Where The Music Never Stops: A Sobering Account Of Festival Culture

At dusk on Day 2 of the Outside Lands music festival, as it became apparent that three layers and a beanie weren’t insulation enough against the fog galloping off of San Francisco Bay, as fellow culture lovers not unfirmly forearmed me in the spine and walked on my toes, offering hollow apologies while lodging themselves so immediately in my personal space that I could’ve licked some of the necks craning to see Dr. Dog, a band who five years ago had an album I was into and who was now performing only 100 yards away, although I wasn’t listening because my girlfriend’s old high school flame had shoved his way over to regale her with the story of how he’d come here to Golden Gate Park a week earlier and buried a trove of vodka in the forest — right around then, I decided that I’d probably rather get blowfish poisoning than ever go to one of these things again.

It’s an attitude that puts me squarely outside of the zeitgeist these days. In the past decade, as record sales have been sliced in half and the music industry assumed to be a few strangled breaths from its dirge, these festivals have exploded in both number and scope, fueling a nearly 100% growth in domestic live music revenue over the same period, despite the fact that money generated by regular old single-headliner concerts has not just stagnated but dipped in recent years. It’s not a breaking story that more and more people are choosing to consume their music via festivals. Annually, there are 150 of them in the US and hundreds more abroad. You’ve got punk music festivals; world music festivals; electronic festivals; one day festivals; three day festivals with overnight camping; three day festivals without overnight camping; Lollapalooza; Sasquatch!; FYF; Country Thunder; festivals in Ames, Iowa and Pensacola, Florida; Chicago and New York City, etc. In 2011 alone, concert promotion giant Live Nation launched eight new festivals.

The juggernauts like Coachella and Bonnaroo — inspired by forerunners like Woodstock and the UK’s Glastonbury Festival — get national media attention every year when musicians and comedians and the roughly 80,000 people they attract descend on quiet places like Indio, California and Manchester, Tennessee, in effect, doubling and octupling the populations of these respective towns for three days while injecting millions of dollars into local economies. And these events don’t look to be plateauing anytime soon. In 2007, Superfly Productions, the organizer behind Bonnaroo, purchased a major chunk of the farmland it had previously leased for the festival; in 2010, they erected a permanent stage on the site so they could put it to use more frequently. This year, Coachella promoters tried to double the size of their crowd in one fell swoop by introducing a second identical weekend of concerts. This winter they’re launching two all-inclusive musical cruises on the imaginatively christened S.S. Coachella, featuring acts like Hot Chip and James Murphy, mastermind of LCD Soundsytem.[1]

There’s a conventional wisdom behind the exponential growth of a market previously limited by subcultures[2] and once a decade mega-spectacles.[3] Rolling Stone’s Steve Baltin: “Would you rather spend $300 to go see 100 bands and get a feel for everything, or go spend $90 to see one of these headlining bands on their own?” Of course, this sort of bargain for fans probably wouldn’t have materialized if those same fans hadn’t started pirating and streaming albums, which pressured musicians to start touring more frequently and gain the broader exposure that festivals offer. It’s an entirely new model for music distribution. But back inside Golden Gate Park, next to the Chipotle Burrito interactive game tent,[4] the friend of a friend who’s tweaking so hard on LSD that two people have to prevent her from crumbling into a heap on the ground probably isn’t thinking about macroeconomic and sociological trends.

In 2003, 10 friends and I drove 2,000 miles to attend the second annual Bonnaroo. It was still largely a jam band thing then (see: The Dead, Widespread Panic, et al.) and I wasn’t terribly coherent for most of it, but I do remember Neil Young blew my mind with a 20 minute version of “Down By the River” and I was too afraid to use the porta-potties for both of their intended uses. I danced to electro-jazz during a 3 a.m. thunderstorm and woke up four hours later when the sun had already made an oven of our tents. One of those tents was nearly run over by a friend in a moment of drug-induced clarity. There was a guy from the next campsite over whose name was Jarshy who couldn’t keep his pants from falling down every five minutes, all the more significant because he never wore any underwear. I was 19. It was magical and nothing I ever wanted to relive.

That conviction has been reinforced over the years by my alien belief that it’s actually better to pay the $90 to see some headlining band I love — say Radiohead — on a nice summer’s evening at the Hollywood Bowl than $300 to see Radiohead and two other big-draw acts less- or un-important to me,[5] plus maybe a few smaller bands I really like whose individual concerts are like 30 or 40 bucks, plus a handful I kinda like, plus a bunch I’ve never heard of/don’t care about, all in mind-erasing heat[6] with enough people to fill four Hollywood Bowls.

However, when my lovely girlfriend bought an Outside Lands ticket, I caved. She’s been to a bunch of these festivals in the past couple years and I wanted to share in the adventure with her. It could be beautiful and bring us closer together and I didn’t want her to think I’d already become a complacent old crank before the age of 30. Anyway, this year’s line-up had two headliners I was excited about — Neil Young, mind-blower, and the legendary Stevie Wonder — plus a few other bands I really liked, a handful I wouldn’t mind seeing, and maybe even amidst the horde of artists I didn’t know or care about there waited some gem whose concert would change the way I experience music forever.

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Grounds at Outside Lands include one main stage approximately the size of Rhode Island, three smaller satellite stages, a tent dedicated to comedy, another tent for DJs, plus a tiny, unamplified revival-church-ish set-up hidden in the woods. Unless you’ve forked over an additional $750 for VIP access, there’s no organized seating at any of them — it’s first come, first serve,[7] and there are no lines demarcating where your body is meant to end and another begin. Performance times are staggered, but with 85+ bands and DJs performing in like 30 total hours, it’s inevitable that two or three artists that you or someone in your festival party[8] want to see are playing at the same time. Very early on I figured out that there seem to be two main ways to deal with this predicament:

1) Come to terms with the fact that you’re not gonna see every band you want and simply stake out a spot at one stage early in the day. The big advantage to this approach is that you secure a great vantage point from which to watch, in their entirety, the one or two performances most important to you that day. The big drawback is there’s also a lot of downtime in which you’ll have to contend with some cool hacky-sack gang ten feet over[9] and a rising sea of soiled paper plates indiscriminately discarded by environmentally conscious young folks and various roadies tuning guitars/secretly living out dreams of playing in front of thousands of people.

2) Strap on your walking Toms and get ready to pinball around 60 acres of festival in an attempt to catch a sliver of every act that interests you. Based on both Mr. Baltin’s explanation of festival-appeal and my own eyeballs, this sure as hell felt like the more deployed stratagem.[10] The advantage is, of course, that you get to see more bands in one weekend than you’ll see the rest of the year combined. A disadvantage is you’re never at a single show long enough to really envelop yourself in the music,[11] especially when you’ve always got one eye on the clock so you don’t miss the next show. The festival’s surfeit of artists seems to create, if not a literal, then at least a sort of psychological cacophony that overwhelms the discrete performances each artist is there to give. And the inability to hook into concerts is compounded when your music sampling relegates you to the crowd’s rear, since back here i) there’s bound to be a constant stream of people on different schedules passing both into and out of this show and it’s hard to ever feel engaged when you continuously have to move a couple feet this way, a couple feet that way to make space for parents pushing strollers in which year-old children are sobbing[12] ii) people necessarily give less of a shit about whatever’s going on onstage, and often instead choose to make small talk during guitar solos so that pentatonic scales compete sonically with young attorneys who feel the need to explain the difference between corporate litigation and transactional law iii) you probably can’t even see the musician whose voice you’re hearing through a remote PA system. At the main stage, festival organizers try to compensate for this deficiency by setting up 20 ft. video monitors that are delayed by about half a second, which creates the impression that world-class musicians are bad lip-syncers of their own songs. At the other stages, you’re just SOL. I listened to Santigold from behind the soundboard porta-potty — and had a better perspective than like half the crowd.[13]

Not that some of the concerts weren’t fun. Father John Misty aka Josh Tillman, former Fleet Foxes drummer, gyrated around the stage like a bearded, uncartoonish Mick Jagger, tearing into his lyrics while his band played loose and bouncy versions of songs from his album, Fear Fun, which made you do anything but. Regina Spektor’s soaring voice and piano-playing were matched only by her smile,[14] which seemed to radiate gratitude and inspire kindred warmth in the crowd. Jack White looked like a Batman villain and shredded like a true rockstar. And the alternating-current, trebly guitars of the Walkmen converted me from a casual admirer into a full-fledged, playing-their-albums-on-repeat-even-as-I-write-this devotee. But these moments were exceptions rather than the rule.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse were, in my heretical opinion, the biggest let down.[15] While they unfurled a couple of beautiful, winding, hypnotic jams, those didn’t make up for the overwhelming evidence that Neil Young didn’t want to be there. Granted, Neil Young has never been known as the most down-the-middle performer and I was forming these impressions across a 40,000 person chasm, but he did end one song by striking the same dissonant, feedback-heavy chord for so long that even his band started awkwardly looking at each other wondering when it was going to end; and he did snidely mock the crowd for not knowing his recent catalog well enough to realize he had just messed up a new song; and he didn’t play the songs everyone wanted to hear without acknowledging that he was doing so begrudgingly. On the one hand, it’s an understandable attitude. “Cinnamon Girl” is a 40-year-old song. Wouldn’t you start to get a little pissed off if you had to go out and do the same thing over and over, Groundhog Day-style, for nearly half a century? On the other hand, I had paid not a small amount of money to see this guy, one of my all-time favorite musicians, play “Cinnamon Girl,” and now that it was happening, I felt guilty and resentful. All of which begged the question: WHY? Why do people travel across the country and spend hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to attend these festivals?[16] Why don’t we just save ourselves (and Neil Young) the trouble, stay home with a pair of good headphones and a Spotify subscription, and listen to “Cinnamon Girl” as many times as we damn well please?[17]

I asked my girlfriend why she likes festivals so much. She looked at me like I was an old crank.

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The live concert has always been a rare medium of entertainment in which you have the chance to gauge how much you’ll the thing before actually buying tickets to it. I can listen to a Slipknot album and say for certain that I would rather hang myself than attend one of their concerts, whereas with books, movies, restaurants — even albums, in the pre-streaming days — what I know going in all comes from trailers and reviews, word of mouth and reputation. Every time I open up a novel, sit down in a theater, order an appetizer, I’m taking a little leap of faith. However, in the past few years, festival organizers have begun asking their publics for more trust than any publisher, movie studio, or chef, by putting tickets on sale before lineups have been announced. Coachella does it, Sasquatch!, Outside Lands, Lollapalloza. What’s remarkable is that fans have been so obliging. Tens of thousands of these $200-300 tickets move before a single artist is ever confirmed. Of course, there’s a tacit promise by the promoters that they’ll be able to draw those two or three massive headliners, scores of buzz bands, and a little of everything in between. But how would Warner Brothers fare if it asked people to plunk down just $12 for what’s promised to be an epic movie but whose actors and plot and director are all a complete mystery?

This sight unseen, sound unheard phenomenon reinforces the conception of the festival as a sort of freshman survey in popular music and, more significantly, helps — I finally decide — to explain the logic behind why so many people spend three days frantically running from stage to stage: concerts here are less about experiencing musical moments than accumulating them as a kind of capital. It’s not important what bands you hear as long as some friend or co-worker will be envious you heard them.[18] It doesn’t matter that you only saw Beck for a song and a half as long as you can check Beck off your checklist and get to Of Monsters and Men. The compulsive cultural stockpiling here isn’t limited to music either — not when the standard cardboard pizza and rubber hot dogs endemic to these captive-audience events are supplemented by in vogue food trucks and “pop-up restaurants” by famous chef Michael Minna. Not when Wine Lands gives you the opportunity to not just get wasted, but get wasted on a panoply of small batch Pinot Noirs from boutique vintners. On our weary BART ride back to the East Bay after the second day of shows, I overhear a bunch of dreadlocked, poncho-wearing chillers outlining their jam-packed schedule for the next day like they’re tourists with one hour to get through the entire Louvre.[19] And while Skrillex isn’t quite Da Vinci, they do share in common a broad enough cultural cachet that you automatically feel more relevant just for having ingested their work. It’s coolness by consumption, where the more famous names you catch, the more bad-ass you are.

Combine this with the ubiquitous, conspicuous drug and alcohol consumption, plus the fact that people everywhere are dressed in flashy outfits[20] they’d never wear anywhere else, and suddenly the real nature of Outside Lands becomes pretty apparent: this festival is just one big high-school/college party. Why didn’t I figure this out sooner? It’s hopelessly crowded. People are peeing in bushes and groping in public. Everyone suddenly has the urge to run into and meet up with distant friends with whom they’ve never talked for more than five consecutive minutes.[21] And the big parallel, the one whose overarching significance gives added meaning to the rest of them: Outside Lands makes you feel like you’re at the center of the world.

The older most of us get, the more those large structured networks that used to double as the foundations to our social lives shrink. Maybe you go to bars or dinner parties or birthday parties, but PARTIES, those ones whose success are determined pretty much by scale alone, they become fewer and farther between, making it increasingly hard to believe that what you’re doing is the thing to be doing when you’re only doing it with three other people. Outside Lands offers the scale to negate those feelings of insignificance. A massive, diverse array of people unite in the self-determined belief that this big, chaotic amoeba of over-stimulation is enjoyable. And, unlike a sporting event or regular concert, you’re not locked into some seat determined by a pricing chart, which means you can feel like a titan romping freely through a self-contained little world without giving up the egalitarian kinship that develops when everyone’s bumping into one another in the porta-potty lines.[22]

Maybe if I had stopped to consider that festivals — religious festivals and seasonal festivals and festivals for conquering armies — have been around for eons, everything would’ve been a lot more obvious. Maybe if I remembered how much fun I used to have at high school parties, I could appreciate Outside Lands. There was still one day left to salvage the experience. Was it really that hard to just cut loose for eight hours? Then the surly octogenarian in me piped up: don’t forget about the bone-crushing crowds. Or the freezing fog. Or the concert-ignoring dinguses who are hitting on your girlfriend. I decided that in order to shut him up, I’d try to adhere to two basic rules on Sunday: 1) Stop pursuing some sort of pure musical ecstasy while surrounded by a bunch of people on Ecstasy. 2) Be less sober.

The plan worked. All of the things that had been disappointing and stressful about the first two days sort of just dissipated in the face of my blurry inebriated reversion to carefree adolescence. Alas, the trade-off is that I also have less to report about that final day. Briefly: I ate about a pound of tater tots. And a pizza. And then more tater tots. I spent a few hours on a blanket with my sister’s friends who I don’t know very well and had a lovely time talking about I don’t remember what. I drank about a quart of weird pink vodka that we smuggled in from my girlfriend’s mom. I heard some music, including the final show of the festival by Stevie Wonder. He was funky and played his hits and when, during the encore, his band pieced together an improvised and mediocre version of The Beatles’ “She Loves You” to which Stevie himself forgot most of the words, it didn’t matter, because I was dancing and lights were flashing and I didn’t really care that people were fleeing for the exits to get home to tell everyone that they had just seen Stevie Wonder. TC mark

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