Beyond the Bubble: This festival brought to you by...
Woodstock, America’s first music festival of note, took place on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, from Aug. 15 to 18 in 1969. For those three days of peace and music, concert-goers were expected to fork over only $18 — a little over $115 when adjusted for inflation. Today, a three-day general admission pass to see Drake, Florence and the Machine and other performers at Coachella will run you $375 — and if you factor in shuttle privileges with your pass, the cost will rise to $435, with an $85 minimum required just to camp out overnight. These prices, of course, don’t include food, drinks and initial transportation to the event. Times have changed.
Unfortunately, with this pricing change has also come a dramatic shift in festival culture toward elite commodification of the festival experience. Music festivals like Woodstock began with the simple hope of bringing people together over the common bond of music. A festival’s focus was the music — shocking, right? — and the attendees were there for just that — good music and good times. But in our age of consumerism, festivals like Coachella have transformed from music-centric weekends to wallet-exhausting fashion shows that treat the music as near secondary.
Driven by consumerist impulses, today’s festivals have transformed into advertising zoos. Now, I understand that advertising is necessary, that branding is essential to business and that good marketing strategies are the key to success. What upsets me about this abundance of ads, though, is their lack of boundaries. Festivals like Lollapalooza in Chicago name their stages after brands — such as the Samsung Galaxy stage — and companies have continued to push the envelope in finding ways to interact with participants. As a result, festivals have evolved into completely different entities than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Remember, Coachella wasn’t always $435. When the festival launched its first performances in 1999, tickets were $50, which translates to $70.44 in today’s dollars.
What else has happened in the last 20 years besides a general rise in the presence of consumerism? Technology. Digital music has induced a notable decline in physical album sales and streaming has caused a visible decline in the presence of digital music. Facing dropping sales, many musicians have turned to modern music festivals as a primary source of revenue, and in turn festivals have begun to lose their individualized personalities and become obsessed with profit margins. Now, the need to make money far exceeds the importance of the music or the community of concert-goers. Sasquatch music festival held in Washington, for example, canceled its July festival last year citing poor ticket sales. The staff of Live Nation Entertainment, the concert promoter that runs Sasquatch, blamed the decreased sales on the shortage of big-name talent — not on a shortage of local sounds who could have created a wonderful atmosphere. For me, this introduces another problem with current festival culture — it’s all about the headline performers.
As I’ve already mentioned, music festivals were constructed for the enjoyment of music and a completely transformative experience with the musicians you love. But just like concert-goers have begun flocking toward festivals with greater name recognition — perhaps for more Instagram likes? — festivals have been forced to book artists with greater name recognition in order to remain popular. This convention has led to many music festivals, ranging from Coachella to Lollapalooza, Electric Daisy, Electric Zoo, Made in America and others, to have incredibly similar lineups.
Taken in sum, the changes — wrought by consumerism, advertising and technology — have diminished the true purpose of music festivals to little more than another commodity for upper class America. At this point, I would rather attend a coffee shop open mic night than waste hundreds of dollars on a weekend where I will be too busy worrying about buying eight-dollar soft drinks to actually listen to high-quality live sets. Plus, I’d probably be critiqued for whether my clothes are fashionable enough. Don’t forget the pressure to Instagram and Snapchat every moment too — because if it’s not on social media, did I even attend Coachella?
Looking back on the beginnings of music festivals and where they are today, I have to say it’s heart-breaking. I wish we could see festivals renew their focus on the music, creating unique lineups that craft a personality for the festival. Most of all, I’d like to see festivals put focus on building community around the musicians we love. But I don’t think they will. Until then, I guess I’ll be staying home — and looking forward to live music that I know will at least be free over Green Key.