Festivals are starting to have a potential long-term problem. It seems like an odd thing to say during a time that could be considered a golden age. There are bringing amazing lineups like Lockn’s this year or playing in amazing places like Mexico. This is a great thing for getting excitement for a festival. The problem is in sustainability. As great as an amazing lineup is, as wonderful as a tropical vacation can be, these can become impossible to top. If lineups don’t change, people can get jaded. That can even come true with locations. The pool deck of Jam Cruise is the most incredible place where I have ever seen music, but after a few years in a row, it became easier and easier to take the location for granted. Obviously music at a festival is exceedingly important and a perfect spot will make people inspired to attend, but for an event to be sustaining, you also need to create an environment that makes people think about the festival itself as a draw, not just who are playing.
For an example, take Del Fest. With the String Summit conflict with Phish at the Gorge, I was looking for a different outlet to get my bluegrass festival on. Googling it, I saw that the first few iterations of the festival were marred by horrible weather and mud. Despite that, the reviews all raved about the event. Some of that might be attributed to the fact that it’s more fun to write about things you love than those that you hate, but the factor that gets underrated is that it’s also about building community.
With the progression of webcasts and high quality audio-visual equipment, the case can be made that the music at festivals can be better experienced at home. The sound is better. You always have a front row seat. You never have to worry about someone screaming in your ear all night or being distracted by being around an uncontrolled partier. If it rains, that doesn’t affect you. You have a hot shower and a clean bathroom with no lines. There’s no need to worry about the prices of concessions. On paper, it definitely can be argued that it’s easier to stream.
What makes the hardships and annoyances worthwhile – other than the fact that, of course, there still is an ineffable experience of being present where the music is happening that just can’t quite be the same as being in a space by yourself – is when there’s group bonding. Festivals that have strong communities make annoyances less so, sometimes to the point where they can be even romanticized as an advantage. When it was ridiculously hot at the String Summit last year, I was amused by the hose they set up and ran through the stream many times. The infamous hot dog pizza on Jam Cruise, the insane traffic jam at Big Cypress, the fact that these are things that people laugh at and tell stories about instead of complaining shows how community can add to the event.
What – perhaps more than anything else – brings a community together through somewhat annoying events? It’s a feeling that we’re all going through the same thing. Part of the power of Jam Cruise is knowing that the artists are eating the same odd concoctions as the rest of us. You couldn’t spend money to use an obscure back road through the Everglades. Shared problems become badges of honor.
I understand the rush to create ever more elaborate VIP festival areas. When no one buys recordings of music anymore, the structure that made concert tickets such a bargain has vanished. If the music industry is to have anything resembling the finances that it used to have, money has to come from somewhere. Moreover some luxuries can make sense, like per-set up tents for those who are travelling long distances and don’t want to pack all of their gear. However sometimes this can happen at the expense of the experience itself. Lockn’ doesn’t just have a VIP area, it has a Super VIP area that has special sets that only those who spent twice the VIP rate get to see. This isn’t a community at this point; it’s a series of gated clubs. Economics isn’t just a series of unrelated events where you try to maximize profits on each one. Sometimes it’s about building long lasting communities. Right now we’re at the stage of monetizing these events, trying to wring every last dollar out of them. When part of what you’re selling is a break from the real world, mirroring its worst aspects isn’t sustainable.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page
His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.