The Festering of Festivals

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Courtesy of Billboard

By Cody Kenner

I’m eight, and a bunch of drunken Rice University kids are jolting around erratically to the sound of The Octopus Project performing on a makeshift stage. I am entranced. I am fourteen and at my first festival, and Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs swings a microphone around herself like a lasso before smashing it into the stage repeatedly as the feedback of guitars hums around her. Around me is the smell of skunk and sweat, but all I feel is raw energy.

Many, many festivals later, I’d just gotten off the high of completing my junior year of high school when Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz crooned out the lyrics to “Start Wearing Purple” as I was jostled and drenched in mud by an enveloping mosh pit, and in that moment, I knew that music festivals and I were meant to be together forever.

Music festivals provide some of the most memorable and formative moments of young adults’ lives. They envelop audiences in energy unparalleled by any other live experience and swell the soul with passion. But some insidious trends have encroached upon the festival scene, jeopardizing the overall experience for dedicated attendees and preventing the attendance of lower-income music lovers.

For starters, the cost of festival tickets has skyrocketed over the past decade. On my home turf, I’ve been accosted by the rising ticket prices of Houston’s Free Press Summer Fest. In 2010, tickets cost $45, a reasonable amount for headliners like Stars, Girl Talk, and The Flaming Lips. Fast-forward to 2015. The price of Summer Fest tickets has risen to $169, and the headliners—Skrillex, R. Kelly, and Weezer—are of essentially the same caliber (albeit within their own respective domains). What’s more, Free Press, the organization behind Summer Fest, has launched a winter festival with starting ticket prices at $185. The same ticket price inflation has affected the Austin City Limits Music Festival, with 2009’s $90 cost of tickets transforming into the current price of $250—not to mention the festival’s encroachment into a second week, featuring all of the same artists for a second time around for yet another $250 a pop.

This continued increase in ticket prices in the face of increasing festival interest among millennials is evidence of an intention by festival coordinators to increase profit margins, with little improvement to the overall quality of the festivals. In fact, it seems as if major festival coordinators have become indifferent to the musical taste of discerning music enthusiasts, and inattentive to the cohesion of popular headlining acts with the overall lineup of a festival.

When I first attended Summer Fest, I saw performances by local Houston acts like Caddywhompus and Grandfather Child. In 2015, Summer Fest hosted only a handful of local acts and placed them on the smallest stages during the festival’s worst time slots. No longer is the festival a celebration of the city’s musical eminence and artistic attractiveness. Instead, Summer Fest has become a hotbed for Billboard Top 20 acts—artists who appeal to young audiences, are household names, and can draw in a large crowd solely based on their entertainment value. There’s nothing wrong with an entertaining musical act, but these artists and their audiences should not be catered to at the expense of other more music-minded festival-goers.

Ultimately, all of these trends are indicative of an increasing commercialization of festivals at the expense of music fans and pioneering musicians. When festivals become overly commercial, music aficionados are pushed out of attendance to make way for mass audiences. Likewise, when local and fringe acts are bumped from festival lineups, talented musicians with growing careers miss out on formative chances for greater exposure.

Unfortunately, there are little to no courses of action capable of dismantling the corporate machine that is the modern music festival. Writing to the coordinators of your favorite festival is one way to address the issue. Letters to your favorite bands encouraging them to attend more musician-friendly festivals, like Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest rather than ACL Fest, is another option. Other than that, you have little reason to hope that the ever-profitable commercial music festival will change its ways.

Of course, just because the majority of music festivals are becoming increasingly commercialized, doesn’t mean that there are no more affordable festivals with excellent acts. Though small and often less organized, local festivals like Boston’s Hassle Fest, Beantown Jazz Festival and CRASHfest serve as great alternatives to Boston Calling. Plus, attending a festival with smaller local and fringe acts allows you to discover new and innovative bands. With any luck, you may catch the next critically acclaimed act out of Boston before they’re sucked into the national festival circuit!

From the primordial goo of Woodstock to the modern-day Coachella, music festivals have come a long way. Corporate sponsorship has been introduced, ticket prices have escalated, local and independent acts have been pushed by the wayside, and musicians who themselves seem like corporations are all too often headliners. Still, there will always be music fans and there will always be musicians, and if the two parties can coordinate together and congregate in some big, open area, then there will sure as hell always be music festivals.

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