Are outdoor summer music festivals really all that fun?
Steven: Every summer I face the same no-win situation: Do I man up and set aside my instinctual aversion to outdoor music festivals, which I’ve come to associate with overstuffed and B.O.-heavy crowds, wallet-killing concessions, poor sound, and even worse sightlines? Or do I surrender to sanity and stay home, which will inevitably make me feel like I’m missing something, especially after I read all the reviews online about how “mind-blowing” and “awe-inspiring” such-and-such band was. Really? You really thought it was that good after standing in flip-flops in the punishing sun for eight hours in a sea of awful, inconsiderate drunks? Is it possible that I actually hate live music?
I’m still undecided on whether I’m attending Lollapalooza this year. I already passed on Pitchfork, even though I had a pretty good time when I attended two years ago. I’ve even had fun at Lollapalooza, which is far more sprawling and gets horribly, horribly wrong most of what Pitchfork (maybe the most attendee-friendly major festival going at the moment) does right, mostly because it doesn’t limit attendance more. There are plenty of artists I’d like to see at Lolla—The Strokes! Phoenix! The Lady Gaga Batshit Bright Shiny Lights Spectacular!—but the discomfort I’ll have to endure for the privilege of maybe kinda sorta seeing and hearing these bands as they play—they’re still playing, right?—a half-mile away from my 12-inch radius of personal space makes it a pretty dubious proposition. Even if I decided to not care about the bands and focus solely on drinking myself into a sloppy puddle of goo like everybody else around me, I’d end up spending a small fortune on watery domestics that would only leave me standing in bladder-choking agony in endless lines for portable toilets. This sucks, right?
I acknowledge that my whining about music festivals comes from a cushy place: Because of my job, I’ve already seen (or will see) many of my favorite bands playing this summer’s festival circuit for free in more optimal conditions in clubs and theaters this year. For the average music fan, the opportunity to see so much music for a relatively small amount of money is a bargain too good to pass up, no matter how lousy the conditions might end up being. But even if I didn’t have the luxury of being a regular concertgoer with guest-list privileges, Lollapalooza would still be a hard sell. As much as I love the rush of seeing amazing musicians perform live, entertainment is not worth being treated like part of a sweaty, mindless herd of person-cattle.
Let me pose a question The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias asked three years ago when he similarly realized that outdoor music festivals had lost their luster for him: “How often do you see transcendent performances at summer festivals? And how often are you left vaguely disappointed?” I think Scott was right on the money when he likened “going to these festivals to a live version of the listening stations you get at the mall: They’re good for sampling what bands can do live, but you’re really just taking mental notes to see them (or not) in a proper venue some time later.” If music festivals really are more about sampling bands than truly experiencing what they’re capable of doing live, it just seems a lot easier and cheaper to look at live clips on YouTube or something. But maybe that’s just my back and knees talking. Tell me Kyle, what’s so fun about outdoor summer music festivals anyway?
Kyle: Well, first I think we need to step back and un-generalize, because summer festivals can differ considerably from one to the other. Warped Tour offers a completely different experience from Pitchfork, which differs markedly from a behemoth like Lollapalooza or Coachella. And Summerfest in your hometown of Milwaukee is another beast altogether. How they operate—from concessions to set times to sound—differs considerably, and those can be crucial factors in the festival experience.
But you’re right in they all share a common denominator: outside, during the summer, with thousands of people crammed into a small area. There’s no getting around how unpleasant that can be. (During my first Lollapalooza experience in 1992, a stage crush during Pearl Jam’s set marked probably the only time I’ve feared for my life at a concert. I was so crammed into a scrum that my feet actually weren’t touching the ground.)
But there are simple ways to ameliorate the unpleasantness, and the biggest factor in determining what kind of day you have has nothing to do with the festival: how you dress. This is where I sacrifice a lamb on the altar of comfort. My festival uniform: T-shirt, cargo shorts (to carry sun block, notebook, etc.), hat, sunglasses, and old running shoes. Shoes are the most critical; it baffles me when people wear flip-flops to festivals. They give you no support on a day when you’re on your feet for hours, and expose your feet to getting stepped on, sunburned, and dripped on by any number of liquids. Terrible idea. Also critical: shorts, and I don’t care if you think you’re too cool for them. You won’t care how cool you look when black jeans make your legs feel like gyro meat roasting on a spit. Plus, it’s all going to get disgustingly dirty; don’t wear anything unless you can live without it come Monday morning. You can’t do anything about the weather, but you really have no one to blame but yourself if you’re uncomfortable.
I think much of the complaints against summer festivals come from people’s unwillingness to adjust for them. In a sense you have to cede your will to the festival, not try to control it. As the wise Del Griffith once counseled, you have to go with the flow, like a twig in a mighty stream. This year at Pitchfork, I had my usual list of stuff to see, but I also allowed myself to deviate from it depending on how I felt. Maybe I’d skip one band because I was enjoying another one too much. Or I’d miss most of one band’s set because I ran into some friends and stopped to chat. It made the whole experience less of a gauntlet and much more enjoyable.
You also can’t treat these events like normal concerts you’d see in a club or theater, so you have to adjust your expectations. That doesn’t necessarily mean lowering them, but understanding that an outdoor festival is its own beast. Chances are the experience won’t be as visceral as a club-based one, but it can be just as entertaining. Pitchfork positively erupted this year when LCD Soundsystem went into “All My Friends,” and the joy from thousands of people dancing and singing along—I can still hear everyone singing, “Where are your friends tonight?”—gave me goosebumps. It was the kind of experience on a scale that you couldn’t replicate in a club.
And you’re just being glib when you say you could just look up clips online to preview bands instead of watching them live. Seeing grainy, shaky footage with blown-out sound taken with someone’s cell phone doesn’t compare to experiencing it live.
I also think you’re overlooking the atmosphere festivals can create. The bands that care often feel like they have to step it up, because they’re essentially competing for people’s memories. At Lollapalooza 2005, the Arcade Fire came out in 104-degree temperatures rocking their Children Of The Corn outfits and performing like the weather didn’t even matter. At Pitchfork this year, Big Boi had to follow the completely bananas Major Lazer set, so he came out guns blazing. When bands don’t do that—like Modest Mouse slouching through its set after Robyn and Broken Social Scene lit Pitchfork up—it makes a huge difference. Like I said, festivals are practically living organisms; it’s interesting to watch how they behave. And if you do them right, they can be enjoyable and—I’ll lose my Jaded Music Critic card for this—fun. Why do you hate fun so much, Steve?
Steven: Well, Kyle, it probably started in my childhood, when my mother caught me having fun once when I was 8 and poured scalding hot water on my—hey, wait a second! I don’t hate fun! I’ll give you that not all music festivals are the same. I’ve been to plenty that I enjoyed, particularly the festivals that were on the smaller side and in scenic or comfortable surroundings. Then there’s something like South By Southwest, which takes place in nooks and crannies all over the thoroughly awesome town of Austin and is essentially a massive confluence of killer club shows and astoundingly cheap drinks.
I’m also with you on the special festival atmosphere thing; my favorite time ever seeing The Hold Steady was at Pitchfork in 2008, because it’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to seeing Craig Finn toast thousands of party-drinkers in a stadium-style setting. I remember being similarly blown away by the casual rock-star command Jack White held over a massive crowd watching The Raconteurs at Lollapalooza in 2006. You’re right; you don’t get that sort of thing at a club or theater.
But more often than not—at least in my experience—the weight of an outdoor festival crushes bands better suited for any venue that’s not in the middle a sprawling field mired in wet-armpit weather. Grizzly Bear is one of the most transcendent bands I’ve seen live in the past few years, but I can’t imagine enjoying GB’s immaculate chamber-pop at Lollapalooza this year. In the A.V. Club review of this year’s Pitchfork festival, you dismissed feisty Swedish folkie The Tallest Man On Earth for essentially the same reason—his kind of music simply doesn’t work when you’re toiling under the sweatshop conditions of a music festival.
I wanted to follow up on your comment about “competing for people’s memories,” because it inadvertently hit upon the No. 1 thing that irritates me most about music festivals—how massive amounts of hype end up glossing over the mass exploitation of music fans. I call it the Woodstock Syndrome: You insert tens of thousands of tired, sweaty people and dozens of similarly afflicted bands in an uncomfortable environment for two or three days—usually fleecing them along the way with expensive food and beverages—and then the media romanticizes this event for years and even decades afterward to make it seem more special than it actually is. If I were more cynical, I’d accuse bloggers of already having their adjective-heavy Arcade Fire raves written and ready-to-post well before Sunday’s festival-closing Lollapalooza performance. But I’ll instead reserve such baseless statements for our IM conversations, Kyle.
All of this unwarranted hype wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it didn’t enable festivals like Lollapalooza to hog many of the best touring bands hitting the road every summer. Critic and journalist Jim DeRogatis recently reported that the radius clause imposed on Lollapalooza performers prohibits them from playing within 300 miles of Chicago for as long as six months before and three months after the festival. That’s almost an entire year of locking bands out of local (and not-so-local) venues. Other major festivals impose similar restrictions. It’s one thing to present a live-music option I might not particularly care for; it’s another for that option to effectively cancel out many other options.
I’m all for small, neighborhood music festivals that allow community members to gather and enjoy music at an affordable price. You and I are lucky enough to live in towns where such festivals happen with regularity in summer. What I don’t like are corporate behemoths that make sweetheart deals with local governments so they can pack every person between the ages of 18 and 24 within several hundred miles into a relatively small area, just to pick their pockets for a weekend. Why do you hate music fans, Kyle?
Kyle: Because as a musician in Chicago, I felt rejected by them when my bands didn't catch on! (Kidding. That's what people think we are, right? Failed musicians?) I agree, radius clauses are a particularly onerous burden for a region to bear, even though the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot—DeRo’s co-host on Sound Opinions—pointed out that they’re not always enforced. Bands get exemptions all the time; for instance, Spoon played the World’s Largest Block Party in Chicago less than a month before its Lolla gig, and MGMT played here in June. (The New Pornographers played your hometown June 12.) Several of Lolla’s most noteworthy bands—Phoenix, The Walkmen, The National, Rogue Wave, The Black Keys, The Morning Benders, Avi Buffalo, Blitzen Trapper, and more—are playing after-shows the entire weekend. So it’s hard to say how much they actually restrict.
It’s funny you should mention neighborhood festivals: One booker for a couple of prominent Chicago venues told City Editor Marah Eakin that those cause more problems than festivals like Lolla or Pitchfork. The past few years have seen a proliferation of street fests in Chicago attracting national talent—Taste Of Randolph, Wicker Park Fest, West Fest, BAM—that have affected club bookings. Again, though, many of those bands double up by playing the festival one night and a club the other. Basically, Chicago offers an endless musical buffet. That’s what you get for living in Milwaukee, Steve!
I agree with you in that festivals just don’t suit some bands. And I’m always up for a good baby boomer-bashing if you want to chat about Woodstock, but that doesn’t really apply here—I don’t think anything will ever match its you-shoulda-been-there-maaaaan legacy. Unfortunately, as big music festivals have become more common, they’ve grown more homogenized, so the odds of one of a moment turning into a legend have decreased considerably. (Can you think of more than a couple since you and I started working for The A.V. Club?) Many of the artists playing Lolla are playing or have played the other big festivals around the country; the festival may offer 140 bands, but only a few—Soundgarden, Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire—make it a genuine destination. Even then, we always seem to get tour announcements for Lolla headliners the week after the festival.
Wait, I was arguing for summer festivals, right? As valid as all of these concerns are, though, I believe we may still be over-thinking it, because the average person in Grant Park this weekend probably doesn’t think too much about them. They want to see some bands and have fun, and I think that’s the key to enjoying a summer festival. That and a VIP hookup.