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The Change in the Ecosystem of Music Festivals

Do festivals shape our perspective on 'good' music or is our new way of consumption shaping festivals?

As we remove our winter coat and gear towards warmer days ahead, festival season emerges from fresh buds of flowers that will eventually be plucked for a headband. What started out as communal gatherings that showcased the best of the best for an aurora of delight in sight and sound has turned into an assortment of constant shows attempting to out-do one another by talent and location. This is in no way a hit towards festival giants but reverts down to tailored questions of supporting local music, to the masses now taking a dominant vote in what is good and what isn’t.

If we examine this year’s roster of Coachella, FYF (before it was cancelled, which speaks volume), Shaky Knees, Sasquatch, ACL, Outside Lands, Firefly, and Arroyo Seco, there’s an obvious shift in similar artists that are overspilling every year. While the majority becomes a no brainer on why they are on the bill, there are some that instantly become valued not for their talent, but simply for the spot. As a consumer, this does weigh a bit of bias thoughts when rummaging for new music; “Oh, they played that festival, they must be good.” This can lean towards that the festival has earned a reputation of showcasing amazing talent, year after year, or the hype of being on a huge music festival is swaying our opinion. Years ago, I would definitely have agreed and proved both statements, hell, a month ago I would’ve continued with this notion, yet the cancellation of FYF pulled everything into perspective. The way we are consuming music is altering the mindset of festivals.

When the beloved Monterey International Pop Festival came into existence in 1967 — known as the first major rock festival, aside from “Summer of Love” — the idea wasn’t money, it was embracing cultures, ideas, and to validate rock music. Majority of artists performed free where any profit was donated to charity. The Monterey’s original line-up truly changed the course of history by featuring Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, and crafting a lineup that featured the best of the U.S. and the U.K. in rock, a genre not yet fully celebrated in all its glory. This was an obvious influence for Woodstock which appeared several years later and once again used the “template” of immersing all senses for a complete experience.

As time progressed, festivals became the “it” event, where music lovers would wait relentlessly for the lineup and the opportunity to purchase tickets rather than investing in a smaller show. A business mindset evolved into a larger focal point than before, while hometown heroes made efforts to represent, and for a while, local shows suffered. People rather would wait and save for a larger event with numerous acts that were quite impressive in comparison to now. This was during the time where social media wasn’t as prominent though, and accessibility in music followed suit. Commentary from AXS touched on Coachella, noting that the majority of headlines turned into “Looks from Coachella” versus that actual acts. “As social media continues to heighten it’s value in media posts over texts, this lends further to the idea of other music festivals focusing less on music and more on opportunities for celebrity fashion displays. Though theoretically, any existing event that features celebrities ultimately becomes a catwalk — social sharing essentially elicits attention into that idea even deeper.” Louisa Manalastas’ thoughts ring true. If you would attend Coachella, it wasn’t about the music, it was more so, what did you wear and 70% of time documenting the experience via social media.

2004 Coachella line up / $75 USD per day, $140 USD two days

This became a huge change in the ecosystem of Festivals: Adapting. Despite my own personal opinions on Coachella — mostly being how the lineups as of late are not worth the money and their headliners are not once what they were — they have adapted to the rise of social media and thus altered their audience (which heavily now plays a role on the headliners). You don’t go to Coachella to discover new music, have an intimate moment with your favorite artist, or really, for the music. You go there to parade that you were in fact there and what you wore and who you saw. You go there to be free, relax, and take a vacation from reality. Continuing the falling dominoes, this change in Coachella indirectly affected other festivals — bring back the music.

2018 Coachella line up / $429 USD 3 Days, $999 VIP Package

With Coachella’s new persona, other festivals could now strengthen their own line-up and find a middle ground with social media. Yes, social media is here to stay but there’s already one giant spectacle that breaks the internet on this chapter. Which circles back to a key factor: consumption of music. Vinyls have made a comeback, streaming services reign supreme, and reviews are accessible at everyone’s fingertips thanks to smartphones. What does this mean? Consumers want a human experience. Spotify, one of the top streaming giants, is a perfect example of this balance. They take time with their playlists that are handpicked by humans, not bots, creating a personal experience with their subscribers. They’ve also beautifully implemented their sharing feature with Instagram Stories, appeasing to social media but once again creating a personal user experience.

Local fests have taken note such as Music Tastes Good and Tropicala, curating respectable acts tailored to a “theme” while taking into consideration its surroundings, trends, and simply reviving the original intent of attending a music festival; the music. Newcomers to Pasadena but no strangers to the game, Goldenvoice’s Arroyo Seco also found its niche in LA’s backyard as a “family friendly” outdoor event with an equally impressive line-up for its sophomore year. These events that are fair in price and offer a wide range of music have added back into the ecosystem of fests, as the same people who attended these smaller fests will be more likely to attend local shows. Thus adding back into the personal experience, the need to document these gems via social media, and creating more of a buzz for these locals to be added to a bigger festival. Not to mention music publications that are rising again, allowing consumers and musicians to care who “hand picks” them.

Sasquatch! did one of the best jobs in curation with local talent and great headliners. Shaky Knees was equally thought out, adding one more element with its counterpart fest, Shaky Beats, focusing more on production and electronic acts, and ACL, Outside Lands, Fire Fly, and Governor’s Ball added to impressive lineups for 2018.

2018 Sasquatch line up / $129 USD single day / $429 USD 3 Day / 4 pack, three day, $899 USD

A great example of losing the personal touch is with the failed FYF Fest. Founded by Sean Carlson in 2004 and is now solely produced by Goldenvoice, this festival was once a landmark in itself and focal point of talent in Los Angeles. Goldenvoice eventually cut ties with Carlson over the founder admitted to sexual misconduct. With this being in November of 2017, and Goldenvoice not wanting to be associated with such a reputation but revive the fest, announced a line up in March 2018. First glance, one would notice a heavy amount of women. Not taking into consideration Carlson’s  dark admittance, the lineup lacked any thought. It was too focused on detaching itself from Carlson that it led to Goldenvoice booker Jennifer Yacoubian to specifically point out that they booked women acts, but no consistency at all — it lost its magic touch.  All acts mentioned could be seen elsewhere,  noting following the trend of resurfacing nostalgic artists, sadly tarnishing any perspective on the artists themselves. Due to poor ticket sales, FYF was cancelled and brought out an interesting fact that many don’t realize. Consumers are in control.

FYF 2018 lineup / 2 Day GA $275 USD / 2 Day VIP $599 USD / Single Day $170 USD

Consumers have always been in control but for some odd reason they think they aren’t, or at one point were heavily influenced and subjected to basic media platforms showcasing their opinion. Taking a step back, consumers aren’t simply listening to what is on the radio but finding for themselves what is good; they want a better experience and a better lineup, tailored to each of their needs. Not to mention the political climate we are now in, the music and fashion will always represent this sense of repression and expression. The rise of Latinx bands, LGBTQ highlighted shows, to GirlSchoolLA focusing on women, all fall into the need to be personal; to have an identity.

Expression is more of a need than want this year. People are changing and festivals are changing for them. Several years ago, I would’ve gladly agreed there are way too many festivals with repeating headliners. Now, I am cheering for more diverse fests, local shows, and communal gatherings, confident that the curation will be getting better due to our consumption from blogs, streaming platforms, and a repeating political past from the first festival’s era.


Cover photo: Jam in the Van, Music Tastes Good 2017, by Martin Santacruz Jr. for GUM

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