Despite their many flaws, I love music festivals. They’re hot, oppressively crowded, smelly, filthy and filled with some of the worst people you’ll ever encounter. But they’re also a convenient way to see a whole bunch of bands in a compressed time frame, and often a lot of fun.
But in looking at the live music scene on a macro level, big music festivals may be having an insidious impact on our concert-going experience.
Giant festivals have popped up across the United States and the world in recent years. A decade ago, music fans often had to travel great distances to attend a mammoth three-day concert with dozens or even hundreds of bands. Bonaroo, Lollapalooza and Coachella were exceptions, not the rule.
Now, every region and subregion of the country has a monolithic fest in their backyard at some point during the calendar year…and often more than one. On its own merits, the spread of festivals would be fine, perhaps even beneficial. A three-ish day festival can provide a welcome break from seeing bands in small clubs, theaters and arenas. It’s a different vibe, and bands often play different sets to adjust for the festival setting.
The problem, however, is two-fold:
1) So many festivals now exist that bands now fill their touring schedules with them, leaving less room for shows at more typical venues.
As fun as festivals can be, they’re not a replacement for seeing a band or artist on their own, at a concert dedicated to their music. Festivals are designed to give fans a snapshot…to let them enjoy a band they like for an hour or to introduce themselves to a band’s music to see if they like it. We don’t get a true sampling of a band’s live set at a festival. It’s just an entirely different animal. The vast majority of the time, seeing a band at a club or theater is more rewarding than catching them at a festival.
The festival experience is all about crowd combat. You fight your way through a throng to get to a spot where you can both see and hear worth a damn, or you stand in the back and strain in your neck and try to ignore the ridiculous conversations around you drowning out the music. More standard music venues provide a more manageable experience, not to mention longer set times, and more control for the band.
So festivals are great, but should only comprise a small part of your concert-going year. But glances at most bands’ Facebook pages, especially in the warmer months, shows a tour scheduled filled with festival appearances and light on regular ol’ stops in your local joint. From a band’s perspective, it’s understandable to a point: they get exposed to listeners they wouldn’t normally reach, and get to make a case for themselves in front of thousands of inebriated, mildly interested observers. And the money’s probably not bad. But they’re costing themselves the long-term opportunity to build a devoted fan base in favor of short-term gain.
2) Festival contracts force bands to avoid areas for long blocks of time
When bands sign on to play festivals, they often have to enter agreements with the promoters that they won’t play that area for a given period of time before and after the fest, so they don’t cost the promoter potential ticket sales. Take Chicago as a case study. The city features both Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival in the summer months. For a long time, and probably still, Lollapalooza required its artists not to play in the Chicago area for 6 months prior to the festival, and for 3 months after. Pitchfork had a similar requirement, though with three months on either side. Typically, about 45 artists play Pitchfork each year, while about 115 play Lollapalooza. That’s 160 active touring bands who can’t play in Chicago at any point during the summer, and for much of the spring and fall.
So unless you went to shell out the cash and deal with the festival atmosphere, you’re shit out of luck. And Chicago’s not alone. In 2012, this is just a partial sampling of the festivals that are overtaking us and dominating our scene:
- Coachella (two weekends!) – Indio, CA
- Rites of Spring – Nashville, TN
- The Hangout – Gulf Shores, AL
- Stagecoach – Indio, CA
- Sasquatch! – George, WA
- Soundset – Shakopee, MN
- Bonaroo – Manchester, TN
- Summerfest – Milwaukee, WI
- Jazzfest – New Orleans, LA
- Pitchfork – Chicago, IL
- Lollapalooza – Chicago, IL
- Austin City Limits – Austin, TX
- Bumbershoot – Seattle, WA
- Fun Fun Fun Fest – Austin, TX
- ATP’s I’ll Be Your Mirror – NJ
…and that’s not even getting into the insane number of massive festivals in Europe and elsewhere. Or festivals like SXSW and CMJ, which I don’t really count because they don’t have the same type of radius clauses, and they allow bands to still play at smaller, individual venues instead of one centralized location. If you can’t find a major festival in your backyard, you’re not looking hard enough.
The growth of music festivals has immeasurably altered the live music landscape…and mostly for the worse. It’s harder than ever to catch bands coming through town on their own, in a venue designed to amplify live music. Festivals have their place but there needs to be moderation in their proliferation.