Music Festivals: A Closer Look

     The music festival is king. From small local gatherings in a rented field to massive corporate- and state-
sponsored extravaganzas that draw larger crowds than Woodstock ever did, music festivals have spread
from their roots in the British rock and jazz scenes to become the preeminent way for people to listen to
and engage with live music. As well as the traditional rock and jazz festivals, there are now electronic
music festivals, hip-hop festivals, metal festivals, and numerous other varieties. Even as concert sales
in smaller venues decline, festivals continue to expand their audiences and reach year after year, and
the first few festival gigs can be make-or-break events for many new bands because of the festivals’
size and prestige.
     The festival as we know it is an older institution than one might think, having arisen in the middle to
late 19th century in northern Europe as a way to revive the music of then largely forgotten classical
composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach (and “Bach festivals” are still going strong in Germany to
this day) and later taken root in the 20th century in the UK and US, most notably with the Newport Jazz
Festival from 1954 to 1971, as a way to disseminate jazz, blues, and folk music that was largely
ignored by the white musical establishment. Starting in the mid-1950s, with increasingly well-off and
independent young people adopting rock music as the centerpiece of a new form of youth culture, these
festivals began a massive surge in popularity that culminated at the legendary Woodstock festival
where a then unheard-of half a million fans poured into a New York dairy farm for three days of music
from rock and roll’s most elite performers. Though the Woodstock festival was never intended to be
free, it ended up effectively being so anyway because the crowds that arrived were far larger than the
organizers ever predicted and were more or less impossible to control, and the legend of a free rock
concert became part of the canon of the counterculture, a symbol of a possible future built around
mutual love and solidarity instead of commercial exploitation.
     All this came crashing down a few months later with the Altamont Free Concert in California, where
poor organization, even worse security, and a tense, unpredictable crowd led to numerous violent
incidents, including the beating of a member of Jefferson Airplane and the death of attendee Meredith
Hunter at the hands of Hell’s Angels bikers who were completely unprepared for the role of providing
security for such a huge and chaotic event. This disaster severely damaged the reputation of music
festivals for almost twenty years, and festivals mostly retreated underground until the mainstream
breakthrough of alternative rock, born from that same underground, prompted the industry to establish
new large-scale festivals like Lollapalooza that gradually evolved into the festivals we see today.
Music festivals are in a unique position to benefit from the changes that the internet, social media, and
the economics of modern music have imposed on the music scene. Instead of being largely a
transaction between performers and audience like a traditional concert, a music festival is a singular
event based on music, something that one is part of rather than something one merely witnesses. It is a
place to be seen and to see others, a place to make friends and have conversations that would be
impossible in the mosh pit in a small club, and spread the evidence of your participation across the
planet via Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, as well as festivals’ own mobile apps. With the demise of
more traditional meeting spaces like malls, these festivals, attending one, and then sharing one’s
experience with others, both in person and through social media, take on a very important social
function for many music listeners. Each event has its own characteristic vibe based on the music itself
and the makeup and interests of the crowd, with which it acquires reputation and some of that
reputation accrues to the people seen there, and many people attend multiple festivals, even ones with
similar music, to try new social experiences, meet new people, and be recognized for the breadth of
festivals they’ve been to.
     This is especially true for younger listeners who have grown up in the world of social media and its
focus on life-sharing and public visibility of one’s experiences and accomplishments. To many such
people, an act that is not witnessed and recognized may not even be worth doing at all—and nothing is
more visible and recognizable than a festival known by name throughout an entire country or the whole
world. For such concertgoers, a festival offers not just the chance to watch performers, but to be a
performer in front of a remote audience of thousands. Even the audience can now have audiences of
their own. The very largest festivals multiply this aspect of festival attendance with their enormous
crowds and reputation, and also bring together listeners of more diverse ages and backgrounds than
smaller concerts, bringing people who might otherwise never meet each other into contact, and even
create lasting friendships.
     In addition, unlike a typical sit-down concert that is a short drive into town away (or just a walk for
people who live in the right neighborhoods), festivals tend to be fairly remote, and going to a festival
involves suspending one’s regular workaday life and traveling away, usually for multiple days, to an
entirely different place. A festival attendance isn’t just an evening in town but an entire vacation, a way
to get away from the stresses of the daily grind and get a new perspective. In a world where everything
is built around convenience, efficiency, and speed, the inconvenience of going to a festival is part of the
appeal. For this reason many people find music festivals refreshing, even transformative experiences. It
is a chance to, for a time, live slowly and enjoy the moment instead of hurrying through everything and
fretting about the future.
     Music festivals are also an excellent way to be introduced to new music in a live setting. While a
typical concert usually has one headliner and one opener, a festival hosts many bands, sometimes on
multiple stages at once. A stroll across the field could lead a fan to discover bands he or she had never
heard of and would never have cared about otherwise, and there is no substitute for a live performance
to get to know what sort of musicians a band truly are. The most highly-regarded festivals generally
curate their artists to appeal to the specific crowd of the festival, but still have enough variety to
surprise people. You don’t have to know “the good albums” from an artist’s discography or even their
name; you just follow the sound up to the stage and they’re there. And while the sound typically isn’t as
good as in a well-designed theater or concert hall, with an engineer that knows the band well it can get
pretty close.
     There are benefits for the musicians, too. In the 1980s and early 1990s, artists in less mainstream styles
of music would frequently perform at genre festivals such as Progfest and Dynamo, as the shared space
and shared costs allowed them to reach audiences and gain exposure that they could not afford through
traditional concerts with a single main performer. Nowadays, with physical album sales collapsing and
record companies cutting deeper into musicians’ tour revenues to compensate, the music festival has
become a way for a band to keep far more of the revenue for themselves, again by sharing the costs and
attracting corporate sponsors from outside the music industry. The huge number of young people that
gather at festivals make them irresistible to marketers, and many companies are happy to help
underwrite some of the costs of a festival to gain more exposure for their brands, and unlike meddling
record companies they’re also more willing to focus on their own brand and keep their hands off the
music. A band that performs well at a festival could take home many times more money than they
would if they gave the same performance at a theater. Though small, genre-based festivals do not get
much attention despite creating the conditions that allow the larger ones to exist today, they still exist
and attract even more loyal audiences than the mainstream festivals.
     With all these advantages it’s easy to see why the festival has achieved such primacy in the live music
world. Some unforeseen future change in our society and lifestyles may one day topple the festival
from its dominant position, but it won’t happen anytime soon. They not only provide live music, but
social connections, belonging, and solidarity that can be hard to get otherwise, and the public has
responded accordingly. I might personally be partial to the more focused experience of a small theater
or hall, but there is no denying that it’s the festival that is in demand these days.

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