Fighting festival fatigue

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • April 6, 2016

Every summer, I say goodbye to my favorite musicians. As the warm weather rolls in, these artists leave the comfort of indoor venues behind, heading out on the ever-growing festival circuit. It is a divisive time of year; music festivals are definitely not for everyone, and personally, I find them too stressful. Ticket and food costs drain your bank account, seeing every artist is impossible, and the difficulties of weather and muddled sound systems are frustrating. Even more discouraging is the presence of major corporate backing, which leaves these festivals feeling more like a football game than a concert.

In the past 10 years, these events have grown in size and scope across the country. There are a few major fixtures—Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bonnaroo—which are enormous ordeals, bringing in tens of thousands of people. In the wake of these financial successes, smaller, mid-sized festivals have popped up all over the country. Washington has Sasquatch!, New York City hosts Governors Ball, Delaware boasts Firefly, and even Boston has joined the mix, putting on Boston Calling twice a year. Since its creation, this last event has taken on a handful of new corporate sponsors, plastering walls with new advertisements and pitching stalls for everyone from JetBlue to Alex and Ani. Every year it seems the country has reached a festival saturation point, but most of these ventures, with only a few exceptions, continue to be successful. 

When the first music festival lineup was curated in 1967 for the Monterey Pop Festival, the goal was to put on a show that would establish rock music as a valuable genre. Of the dozen artists who performed, only sitarist Ravi Shankar was paid for his performance, and the rest of the show’s profits were donated to charities for music education. It became the model for the ideal music festival, disproving skeptics with its tranquil, well-organized environment and garnering recognition for important artists from all over the world.

These utopian hopes didn’t last long—when it became apparent that these events draw massive crowds, it also showed that it was a scene that could be financially exploited. Corruption became an issue as early as 1969, when businessmen used the original Woodstock as a vehicle for profit. The full commercialization of festivals peaked in the 1990s, when corporate involvement in events like the MTV-sponsored Woodstock ‘99 had disastrous consequences. To make ends meet, organizers didn’t provide enough food, water, or sanitary products for the projected crowd, and it wasn’t long before the attendees turned violent, turning especially on female audience members. It was one of the most disastrous festivals in history, and an unfortunate omen for their future.

There are still music events that remain as safe spaces for audiences and try to keep the focus on the artists and their work. Newport Folk Festival remains a valuable institution for music, marked every year by a small, thoughtful lineup instead of one packed with best-sellers and big names. Similarly, Wilco founded their Solid Sound festival in western Massachusetts with the hopes of creating a more personal event, and Portland’s Pickathon prides itself on booking great performers left off of some of the season’s bigger bills. But even in these cases, affordability and practicality remain an issue. Dissatisfied with these alternatives, independent labels and artists are further pushing back against the business model. 

Don Giovanni Records, a small DIY label most notable for artists like Screaming Females and Downtown Boys, created a different type of festival this year. The less-than-subtly-named “New Alternative Music Festival” boasts that it will provide three days of music without multi-nationals. While the location in Asbury Park, New Jersey, might not be the most glamorous, the lineup is stacked with the label’s strongest acts, and the tickets are inexpensive. While the usual festival runs upward of $150, three-day tickets for Don Giovanni’s fest are just $28. The cost is just one way it subverts the corporate crookedness of other similar events, as is outlined in the fest’s manifesto. While music festivals are traditionally catered toward men, robbing women of a chance to see artists they enjoy in a safe space, Giovanni Records insists that it is marketed for all. By doing so, they are expanding music festivals beyond just millennial males. 

Another similar event is California’s annual Burgerama, a festival put on in Los Angeles by the surf-punk centric Burger Records. It’s one of the most visually colorful festivals out there, with big painted skate ramps and every color of hair imaginable, a physical representation of the label’s oddball personality. As mostly Burger-signed artists fill out the bill, it cultivates a sense of community that is lost in larger events where artists are not familiar. On a smaller scale, Boston has its annual Hasslefest or the Jamaica Plain Porchfest. This kind of label-driven fest occurs in even the smallest local music scenes, and are often cheap and easy to seek out. 

Corporations treat music, and the festivals built around them, like a commodity, and smaller record labels are trying to reclaim them for something more genuine. The people behind the organization of a festival determine the spirit and crowd of the event, and anything driven by corporate interests is more likely to feel impersonal, and to be less fun. Instead of plopping down a huge amount of cash on a bigger bill this season, I’m going to reunite with artists I love at some of these smaller, experimental fests.