A music festival is a bit like an iTunes playlist. You’re not going to listen to everything, but it’s great knowing it’s all there. And in a sense, a music festival is a lot like iTunes itself: a key tentpole propping up the industry. Even as the business of recording undergoes perpetual contraction, there are perhaps more festivals available to the American music listener than ever. Every state in the union hosts an annual festival, from North Dakota’s International Old-Time Fiddlers’ Contest to Wisconsin’s Summerfest, an 11-day behemoth certified by Guinness as the largest musical festival in the world. My hometown got into the game in 2002; the Austin City Limits Music Festival is now one of the largest for-profit festivals in the country, along with Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella.
Of that group, Coachella is arguably the highest-profile. From their inception, they’ve booked an impressive range of acts: titans and up-and-comers from modern rock, hip-hop, alt rock, and electronic music. Last week, the impressive lineup for Coachella 2013 was announced, featuring superstars including Blur, the Postal Service, Phoenix, and Vampire Weekend being supported by the likes of DIIV, Father John Misty, Jessie Ware, and Youth Lagoon — and dozens upon dozen of others, spanning demographics and genres. Coachella’s festival peers have adapted their approach (Bonnaroo, for instance, began with a plummy mix of folk-rock, jazz, and backpack hip-hop; their 2012 lineup found room for Skrillex, EMA, Ludacris, and Alice Cooper); their successors have copied it. Coachella’s promoters (Goldenvoice, a subsidiary of Anschutz Entertainment Live) have also demonstrated a deftness in inducing reunions. They’ve gotten acts like Rage Against The Machine, the Stooges, Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, Pixies, Jesus And Mary Chain, and At The Drive-In to set differences aside, if only for an hour. And of course, Coachella 2012 provided the year’s signature festival moment: Hologram 2Pac.
For all this, they have been handsomely rewarded. Last year, Coachella added a second weekend with roughly the same lineup; Billboard Boxscore pegged last year’s gross at $47 million, with an additional $13 million coming from Stagecoach, Goldenvoice’s post-Coachella country-music festival. A recession, an out-of-the-way location, music piracy, competing festivals, $8 beers: Nothing has slowed the Coachella juggernaut. Really, one could say that about the American festival industry in general. People who can’t be convinced to drop $9.99 on an album will happily part with a few hundred to watch the Roots while sitting on a beach towel. A time traveler from 1969 might see the vast, rapt crowds watching Cults or M83 and assume this is our pop royalty. He might be shocked to learn that a big get for a modern festival can regularly top out in the five-figure sales range.
Critics kvetch about too much music competing for their attention, but rarely do they say the market is saturated. However, it’s worth investigating whether the American festival circuit is hitting its peak-oil phase. It’s already happening in Britain. In 2008, live music overtook recorded music as the top revenue generator. The global recession followed, but seemingly anyone with a field and a dream was undeterred. Last year, the axe finally dropped: 12 festivals were scotched before 2012 was half-over, including stalwarts like dance-heavy the Big Chill and the hard-rock extravaganza Sonisphere. The Big Chill’s organizers cited difficulties booking artists around the Olympics, while Sonisphere — a European traveling festival — still made its dates on the continent. But the main factors were more intuitive: priced-out fans and a saturated market.
Over in the States, where we have five times the population and 40 times the area, promoters should breathe easy for a while longer. Indeed, the industry registered a number of impressive accomplishments in 2012: Summerfest pulled in 800,000 over 11 days despite a brutal heat wave. The CMA Festival attracted a record 71,000 attendees. The dancetastic Electric Daisy Carnival added New Jersey’s Metlife Stadium as a venue; 45,000 EDM fans showed up for each of three days. Taking Coachella’s lead, ACL Fest announced last October that next year’s event would expand to two weekends.
It’s not all smiles and glowsticks, though. The inaugural Catalpa Festival in New York hoped to change the city’s rep for not sustaining big-time outdoor shows, but was plagued by lousy weather and disappointing sales. Philadelphia’s Made In America Festival, curated by Jay-Z and partially funded by the city, had the same issues, despite an appearance by Kanye West and a closing performance from Pearl Jam. And after 10 years, New Jersey’s rock-heavy Bamboozle Festival took 2013 off.
People will always make music, and they will always perform music. But will they always do it in strict 50-minute sessions with thousands of people glancing over from the beer lines? The modern festival, with its multiple stages and tents, allows you to pick and choose your entertainment, creating a sort of ambulatory mix CD. You kind of have to, if you want to recoup your investment. A general-admission ticket to Coachella will set you back $349. That’s not including travel, lodging (Coachella’s happy to provide you tent or car-camping space for a fee, or you can book a hotel, RV park or stranger’s couch), food, beer, and … I dunno, let’s say drugs. Even some of the bands who perform are going to take a bath, but who’s going to turn down a chance to play for more people at one time than you could with a year in hometown venues?
It’s a hell of a thing, of course, to play a festival, especially if you’ve only been a functional musical concern for a short time. All slots save the earliest attract the kinds of crowds that would make political organizers jealous. Whenever an on-stage camera operator films from behind the act, it’s an astounding view: a sea of engaged faces stretching to the horizon. Behind them, of course, is a sea of migratory attendees, thousands of people on the sojourn from lawn chair to burrito stand. But I’ve never witnessed a performer comment on it, and these people are vain. The sheer scale of a festival does much to cover the sins of lax presentation and shallow discographies. One of the more common rejoinders to the woes of the recording industry is “play more live shows,” which doesn’t work for a lot of acts for a lot of reasons. But a one-shot gig that could put a decent check in your pocket while making you feel like Jay-Z? That’s something else entirely.
Of course, Jay-Z knows how to rock thousands: He’s got the back catalog, the budget and the charisma for it. He’s made performing the same song eight times in a row an event. For aspirants to the throne, it’s usually enough just to show up. The festival stage makes acts look larger than life, which is another way of saying it keeps them at a remove. I apologize for getting all listicle on you, but how many noteworthy festival moments can you think of offhand? For every awesome incident — like L7’s Donita Sparks tossing a tampon into a Reading Festival crowd, or Woodstock ’94 security relieving Green Day’s Mike Dirnt of superfluous teeth — there are a hundred thousand beach balls being casually batted about while your dad texts you to ask if the Lumineers are any good. At ACL last year, I watched Iggy Pop try to mix things up by howling for people to join the Stooges onstage. I’d seen this happen with N.E.R.D. in 2008. And M.I.A. in 2010. And if you weren’t there, both moments were looped with footage of other acts from years past on the stage’s video screens. After a couple of songs, the fans were ushered back to ground level.
Some people, though, didn’t have to leave, and they represent an increasingly important revenue source for festivals. Coachella VIP passes will set you back $799, a significant hike from last year. What do you get? Shaded sitting areas, access to a full bar, private bathrooms and “a spectacular view.” ACL Fest has two price points above general; the Platinum level gets you on-stage seating, air-conditioned restroom (with flushing!), a catered private lounge, concierge services, and a hospitality suite in downtown Austin, for starters. Even if you prefer the air conditioned-flushing of home, you’re covered: live-streaming is gaining in popularity. As Chris Roach, head of business development for Goldenvoice parent company AEG Digital Media noted to Pollstar, “We’ve seen the average view time is over an hour in one sitting… [t]hat’s a pretty engaged eyeball for an advertiser to put their dollar against.”
Right about here it’d be easy to crack about the true meaning of rock ‘n’ roll or whatnot. But the festival scene is its own beast. Promoters may think of their events as the spiritual descendents of Woodstock. It’s debatable whether the Aquarian Exposition was truly an historical inflection point of expanded consciousness, but it’s clear that the modern festival has perfected its formula, establishing a baseline level of competent organization while limiting spontaneity to the the occasional special appearance. A festival like Coachella is — like similar destination events such as Bonnaroo and even Burning Man — its own justification now. You go to say you’ve been. Speculating on the next year’s Coachella lineup is a cottage industry at this point, but no matter who makes the cut, the general contours will remain: a healthy mix of indie rock, art-pop, EDM, and hip-hop. Not buying a pass to a Björk-less Coachella would be like avoiding a buffet because it lacks chiles rellenos.
Still, an all-buffet diet is no way to live. Coachella and its like offer a particular experience: a weekend with friends beset on all sides by music, a chance to gorge on buzz and revel in nostalgia. Comparing it to the a la carte option of individual shows isn’t remotely fair. A club gig puts you closer to the mechanisms. Band members are much more likely to run the merch table or watch the other acts from the floor. Interactions between audience and performers is closer to a conversation than a commencement address. Brand presence is mostly limited to the gear. There’s less pressure to focus on the hits. And underrepresented styles can thrive. (It’s also in the price range of way more people.) The nature of the festival is more: more choice, more spectacle, more people. Playing and attending Coachella are mutually-reinforcing validations. The scale confers importance; the crowds confer worthiness. Eighty thousand people can’t be wrong.