Music festivals and their renaissance in the United States

t600-crowd shotDuring the second day of this past June’s Firefly Music Festival in Dover, DE, Dave Grohl took a moment of Foo Fighters’ headlining set to comment on what he perceived to be a spike in the popularity of summer music festivals in the United States, saying he was glad North America was catching up to Europe’s affinity for colossal audio vacations.

This was notable for two reasons. One, it was one of the few things Grohl said during the set that was communicated in the form of “speaking,” as opposed to his usual avenue of interaction, “primal scream.”

The second reason was that Grohl has a valid point. Though some European music festivals, like Spain’s Primavera Sound, are in their relative infancy, most have their roots in the 70s and 80s. The Glastonbury Festival, the cornucopia of European festivals, started in 1970 and has been held nearly every year since 1978. Even Denmark’s Rokslide has been going strong for over 40 years, no doubt buoyed by the popular “Naked Run” held during the Saturday of the festival. (Remember, it’s not public indecency as long as it’s tradition!)

Conversely, the most prominent music festivals in the United States are but a twinkle in modern music’s eye. Jazz and blues gatherings have had longer tenures, but on the whole, organizers of mainstream pop, rock, and hip hop-based festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Made in America and Lollapalooza have all held their inaugural shows in the past 20 years.

South by Southwest (SXSW), a spring gathering in Austin, Texas, started in 1987, but is less a music festival than a collection of various multimedia festivals, of which the music portion happens to draw the biggest crowd. The Austin City Limits festival is based off a PBS program of the same name that started in 1976, but the festival itself didn’t come to fruition until 2002. The festival has re-invigorated the TV show by pulling in more prominent artists, because apparently, the mere presence of Jim Lehrer and Big Bird wasn’t enough to bag Pearl Jam before.

Sure, 1969’s Woodstock was the definitive North American music festival, but there have only been a handful of Woodstock shows in the decades since, most notably the infamous 1999 show that turned into an exposition of violence and debauchery entirely antithetical of the original festival’s message. (Protip: a modern edition of “Three Days of Peace and Music” that prominently features Fred Durst in any role aside from “Person Unaffiliated With the Festival” has already failed.)

So what caused America to embrace large-scale musical celebrations after a relatively quiet stretch between Woodstock and Monterey in the 60s and Lolla and Warped Tour in the 90s and 2000s?

It’s difficult to say prospective concertgoers are simply bigger, more devoted music fans these days, at least not in a quantifiable way. The steep decline of physical album sales worldwide has been well documented, but even digital music sales fell for the first time in years in 2013. In part to make up for the gap, the average cost of a concert ticket is increasing, and with it has come a drop in ticket sales. Turns out fans aren’t thrilled about having to pay $35 in “Whatever The F*** We Want” fees for each ticket they purchase.

Festivals present a cost-effective way to see tons of bands all at once. The initial sticker shock of a $250-300 ticket to Firefly might scare away some, but consider the cost of a ticket to see just Foo Fighters, OutKast, Jack Johnson, Arctic Monkeys, or Tegan and Sara range from $40-100. In their own exorbitant way, mega-priced festival passes are actually fiscally responsible routes to great music you know, and dozens of bands you don’t. Sure, you won’t be front row for every set, but there’s little chance you’ll enjoy every single group at a huge, mainstream festival, so you can spend those sets complaining in the back.

On the other hand, there are enough niche festivals to cater to nearly every music fan. Looking to rediscover your inner deadhead? There’s the Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Conn. Feel like ingesting copious amounts of exotic drugs….er, listening to EDM? Visit the site of the original Woodstock for the “Mysteryland” festival. Not a fan of any particular genre of music, but love the idea of a 4-to-6 day tailgate? Pretty much any festival that involves camping is right up your alley.

Really, camping out for days at a time with thousands of equally excited, equally filthy degenerates is why music festivals have experienced such a revival. Your iPod can carry ten thousand songs, and you don’t need to fork over $15 for a Heineken Light or wait in line for three hours for a barely-functional port-o-john to listen to it. But your iPod can’t dress in matching costumes with you and your friends, or find the other festival-goers wearing the most obscure NBA jerseys or most ridiculous pairs of jorts.

When you shell out a couple hundred bucks for Bonnaroo or Firefly, you’re paying as much for the music as you are the experience – more specifically, an experience you can share with a relatively select group of people, and an experience you can post about online to rub it in the face of everyone who didn’t go.

Millennials, more than any cohort since the baby boomers, have an insatiable desire to be part of some sort of generation-defining event. Every election is “the most important of our lifetime.” Every major musical, cultural or social movement is “our (insert name of decades-old musical, cultural or social movement here).” Whether out of frustration over older generations minimizing their struggles or a subconscious desire to be more like those older generations – only better – millennials are drawn to the cultural significance of Woodstock, and want to recreate it. Just with more beer and rave music.

If you hate crowds, you’ll hate festivals. If you’re a music cynic, you’ll find less to enjoy than most. But you could do a whole lot worse for a half-week-long vacation. At the very least, you can take comfort in knowing Fred Durst won’t be there this time…that is, unless you’ve got a ticket to “Tone Deaf, Egomaniacal Sociopaths 2014.” (Never understood the appeal of that show)

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2 thoughts on “Music festivals and their renaissance in the United States

  1. There’s nothing quite like a festival. Several come to mind…some successful, and some not so much. The US Festival in California in 82 & 83 was something to behold…especially, when Van Halen, at the peak of their powers, headlined “heavy metal day.” Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, Ozzy, Judas Priest, Triumph, and the Scorps led the way for that show…

    but it was only a two year run.

    I went to Woodstock ’94, and was covered in Mud for two days. Lost my car for hours.

    Perhaps one of the most unique has been the Monsters of Rock, which has been both a festival and a tour…many, many times over.

    Of course, it’s a British thing.

    I’m all about the festivals…bring it on.

    Good stuff…

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