does have the potential to be a more inclusive alternative to the concert, as long as the music itself remains the centerpiece. In this sense, festivals like Pitchfork are worlds apart from Electric Zoo. “You couldn’t pay me enough to go to Electric Zoo,” says Bucciero.
A Quick History
It would be a mistake to think that the festival is solely a by-product of our era. Most people have heard anecdotes or watched grainy documentaries about Woodstock and other groovy festivals of yore. The original Woodstock Festival took place in the summer of 1969—a particularly tumultuous final year in a generally unstable decade. This was the year that Nixon became president, officially putting an end to a progressive stretch of political rule. It was the year of the Stonewall riots and the year when Charles Manson committed his brutal murders. It was just a year before rock stars Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison had their lives cut tragically short—before the romantic era had taken a decidedly dark turn.
Woodstock, then, was a lingering attempt to grasp at something magical and fleeting. Understandably, Woodstock is primarily remembered for bringing together some of the most revered bands of the decade. But like the modern festival, Woodstock transcended the idea of a concert. The festival, which took place in Bethel, N.Y., was billed as “three days of peace and music.” The possibility of peace—of being transported into an idyllic, rural, upstate New York location to witness radical music—was perhaps the true selling point of the event. Though this geographic isolation may simply have been a practical choice for planning the show, such isolation nonetheless worked as a metaphor for generational hostility toward the cultural and political climate of the time. Spending three days away from the drab reality of working a job that was fueling a war economy was a decidedly antiestablishment act. This idea was only confirmed by the bands invited to perform at the festival, many of whom (Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Arlo Guthrie are just a few) were known for subversive, socially aware lyrical content.
The Woodstock Festival was reincarnated decades later—first in 1994, then in 1999, and several times in the new millennium—but none of these follow-up events matched the power of the original Woodstock. Woodstock ’99 has stood out as the most memorable emulation, but mostly for negative reasons: The festival featured a male-dominated, rap-rock lineup, and many instances of sexual assault and other violence were reported. The failures of more recent Woodstocks have perpetuated the legendary status of the original.
But there is always the danger of romanticizing the past. When comparing Woodstock to more recent festivals, it’s easy to argue that things were better back in the day. But the notion of isolation at Woodstock was a precursor to the way modern festivals seek to turn themselves into quasi-sanctuaries. And the proliferation of festivals over the last few years or so causes one to wonder: Are all these festivals trying to make some sort of statement about society? What is the point of them? And why are they appearing now?
The Failing Music Industry and the Festival
The departure from the real world offered by many of these festivals is not necessarily a defiant political statement. Rather, frequent festivals seem more like a response to a specific economic and cultural moment. The Internet has challenged the idea of placing intrinsic value on art. This is a reality that is equal parts liberating and terrifying, and whose ramifications aren’t yet known. But the music industry is certainly feeling the fear more than any other field because its whole existence is predicated on the notion that music is a commodity.
A 2010 article in The Guardian proposed that the music festival is the final way for the music industry to survive in the era of illegal downloads. The article points to a report from Mintel, a company that compiles global market research data, that discloses the not-so-surprising fact that musicians are increasingly earning more money from their live shows than from album sales. A research report entitled “The Sky is Rising,” from Techdirt CEO and entrepreneur Mike Masnick, shows that from 1999 to 2009, concert ticket sales in the United States grew from $1.5 billion to $4.6 billion. It’s no wonder live music revenue has greatly surpassed that of recorded music. The Internet has made it shockingly simple to listen to almost any music on the planet for no price at all. Spotify, SoundCloud, and YouTube allow anyone’s favorite song to be streamed at any time and in any place—in return, the fan isn’t required to sacrifice anything beyond a few seconds of time spent enduring a 30-second advertisement.
Live music has always been a lucrative sector of the music industry, but now that record executives rely on the live experience to maintain a prosperous business, they’ve realized they have to amp that experience up a few notches. The simple three-hour, $30 concert in a dark room somewhere downtown will no longer suffice. Pricey festival tickets may be the only guarantee that the music industry will stay afloat in times of economic turmoil. But in order to justify more expensive events, there has to be a trade-off, a way in which the festival actually does trump the measly concert. The festival has to be transcendent, grand, unforgettable.
One Giant Party?
There are a few well-documented tactics that make festivals financially successful. One of those tactics, usually seen at larger, more commercial festivals for EDM is to include ample diversions—in other words, to make the festival into something more akin to an amusement park than to a concert. Electric Daisy Carnival—another popular dance music festival that takes place in various cities—is a prime example of this sort of marketing. The New York iteration of EDC boasts a mind-bending number of activities: Besides the actual music sets, there are over 500 theatrical performances, fireworks, art installations, and full-size carnival rides. The tickets for full festival access can cost hundreds of dollars, which seems more justifiable when the event seeks to offer more than music alone. The result? Essentially a pop-up Disney World.
Of course, these huge festivals are not for everyone. Alice May, a Barnard College sophomore and college rock director at WBAR, disliked what she calls the “cheesy effects” she witnessed at Coachella, reasoning that artists use them just “to make their performance more interesting.” Ultimately, she prefers “the intimacy of smaller venues.”
Mike Sugarman, who graduated from Columbia in 2012 and now works for music publications The Fader and Ad Hoc, is also skeptical of the large music festival. Festivals, he says, “make music more like television, more like the Internet, more like any sort of event where you are asked to experience something from a distance. Ultimately, the experience is mediated by the fact that the music is made by these essentially invisible performers who are only accessible to you via screen.”
Bucciero values not the surplus entertainment of the big festival but the lineup itself. “I won’t go if the lineup isn’t to my liking,” he says. “If you’re going to pay money to hang out with people, you might as well see bands you like.” To Bucciero, the outrage of giant electronic music festivals isn’t so much the ridiculous activities and the abundance of drugs, but the quality of the music itself. “EDM’s crime is sucking a bunch of people into a sphere of shitty music, more so than forcing them to do molly,” he says.
It’s too easy, however, to ridicule the big EDM festival for its abundance of extra enticements; even lower-key festivals make certain decisions in order to draw the maximum crowd. Festivals that rely more heavily on solid lineups, such as Governors Ball, Pitchfork, and Lollapalooza, try to amalgamate the biggest and best names possible into a single festival. Last year’s Catalpa Festival (yet another festival that takes place on Randall’s Island), for instance, featured a star-studded lineup, including acts from The Black Keys to Snoop Dogg and from Girl Talk to Matisyahu. Similarly, this year’s Governors Ball included acts both new and old, in all genres—who ever thought that Erykah Badu, Deerhunter, and Dinosaur Jr. would all play at the same gig? The motive here is obviously to draw in not just hip-hop lovers or rock enthusiasts, but any and all lovers of music—and judging by the success of these festivals, it’s an extremely effective strategy. Governors Ball has grown from a one-day, 12-act lineup to a gigantic affair: This year there were reportedly 40,000 concertgoers each day of the festival.
What’s more, gathering so many big acts all within one weekend is highly seductive for those trying to save a buck. Anuradha Golder, a Barnard College junior and the RPM director at WBAR, has attended many of these sorts of festivals, including both Electric Zoo and Governors Ball. When asked about the benefits of the festival format, she explains, “It really just boils down to seeing a lot of artists at once who I, unfortunately, would not be able to otherwise see due to New York City’s venue age restrictions.” Even with pricey tickets, many festivals offer the chance for reduced fare in exchange for a few hours of volunteering. “I try to volunteer as much as I can because then I can see the backstage events management work as well as gain a ticket to the event,” says Golder.
The Festival in Context
Though these festivals present a cost-effective way to experience music, it’s also important to consider the consequences of this sort of “maximum-pleasure” method of curation. To compare, for example, today’s music festival with the creative products of other eras in which art was organized around its popularity alone. Many visual artists in the 1960s and ’70s were concerned about the organization of art within art institutions, which was traditionally based only on its alleged “greatness” or “genius.” Through their own institution-critical art, these artists revealed the ways in which curation was a type of power in itself. To group together artworks only on the basis of the art’s popularity creates a dynamic in which the audience’s reactions or preconceptions become more important than the artwork itself. Most would agree that music festivals are designed to entertain the audience above all else. And that leads to the tricky issue of the differentiation between art and entertainment.
One argument: When music becomes entertainment, the music becomes a product and the audience becomes a consumer. For those who think art is tainted by the presence of money, this can be problematic. At today’s music festivals, money asserts itself in many ways beyond the festival’s ticket price. Almost all big festivals have multiple corporate sponsors who use the festival to advertise their products. Electric Daisy Carnival is sponsored by Sony and Red Bull. At Governors Ball, many of the stages are sponsored by companies: There is a Honda Stage and a SKYY Vodka Tent. Even the Village Voice’s summer festival—a rather small-scale event called 4Knots—is sponsored by Bud Light, Snapple, and the powerhouse rap station Hot 97, among others.
Then there is the Red Bull Music Academy, which frequently puts on concerts and festivals, many of which cater to more underground taste. One such event was a noise music showcase in a space called the Knockdown Center in Queens. The festival, titled Drone Activity In Progress, featured artists such as the black metal band Liturgy, avant-garde techno musician Pete Swanson, and Kim Gordon’s new band, Body/Head. Sugarman attended Drone Activity and describes it in this way: “They basically set up three discrete spaces—each essentially a themed room stocked with a terrifying PA—and let tons of cool and important experimental people do their thing. And it was great.” A fan of noise music, Sugarman was impressed by the efficiency of the event. “Everything worked. They even gave out ear plugs so you could hear the next day.”
In festivals like this one, the curation seems more cohesive: The event is organized around a particular sound or ambience. But the trade-off is corporate sponsorship from a multinational company. Weighing the pros and cons of corporate backing, Sugarman says, “Sure, it’s kind of gross ... but chances are, you are standing there grossed out with a belly full of food processed with a corn by-product supplied by Monsanto, and washed yourself with soap made by some multinational conglomerate ... I understand that music is supposed to be an escape from this, but the fact of the matter is that these corporations pay really well and essentially make it possible for the musicians you love to keep going.” Even with commercial presence, Sugarman would rather attend a small festival with artistic integrity than one of the big ones. “Bonnaroo, Coachella ... basically the equivalent of going to an all-you-can-eat McDonald’s,” he says. “The quality isn’t exactly tantamount.”
Beyond the Big Festival
It’s reassuring to know, then, that there are also a slew of smaller festivals that feature both cohesive curation and minimal corporate backing. Compare Red Bull’s Drone Activity to an event such as Ende Tymes, a three-day festival for noise, experimental music, sound art, and video art, taking place at the Brooklyn DIY space Silent Barn. Bob Bellerue, the organizer of Ende Tymes, sees a common thread in all the artists he chooses for the festival: “I like their work due to its radical, visceral, and experimental nature.” For Bellerue, the festival format is empowering in its ability to introduce the audience to acts with which it might be unfamiliar. “It’s a wild experience and a great way to get exposed to a lot of the top artists in this sliver of the musical world,” he says. Bellerue’s festival demonstrates the potential to reap the beneficial aspects of the festival format—wider artist exposure, a cheaper way of seeing multiple bands—while still maintaining a specific mission.
New York’s Alright festival is another instance of a cohesive event: The festival brings punk and hardcore bands from around the world to various DIY spaces in New York, including Le Poisson Rouge and 285 Kent. This festival resists the urge to hole up in a single space and instead forces fans to move from venue to venue to see different bands, creating an experience that directly engages with the host city.
Afropunk Fest, another summer festival that takes place in Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn, also offers a cohesive lineup, presenting a multicultural variety of artists. This year’s roster included hip-hop legends Chuck D and Questlove, hardcore punk band Trash Talk, and up-and-coming rappers Le1f and Danny Brown. While Afropunk does have corporate sponsorship, it is also completely free to the public, which is a rare and special opportunity considering the quality of the musicians the festival books.
It’s possible that festivals such as these are part of a totally different world in comparison to some of the bigger events. Though festivals might be an economic necessity in this musical climate, events such as Ende Tymes, Afropunk, and New York’s Alright are reminders that festivals have the power to be more than just pleasurable entertainment for the undiscerning masses.
As small concerts are increasingly replaced by festivals, the danger for local music scenes to lose their potency looms. But festivals don’t have to be viewed as entirely evil, especially if organizers create lineups that interest and challenge fans rather than treat them like empty-headed consumers. Festival organizers should create affordable events that contextualize musicians in the larger cultural framework. By doing this, festivals will not become capitalist utopias where happiness is equated to consumption, and dangerous drugs will not be viewed as necessary supplements to enhance the sense of fantasy. Music need not be a way to escape—it can instead be an art form that deepens our understanding of our rapidly changing world.