Have We Reached Peak Festival?

Music Features
Have We Reached Peak Festival?

Let’s just come right out and say it: there are too many music festivals.

As the outdoor concert season draws ever closer, it’s time to acknowledge that we, as a culture, have reached peak festival. That’s the live-music equivalent of peak oil, the idea that the world will someday, possibly soon, max out on petroleum extraction, followed by irreversible, eventually terminal decline that will make Mad Max: Fury Road look like an episode of Frontline.

The stakes are slightly lower for music festivals, of course, but we’re definitely past the point of diminishing returns as mammoth multi-day destination festivals—the kind that people plan trips around—reach their saturation point. The lineups increasingly look alike, any buzz just blends into the general wash of pop-culture tinnitus and it’s starting to seem like we keep going mostly because Instagram photos and Facebook posts make them look way more fun than spending a rain-or-shine weekend in an open field with 50,000 other people actually is.

Portlandia captured the essence of modern festival-going in the season premiere in January. “It’s supposed to be 100 degrees, and 100 percent sand in your mouth,” Carrie Brownstein’s character Michelle said, describing the forecast for Oregon’s Pickathon. Instead of braving the conditions, she and Fred Armisen try “You Had to Be There: The absentee concert-goer experience,” and “attend” Pickathon by drone, skipping the crowds, the heat and the hassle. Sounds like a viable business plan in an age of over-plenty.

Peak festival probably happened in 2014, when OutKast headlined more than 40 of them, including Coachella, Bonnaroo, Summerfest, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Those festivals once comprised the bulk of the big names, along with Pitchfork, Newport Folk, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and, internationally, Glastonbury in England and Roskilde in Denmark. There were always smaller niche festivals, too, focusing on bluegrass, folk or blues, or regional scenes.

Over the past 15 years, though, the number of marquee weekend-long music events has exploded. Now there’s Firefly, Hangout, Forecastle, Boston Calling, Governors Ball, Outside Lands, FYF Fest, Made in America, Bumbershoot, Riot Fest, Okeechobee, Treefort, Sasquatch!, Stagecoach, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Field Trip, Voodoo Fest, Eaux Claires and tons more smaller regional festivals—to say nothing of overseas festivals (Primavera Sound, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Groovefest Malta, outposts of Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, etc.) and all the EDM parties that seem to take place basically every weekend.

The big-name festivals used to have distinct identities. Coachella booked established hipster groups, Pitchfork booked emerging hipster groups, Bonnaroo trafficked in jam-bands, Lollapalooza revived the alt-rock aesthetic it developed as a traveling festival in the ’90s, Austin City Limits had a rootsier bent and Summerfest was a big mix of everything. Now they share many of the same acts, with each other and with newer festivals, which makes all of them less distinctive. To stand out, they’re increasingly resorting to gimmicks: R. Kelly playing Pitchfork, for example, or Madonna or AC/DC or hologram-Tupac at Coachella, which this year is shoveling cash at Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan to headline as Guns N’ Roses. Beat that, everybody else.

Better yet, don’t. Don’t contribute to a rock ’n’ roll arms race that only exacerbates the biggest problem of all with large festivals: they make it hard to actually enjoy the music. The sound is awful, bands tend to play abbreviated sets, getting close to the stage generally requires camping out all day (or pushing your way through the crowd), there’s always someone in front of you twirling in circles or juggling, food and drink are expensive, and the less said about the bathrooms, the better. More than anything, big festivals are about the scene, the chance to be part of a capital-M Moment, with the music—the reason, ostensibly, for the festival—coming in a distant second. As festivals become more homogeneous, the scene has, too, and what’s left is akin to a clump of mushrooms that springs up overnight in one place and then shrivels, only to pop up the next weekend somewhere else.

There’s also the effect that big festivals can have on nearby music scenes. With contractual clauses that bar acts from playing within a given distance of the venue for a certain period before and after the event—some of them encompass more than 100 miles and several months—big festivals have a way of sucking dry the concert calendars in cities, especially smaller ones, inside the radius. That’s good for the festival promoters and OK for bands that can string together an itinerary of well-paying summer gigs, but it’s crap for music fans who are more interested in a quality show than an overpriced carnival.

There are exceptions to all this, of course. Mostly, they’re the smaller festivals organized around a certain band (Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, for example, or Disco Biscuits’ Camp Bisco), or that drill deeply into a particular kind of music (say, the FreshGrass bluegrass festival in western Massachusetts). They’re the ones that are less interested in attracting a massive audience than the right audience, which tends to make them at once manageable and also fun.

We’re already seeing signs that we’re past the festival tipping point. Alabama’s BayFest called off last year’s edition. The Bridgeport, Connecticut, hippie festival Gathering of the Vibes will skip 2016, the founder said in a web post. Their respective organizers have also scrapped the Big Barrel Country Music Festival planned for Dover, Delaware; the FarmBorough country fest planned for New York City; and the Squamish Valley Music Festival in Vancouver, B.C.

As the market corrects and we ease down the slope from peak festival, it’s clear that plenty of them will survive. It’s even possible that some of them will find ways to stand apart again that don’t involve booking all the same bands as every other festival. Or maybe Coachella will find a way to raise the stakes again. Someone has to be working on hologram-Hendrix, right?

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