By MIKE SOSNICK
If I woke up tomorrow to the Pitchfork headline: “Haim, Danny Brown, Real Estate to Play Bent Scrotum Festival,” I wouldn’t bat an eyelash. I wouldn’t even exert myself enough to type the festival’s name into Google, let alone considering putting aside money for a ticket. It’s not that I dislike any of those acts — I know firsthand that Haim puts on a great live show, Old was one of the best hip-hop albums of the year and Atlas, while overrated, is a solid LP. It’s that, not only is the market for music festivals saturated to the point of ruin, but even concert announcement season is becoming incessantly annoying.
My relationship with music festivals is the textbook definition of love-hate. On one hand, there is no better way to see three days straight of live music, but there is also no better way to stand 150 yards away from a stage. Festivals have a critical mass of people who care deeply about music, but they also have a critical mass of tank top and club drug aficionados. At their most basic level, as a place to foster musical appreciation and see a ton of major bands for one flat rate, festivals are wonderful. In fact, my obsession with live music is due in no small part to Osheaga 2012, but each year the crowd treats it more and more like a Bacchanalian orgy than a series of lively outdoor shows. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Montreal — worldwide, festivals are being seen mainly as huge, expensive parties with really good, live background music.
If there were just one or two festivals per region each summer, they would be rocking with music heads and party heads alike. They would have diverse lineups and each one would be able to cultivate its own character. But, if everyone and their candy-flipping grandma has access to seven different festivals, they continue to lose their musical cache and approach being well-curated frat parties. As there is tons money to be made in marketing a rock festival as if it were a rave, cookie-cutter shows with overlapping acts are popping up in even the least culturally relevant corners of the country. If you build it, though, apparently, they will come — as evidenced by Schick razors’ latest contest. Promoted by such respected musical tastemakers as BroBible.com, its winners can go to any U.S.-based music festival for free.
With eight and a half gazillion festivals naturally come eight and a half gazillion festival announcements. So, just like festival season itself, festival announcement season has become something of a cultural phenomenon. “Bonnaroo blows Governor’s Ball out of the water,” “Can’t wait until Firefly tickets drop next week!” and “Yo did you see the Hangout Fest lineup? Duuuuuude,” have all become standard conversation starters among marginally musically involved individuals. Weighing the minute differences between festivals that are largely the same has become a pastime of sorts. Nearly every day I wake up to news of one of roughly 20 acts playing in some field or park. I’d like to think there is a substantial difference between each nameless festival, but there simply isn’t. Each year there is a handful of bands that goes on the festival circuit, making the large font of the lineups basically identical. Debating their relative merits is just splitting hairs.
That being said, you should still go to a music festival. Go for the right reasons: Attend Osheaga to see the city of Montreal, the one closest to your house for convenience or Bonnaroo for life-long memories of how your friends smell after four days without a shower. Don’t fetishize the festival experience, either. It’s a way to see tons of bands in one sunny weekend with just one ticket. The music, your friends and the good vibes should make it memorable enough.
I still advocate fighting the good fight, however. Instead of schlepping 15 hours to your fifth festival of the summer, get involved in your local music community. For the same $250 as a festival pass, you can see 50 DIY shows in your hometown. For the uninitiated, I’d argue a DIY show is more like a frat party than a festival is. With the exception of the live music, they basically consist of horny people guzzling cheap beer and sweatily colliding in a dingy basement. But what frat party will expose you to a few great bands you’ve never heard of? These acts need your support more than Foster the People do. Plus you get cool indie-cred bragging rights that you saw them before they became so mainstream. Since that guy who eats instant ramen three meals a day doesn’t have the same curating power for his loft parties as Coachella does, many of the bands can suck. But if worse comes to worst, you’ll get to mosh, chug some malt liquor, support a cause and have a grand ‘ole time.