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The Dartmouth
April 18, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Trends: Music Festivals Increase in Popularity and Create a Culture of their Own

As music festivals such as Coachella, Lollapalooza and Governors Ball have become more extravagant and popular, festivals have gained their own culture and created an expensive trend for Gen Z-ers.

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Music festivals seem to have become one answer to our generation’s short attention span and extravagant desire for live music. After a brief hiatus during the quiet times of the pandemic, music festivals are larger, more elaborate and more popular than ever before. These multi-day events cram hundreds of artists and thousands of attendees into an all-consuming escapist experience. The impermanence of the music festival signifies how millennials and Gen Z-ers value experiences over material purchases.

The largest of festivals — think Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo or Governors Ball — cater to a broad slice of music listeners by curating stages with different genres and promoting diverse headliners: One can usually expect a rap stage, an indie rock stage, an electronic music stage and, of course, a multi-genre headliner stage. Some festivals cater to a more specific type of crowd: Electronic music festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and Tomorrowland have exploded in popularity as EDM, electronic dance music, has gone mainstream in the US over the past fifteen years. There are also the rap-oriented festivals like Rolling Loud or country festivals like Stagecoach USA, as well as smaller festivals for classical, jazz or any other music subgenre. But it is the aforementioned large, multi-genre festivals that have become the household names and recognizable brands for music festival culture.

The brand of these music festivals is even known on college campuses. The Programming Board’s most anticipated event of the year is Green Key, a microcosm of music festival culture organized by and for college students. Other schools host similar events, like Cornell’s Slope Day and Yale’s Spring Fest. Dartmouth fraternities and sororities also appropriate music festival brands to theme their events — think Deltapalooza, Queerchella or WoodstocKDE.

While Coachella was once billed as a rock festival, over time, the most prominent headliners have become popstars, DJs or rappers. In general, the festival experience lends itself to more upbeat, party music like EDM. Mainstream listening habits reflect this, with electronic music and rap dominating the charts for the past decade — the 2010s were the first decade that rap outsold rock. The rise of electronic music has been paired with an investment into elaborate synced visuals, lasers and pyrotechnics, where the awe of live performance has been replaced with the spectacle of audiovisual stimulation. But of course, acoustic and indie music has still retained a strong following as a popular counterculture to the maximalist tendencies of current pop music.

More than any other type of performance, festivals are cultural zeitgeists of their moment, with their influence stretching far beyond the limited number of actual attendees. Woodstock in 1969 attracted half a million people to a small farm in upstate New York just once, but its legacy touched a generation. Today’s music festivals are spread through social media and the internet. Coachella has a daily attendance of about 125,000 people, but millions of spectators tune in to the livestream or broadcast specific sets. But at a substantial general admission price starting at  $549 before fees, and with most similar festivals charging a similar amount, music festival tickets have become a status symbol — not to mention the exorbitant costs of food and alcohol within the festival itself. But today, you are not just paying for the experience itself, you are also paying for the recognition and clout of your experience on social media.

Since the days of Woodstock, festivals have become far more corporate. Festivals are generally much safer and more luxurious than they once were, with regulations mandating proper amenities like adequate water, medical stations and bathrooms. But even today, poor planning can cause festival crowds to disastrously spiral out of control, such as during the infamous 2021 Astroworld festival stampede. Any mass gathering has the potential to degenerate into violence, but the plethora of drugs at festivals makes them even more precarious and complicated events to organize. Dartmouth’s Green Key used to attract a large influx of non-college students, but tighter wristband guidelines and other increased regulations have ensured that Green Key is an event for Dartmouth students first and foremost. 

Live music is nothing new — before the introduction of the record it was all there was. But in the past 20 years, it has experienced a pronounced resurgence, if out of necessity: With the advent of music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music that pay less than pennies per stream, artists have had to turn to concerts and memorabilia to keep themselves afloat. Festivals have massively benefited from this industry shift, as they are more consistent and reliable as yearly business ventures than one-off artist tours.

Additionally, music festivals play an instrumental role in the exposure of up and coming artists. Attendees may buy a ticket because they know a few of the headliners, but will undoubtedly end up bouncing around the stages and may discover an artist they had not heard of before. Festivals also take the burden of organization and logistics largely off the artists, allowing them to perform in more locations more easily. Think of the festival as the middleman between the spectator and the performer — artists need not concern themselves with the typical logistical nightmares of planning a tour whilst spectators can pick and choose which artists they want to see. Of course the sacrifice is the energy and dedication of the crowd — it can be harder for smaller artists to invigorate a festival crowd when they are unknown by the majority of attendees and are constrained by much shorter set times. For Green Key, the fame and notoriety of the Programming Board lineup is always a large point of contention, since it is impossible to make everyone happy with the resources at their disposal.

In general, music festivals skew to a more youthful demographic than concerts, mainly because they are far more physically taxing. One concert is usually less than three hours long, but music festivals are open-air and can last upwards of ten hours for a single day. Most of the large festivals are at least three days long. Consequently, festivals attract lots of recreational drug usage beyond just alcohol and marijuana; specifically MDMA and psychedelics have been staples of music festivals since the 60s. Drug usage is an important part of the festival experience for many, but raucous crowds and high temperatures can make improper drug usage dangerous. Even so, only a small minority of festival attendees choose to remain sober. The same will be true for students at Green Key, undoubtedly the biggest party weekend of the entire year.

As is the case with many college music festivals, Green Key weekend is also a great opportunity for local and up-and-coming artists to gain exposure. While the PB mainstage concert features famous headliners, the Collis Patio concerts add depth to the Green Key lineup through diverse, lesser-known musicians. This year they will be hosting Juice, Ariel & The Culture, Zinadelphia and the Q-Tip Bandits, among other student bands and artists.

Music festivals are certainly here to stay. Coachella’s advance tickets this year sold out an hour faster than years prior. Festivals are becoming safer, more luxurious and better organized, but that comes at the expense of the agency of individual artists. Expect to see electronic music and rap to continue to dominate the stage.