Music festivals. How could an innocuous phrase that essentially boils down to “a collection of concerts” inspire such polarizing opinions in music fans? Much of what differentiates festival culture from show-going culture has little to do with the music itself. Live music remains one of the few communal experiences in our digitally-minded world. What the rise of national music festivals has shown us is that we have different views about what constitutes ideal conditions for a shared musical experience. It’s a “duh” kind of statement, but go to a festival — any festival — and watch it play out. These differences are never more apparent than when you shove people of all different ages and lifestyles into a fenced-in park for three days of extreme heat and $6 bottled water.
Sometimes bad things happen. There were, for example, at least seven deaths at music festivals in 2013 that went reported by the media, not to mention those that go unreported, along with various injuries. As detailed by the Miami New Times, it took two weeks just to get public records regarding hospitalization of Ultra Music Festival attendees last year, and still the information was inconclusive. Drugs are the cause of many of these fatalities, but there’s also heat factors, which have played a role in Bonnaroo’s 11 deaths since 2002.
In the mainstream press, EDM festivals — like the traveling Electric Daisy Carnival, New York’s Electric Zoo, and Miami’s Ultra — are villifed as the drug lords on the block. In recent festival seasons, there have been widely covered deaths at each of these festivals: Electric Daisy in L.A. in 2010; Electric Zoo in 2013, which canceled its remaining day after two overdoses; and just this year, Ultra. In turn, many of their peers have implemented stricter no drug policies, in addition to working with educational organizations like DanceSafe on the premises. This is, of course, in addition to the multiple medical tents and security teams (including bag checkers at the entrances) that are mandatory at festivals across the board.
I’ve covered music festivals of all kinds for the last five years, and I can assure you that there were drugs at every single one of them. Did I witness more teenagers partaking in drugs at the Diplo set than at The Cure set last year at Lollapalooza? Yes. One of said teens even asked if The Cure was Diplo. It was the opposite of the “I’ll Have What She’s Having” moment in When Harry Met Sally. But it’s impossible to stop altogether when you consider the tens of thousands of attendees, whose ages and parental supervision vary across the board. Many major festivals don’t even have an age minimum.
Despite all this, new music festivals aiming for national status continue to pop up every summer, while those with a national presence continue to look for immersive experiences that will differentiate themselves from their peers. Some big players, like Outside Lands and Lollapalooza, have invested more energy and real estate into local cuisine and craft alcohol. The festivals in the hottest locales — and even Austin City Limits, which takes place in the fall — have partnered with brands to create “cooling suites” or lounges.
Some people say that the music has become secondary to the pursuit of a good time. That’s not entirely untrue. But recognizing that a handful of trivial personal experiences — be it other attendees you come into contact with, to how long you wait in line for the port-a-potty — can shade your entire festival experience, we went to the source on festival intel: organizers, artists, and those in the music industry who know the inside story. We asked five such sources several similar questions and compared results, compiling a range of responses. Here’s what they had to say regarding an increase in younger attendees, upcoming fest trends, drug safety, and what’s changed in the festival biz in the last five years.
Gregg Gillis — AKA Girl Talk, who’s been releasing electronic mash-ups for 12 years (including a new Broken Ankles EP with Freeway) and performing them live to massive festival crowds for nearly as long.
Jeff Cuellar — Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at AC Entertainment, the promotion giant that co-founded/co-produces Bonnaroo and produces distinct festivals like Forecastle, Big Ears, and Gentlemen of the Road.
Chris Kaskie — President of Pitchfork and The Dissolve , the quintessential music and film criticism sites, respectively; and organizer of the two annual Pitchfork Music Festivals (Chicago and Paris). (Writer’s full disclosure: I have written for Pitchfork.)
Kerri Mason — Senior Vice President, Music Group at SXF Entertainment, arguably the biggest EDM empire in the world, which went public last fall. (SFX’s properties include promoters like Made Event [Electric Zoo] and digital resources like Beatport.) Previously Kerri worked for a number of years as a writer covering electronic music for Billboard.
Rehan Choudhry — Founder of Life is Beautiful Festival, an annual Las Vegas music, food, and art fest that launched last October with big crowds and bigger headliners across rock, pop, EDM, and hip-hop.
Have you noticed an increase in younger attendees in recent years? If so, does it factor into festival decision-making?
GIRL TALK: It depends on the festival but in general, yeah, I think the audiences are getting a little younger. It doesn’t really impact my choices much. I like to stick to my guns on what I what do. I want to evolve and am always down to sample new music, but I don’t want to abandoned what I’ve built up. I just sample and remix what I’m into. It wouldn’t be hard to do an all EDM mash-up set to appeal to that particular demographic, but that’s not really what would be most exciting for me.
CHRIS KASKIE: Music festival audiences always skew young, especially as compared to the audience that Pitchfork sees online. Our festival is probably a bit more balanced given the more challenging programming we’re putting forward, but I definitely think the larger a music festival gets, the younger its audience. When you’re able to put up 100+ bands over a weekend, so many people, especially young people, are unable to see shows through the year and it provides a perfect opportunity to see as much music as possible for a relatively affordable cost (compared to a per-show ticket cost).
We don’t really plan our bookings based around the perceived audiences they may bring. Perhaps selfishly, we have a pretty good understanding of what our audience is and, knowing that we’re catering to a community we have online and know intimately, our job is to put the best music possible nonstop, and that’s it. Knowing our audience has trust in what we do, and knows what the festival stands for, definitely is a nice position to be in.
REHAN CHOUDHRY: There are more people coming to festivals at both ends of the spectrum. Younger fans, specifically driven by DJs they can’t see in nightclubs, are coming out en masse. On the other side, older audiences are also finding that festivals are becoming more well-rounded and more accessible. It’s an interesting dynamic at play.
KERRI MASON: Electronic dance music in its current American incarnation is a youth movement. [EDM] festivals are dominantly 18+ or 21+, but if they were all-ages, you’d definitely see younger faces.
JEFF CUELLAR: I’ve noticed an increase in all demographics, actually. Perhaps it skews a little younger because they have more discretionary income, time and are typically more adventurous, but overall festival culture is now more widely embraced so you are seeing an increase in all demos, including families. This increase is causing festival producers to really look at their actual audience versus their target audience to make sure they are producing the event they set out to create.
Are there too many music festivals?
GIRL TALK: I don’t think so. I mean, if the tickets are selling and the demand is there, I don’t really see an issue. A lot of these fests are great for local business.
REHAN CHOUDHRY: Are there too many standard “bands on stage” festivals? Yes. Is there still room to add a hundred more highly creative experiential events? Absolutely. Coachella, Burning Man, Electric Daisy Carnival… they’re doing it right. There are others that aren’t going to survive competitively. We see Life is Beautiful in that elite group of uniquely compelling events.
CHRIS CASKIE: There has been an explosion in the sheer volume of music festivals, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest a saturation point. Each region seems to have a few festivals, at different levels, all which seem to play a consistent role within their respective scenes. Given the fact the majority of these festivals come back on an annual basis, it shows that there is a seemingly unquenchable thirst for live music in a festival setting. Until there are mass exits, it’s a good time for everyone to be in the music festival business.
JEFF CUELLAR: There’s a lot more competition out there, which in my opinion is a good thing. It is causing the quality of festivals to go up and is helping to broaden and expand the audience base. Europe has an abundance of music festivals, but they have also created a culture that demands and supports them. There is no reason the US can’t have the same number of quality festivals as Europe, but we have to have a bigger audience pool that wants to attend. The more accessible music festivals become, the easier it will be to get that person off the fence to attend an event. Then hopefully this initial taste will cause them to crave more and begin to look for more festivals to attend so they can experience another event.
The best part/worst part of playing music festivals is…
GIRL TALK: The best part is the atmosphere. Typically, it’s a more enjoyable time than hanging inside a venue all day. You get to be outside. You get watch other bands. I don’t have a famous face, so I just get out in the crowd and walk around at almost every festival that I play.
The worst part is the potential for technical problems. You don’t get a soundcheck normally. Everything has to be thrown together pretty quickly. That can be stressful.
What’s changed in the last five years in the music festival business?
REHAN CHOUDHRY: A ton has changed. The number of festivals has increased tremendously and continues to year after year. In my opinion, the changes have very little to do with festival producers trying to create new compelling events to promote, but actually more to do with the way human dynamics have shifted. I would argue that the highly connected environment we now live in — via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat — is fueling the need for people to interact more directly with likeminded individuals. Hence, hundreds of thousands of people getting together to celebrate over a weekend. I would offer a new perspective: if festivals worldwide completely shut down this year, what would happen? I think you’d see those same people come together to create their own organic festival environments.
KERRI MASON: With regards to electronic festivals, bigger, better, faster, more. New festival brands are coming to market; older ones are expanding or otherwise upping their offering. The new entrants are frequently beyond major cities, making it so fans might not have to travel so far to have a really big experience. I think in the future you’ll see new tech enhancing the show too, in all sorts of ways.
What’s next in festival trends?
JEFF CUELLAR: The real trend is separation. How can I make my event experience unique and authentic? I hate hearing: we need to create the next Bonnaroo, Coachella or Lolla. No, you don’t because those already exist. If you want to be successful in the music festival industry, carve out your own niche and create something new.
CHRIS KASKIE: I think it’s harder and harder to stand out as something unique. I imagine we’ll see more unique, super-niche based festivals that celebrate a specific scene, genre, or movement.
REHAN CHOUDHRY: Interest in a true collaboration between multiple lifestyle categories is very much on the rise and will become an even bigger area of focus in the years ahead. Music blended with food and a healthy dose of fashion, film or art will be the new trend. It’s not about having great food at a music festival; it’s about truly mashing up a world-class music festival with a highly curated food & wine festival.
What do you think can be done to combat drug-related deaths at festivals, and do the festivals themselves have an obligation to lead the charge?
KERRI MASON: A combination of education and enhanced security. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Dance music started as a subculture with a tribal instinct to take care of its own. When it went more mainstream, it lost a lot of that built-in protection. I believe the onus is on us to reintroduce that in some form. Not everyone agrees.
JEFF CUELLAR: In my opinion, it is up to the festival producer to do everything possible to create a safe event. At all of our events, we go out of our way to ensure the safety of the fans. Their safety comes first when we plan. However, just like in society, the patron bares responsibility too. That said, it is always and consistently our number one goal to have the necessary measures and support in place to ensure a safe event and promote responsible decision-making.
CHRIS KASKIE: I think every festival should be responsible, before anything else, of the safety and well being of their audience. It’s tragic that accidents happen, and ideally folks learn from this stuff and don’t let it happen again, because as mentioned we are obligated to keep everyone safe.
Do you think EDM festivals are portrayed unfairly in the mainstream press with regards to drug usage?
KERRI MASON: Who said press was fair? Because of that stigma, I think dance promoters have been more creative and proactive about mitigating patron risk. This upcoming festival season will see new educational programs and security measures. The goal is for festivalgoers to take better care of themselves and each other – and to implement better systems to catch them if they fall. As big and corporate as “EDM” gets, it’s still a family.