Music fest phenom

from the far-out to the far away

MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason


• Festival season’s in full bloom, booming across borders, despite a faltering, unjust and persistent fear-ridden global economy. A brief escape from that reality is one attraction. There is also a worldwide, renewed love of live music and a search for opportunities that provide easy access to art that’s spontaneous, created in the moment. We also crave real interactivity, including 360-degree sonic experiences shared in the flesh, gratifying our basic need for living colour, connection and community, beyond mere virtuality.

It’s being touted as a “golden age of festivals” because of the rush in sheer numbers of sites, soaring ticket sales and prices. Events are cropping up on the international festival bandwagon at an unprecedented pace, fuelled in part by technology – along with the desire to temporarily turn it down, if not off. All of it defies the imagination in unparalleled appeal and diversity of genres, confounding our ability to count or account for newfound fascination with events that can’t be replicated, deeply rooted in the history and psyche of humanity.

In India, club music festivals combining House, Hip-Hop, Acid, Electronic Dance and other genres are currently competing with timeless classical music, Bhangra and Bollywood. In China, there’s another explosion of post-modern, multi-day music events. The Communist Party is plowing cornfields into festival grounds, including a custom-built park in Chengdu that draws more than 150,000 people.

“The government used to see rock fans as something akin to a devastating flood or an invasion of savage beasts,” Zhang Fan, organizer of Zhenjiang’s Midi Music Festival (the oldest such event in the country) told the New York Times. “Now we’re all part of the nation’s quest for a harmonious society.”

Party officials are also looking to make a quick buck, milking the festival cash cow alongside major corporations in an unquenchable frenzy for short-term profit, fighting for space at the multi-teated trend.

The sun currently shines in festival circles, a bright light and welcome warmth in an otherwise bleak music biz winter. Global record sales plummeted more than 40% in the past decade, thanks in large measure to the ease of Internet downloads, piracy and endless replication of digital media.

Over the same period, ticket sales quadrupled in the UK and live-music revenues nearly doubled in the US. There were some 3,000 festivals in Europe last year – 700 in Britain alone (a 73% increase since 2003) – and hundreds more are being staged south of the border, many with a history of five years or less.

In 2004, recorded music garnered twice as much as concerts. By 2008, more money was spent on live music for the first time in modern history. That gap is growing rapidly as the festival business morphs into a multi-billion dollar global growth industry.

“Woodstock Nation” sets the stage

The earliest music festival was documented way back in 582 B.C. when the first Pythian Games swept through Ancient Greece. Fast forward 2,000 plus years to Bethel, New York, in August, 1969, when more than a half-million people flocked to a Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm where 32 acts played the three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair.

Iconic and pivotal, the ultimate gathering, emblematic of the counterculture, defined a generation and redefined youth culture. It also celebrated a revolution in which free sex, drugs and rock and roll transcended recreational use into arenas of political statement and rebellion against war, conformity and cultural oppression.

Co-producer Joel Rosenman, aptly described it as “a big community listening to the best bands in the most beautiful setting.” And thus Woodstock set the standard to which modern festivals strive and the experience that massive audiences seek.

Forward even faster over mere decades to mega-giants such as Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits. Deliberately designed and curated to take the legacy to a whole new level, they expanded the rock repertoire into a mass festival scene and culture. These multi-million dollar, multi-genre extravaganzas feature more and more creative lighting and sound, large sculptures and structures, hundreds of eclectic acts on multiple stages and acres of booths and non-musical entertainment. There’s something for everyone, big-time. Myriad attractions draw staggering ticket sales. Each of the big four has survived a decade or more and all are thriving, skyrocketing in popularity, the wow factor exploding exponentially.

Rolling Stone described Bonnaroo – on 700 acres of Tennessee farmland – as “the ultimate over-the-top festival.” Lollapalooza was reborn in Chicago. Coachella, one of the most high profile and talked-about events in California – including Tupac Shakur rising from the dead as a hologram, live-streamed from the California desert – has sold out for three years running, most recently topping $45 million over two weekends. Festival-going youth enjoying Coldplay, Radiohead and other summer headliners describe it as transformative. “Changed my life,” they say, echoing coming-of-age rituals of previous generations, listing live music events as unforgettable experiences, shared with thousands of strangers and assorted like-minded new “friends,” in the flesh, a dimension far beyond Facebook.

Commerce is the driving force, referred to as “experiential marketing” and “festival branding” in corporation-speak. The uptick is occurring as single-artists struggle to fill seats. Festival attendance climbed 27% from 2010 to 2012 while concerts dropped 12%. Admission to the average concert is $47, compared to $225 for festivals. A concert lasts a few hours and features one or two artists. Festivals carry on for days with hundreds of acts, a major consideration for cash-strapped fans. Obviously, audiences are willing to pay for one-off events and experiences, making bulk entertainment purchases that include opportunities to discover new bands outside, up close and more personal than through computer screens, radio and in stadiums.

Festival tickets are being sold further and further in advance, before artists’ names are released. Three-day passes ($200) for Austin City Limits sold out within an hour of the full lineup announcement and no tickets were left for Washington State’s Sasquatch! music festival a week before fans knew who was performing in The Gorge on the Columbia River.

Add the rapid rise of electronic music to the mix. Rave culture had long been prominent in Europe as DJ’s became international superstars and pent-up demand in North America in the past decade developed into an entirely new demographic of festival-goers. Miami’s Ultra Music – the largest and most popular Electronic Dance Music (EDM) – for example, reached a record 165,000 attendees in 2012.

Until recently, live performance tours were marketing vehicles to plug new recordings. Now there’s a flipside. In media conglomerates like Sony and Warner, on down the chain, music is being rethought, dollar signs flashing in the festival furor that’s become essential to gaining, maintaining and growing a fan following.

The festival feast – more tempting menus and takeaway

Among those most often found on ubiquitous ‘Best’ and ‘Biggest’ lists: Electric Daisy Carnival (Las Vegas), Burning Man in Nevada, South by Southwest in Texas, Electric Zoo in New York, Outside Lands in San Francisco, Seattle’s Bumbershoot and Milwaukee’s Summerfest.

Artist incomes are being boosted royally, especially independents that gig for a living. And by pooling audiences, fan bases are broadening extensively. The increase in website live streaming has mass-marketers drooling, adding untold, untapped millions to the exponential growth in audiences of those who don’t want to miss out, opting for the next best thing without leaving home.

But the sheer size and scope is prompting some artists to stay away or choose different routes. Among them, miniature touring versions produced by headlining acts such as Dave Matthews Band and Rage Against the Machine. And more artists are creating their own festivals, Metallica, Wilco and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals among them. It was Longfellow who coined the phrase, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” The most popular poet of his age, he had an ear for mass taste, earning as much as a whopping $3,000 per poem in 1874. But it is doubtful that even old Henry Wadsworth himself could have fully envisioned the reach and grasp of globalization or the appeal of world music and relatively cheap, commonplace international travel.

Lists of recommended festivals now routinely include the far away, along with the far out. Glastonbury in Somerset, England, the world’s largest greenfield festival is considered the ultimate by many. It’s also famed for heavy downpours and mud. But tickets for 2013 sold out in less than two hours.

It is difficult to keep track. Among others there is a ‘Festival Junkies’ website pushing Reading and London’s Barclaycard Wireless Festival, Scotland’s TITP, Festival Internacional de Benicàssim in Castellón de la Plana, Spain, the EXIT Festival on the River Danube in the Petrovaradin Forest, Novi Sad, Serbia – yes, Serbia – Denmark’s Roskilde, Germany’s Rock am Ring and Rock im Park and Australia’s Big Day Out.

Topping an attendance of 180,000, Belgium’s Tomorrowland is a leader of the pack in another new festival trend: organizers have plans to expand to myriad locations and horizons, exploring new markets in Eastern Europe and North and South America and beyond. The surface is just being scratched. There are other genres to mine, including older veins such as blues and country. Colorado’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival is one of many in a form of acoustic music that survived and now thrives because of festivals.

The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, now the largest of its kind, features some 3,000 artists from more than 25 countries – an inspiration, something to improvise upon.

Folks who hate music festivals will go to great lengths to avoid them. But rapidly growing numbers of festival-goers dream in technicolour of travelling to the ends of the Earth for live music. The actual performances are now a fraction of the total package and party, providing background for camaraderie, kinship and unspoken bonds, bordering on the tribal.

Some go only for the off-stage adventure, drugs and the ultimate in people watching. More than music is being shared, including the journey, the weather, the build-up, the artist line-up and on-site line-ups, the scramble for tickets and sight lines to stages. Leaving problems, stress and boredom back home – temporarily out of sight and mind – in the new phenomena, fans drift aimlessly and “disappear” inside the festival “world,” temporary communities pulsing and marching to the same beat.

Not all festivals succeed, but more and more will undoubtedly crop up. It’s highly likely that a new one is coming soon to a field near you, adding to those already there, a short drive, bus or bike ride away. And someone you know is undoubtedly contemplating an escape with a music festival front and centre.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

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