Why Music Festivals Need to Be About More Than Just Music

Article by: Marcus Dowling|@marcuskdowling

Tue June 09, 2015 | 00:00 AM

More than ever, festivals exist to celebrate life, in real time, away from the screens and schedules we're so addicted to in our day-to-day lives. They offer us a chance to see our favorite artists and relish the fruits – social, creative, technological – of the modern age, and on the whole, experience something new and different. Well, at least in theory.

Sweetlife Festival attendee and Washington Post pop music critic Chris Richards published his scathing review of Sweetgreen's (the fast-casual dining chain) recently held event, stating that the mainstream-leaning Sweetlife Festival is “bloated and inconsequential” and just like “all the others.” His indictment of the Maryland festival – as well as The Onion's recent parody about a "new" festival that's just an empty field in which to do drugs – latched on to a larger issue that questions the very purpose of festivals.

Festivals were once spaces where like-minded progressives could further their cultural agendas via music. For example, 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival came at the height of the “Summer of Love,” a moment that saw 100,000 hippies move into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The idea that just south of 10,000 of those residents would converge at the Monterey County Fairgrounds to celebrate countercultural values through music was significant and spawned a generation of significant sociopolitical moments.

Coachella 2015 Galen Oakes First Look   11

Photo by: Galen Oakes

By comparison, the aforementioned Sweetlife Festival is an event held by Sweetgreen, an upstart chain restaurant that sells healthy salads, which means that ostensibly the cultural agenda of the festival is to promote healthy lifestyles. How does Sweetlife’s success apply to broader culture as a whole? That has yet to be seen. Insofar as to how promoting a restaurant via a festival has affected Sweetgreen’s gross earnings, those figures probably don’t even matter, because the company has $22 million in the bank in the form of an investment from AOL founder Steve Case’s Revolution Growth. Obviously, the festival landscape has changed.

Leading rock promoter and manager Harvey Goldsmith recently told The Guardian that “The festival circuit has peaked...There’s too many of them and there are not enough big acts to headline them.” As the "festival circuit" has gone grown exponentially in the mainstream, the core ethos driving the culture has been obscured between the bright lights of big names and bigger paydays.

The music industry has reached a point in which recorded content is literally worth pennies on the cent. Thus, live performance as a revenue stream – namely at festivals – is of absolute importance to keep music alive. Of course, when top-draw musicians are looking to maintain their level of financial largess as other, once-lucrative streams of income disappear, booking fees for playing these festivals oftentimes reach into the high six figures. Sadly, these fees trickle down to festival-goers, and ticket prices then become so onerous that eventually, these prices may actually drive down festival attendance.

Governor's Ball 2014 Art Gimbel 149

Photo by: Art Gimbel

Even worse, the idea exists that festivals could become almost solely music-driven spectacles existing only to be blogged and tweeted about the next day and then forgotten forever in the tides of internet news. This doesn’t need to be the case. Woodstock '69 and its impact are still being talked about to this day. If folks in that similarly tumultuous era could create such a lasting cultural behemoth, we should expect more of our own culture.

The blueprint for the sustainable future of festival culture already exists at transformational festivals like Colorado's Sonic Bloom , California's Lightning In a Bottle , and Costa Rica's Envision Festival . These fests put heavy emphasis on personal growth via seminars, workshops, art installations and more; such varied programming – in addition to music – for attendees and even artists alike prove that positive sociopolitical benefits exist in festival settings around the country. The era of larger festivals being little more than jaw-droppingly amazing, laser-laced outdoor raves was a ton of fun, but has grown long in the tooth. As always, there's something to learn from the underground.

The music industry needs to more significantly embrace alternate means of sponsorship and technology in order to save itself. Booking musicians for festivals need not stop, but expectations of heavy paydays that jeopardize the balance of music and sociopolitical aims needs to be addressed.

The immersive, mind-expanding festival experiences and big-ticket music need not be mutually exclusive. Big money, big music and their need to blend organic communality with outlandish displays of opulence that make the artist (and even the VIP-level guests) more important than the festival’s larger goals need to be removed immediately from the picture.

Envision Festival 2015 Luke The People Of Envision   090

Photo by: Luke GS

It’s time for festivals to either develop or stay true to an ethos that correlates with cultural and human development. If this sounds “hippy dippy,” that’s absolutely the point. If festivals are, indeed, “all about the vibes,” then creating spaces that respect vibes and feelings without the perceived need for drug use are important. Thus, putting more time into arranging moments that allow for significant interpersonal interaction are actually more important than booking top musical acts.

If mainstream festivals are to be more than “bland and inconsequential,” then spaces for moments of great interpersonal consequence must be created. Be that something akin to Mysteryland having yoga or the Insane Clown Posse booking pro-wrestling events at the Gathering of the Juggalos, ideas that celebrate humans directly interacting with each other (from yes, the sublime to the ridiculous) must be incorporated before anything else.

If we’re focused on celebrating, protecting and preserving the beneficial aspects of global festival culture, then the current anti-festival worldwide media cycle is certainly troubling. Sure, we can poke fun at the silliness of festival culture with the best of them, but first and foremost, this tide of negativity must be stopped.

The process of rebuilding the notion of positivism toward these events and actually making the idealism believed to be possible via festivals as cultural experiences should be top priority. If anything, view this as a manifesto for the future than a caustic response. Ultimately, what can’t be fixed in the past is best understood as the foundation of the future – a future in which festival culture is more than just a bunch of kids in a field on drugs staring at a pop star.