What American Music Festivals Could Learn From Primavera Sound

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Around 3:30am on the first night of Primavera Sound, I take a breather. The breeze off the Mediterranean Sea wafts past the gyrating masses towards my spot on the outskirts of the crowd at the main stage, where Disclosure are finding their groove, over and over again. After seven and half hours on my blistered feet, I’m content to sit and observe — until a woman spots me spotting her dance-like-no-one’s-watching moves and approaches me.

She holds out her hand and then her oversize Heineken, and the two of us dance together as though we’re pals reuniting for the first time in a decade. The song ends, I spot the people I came with emerging from the crowd, and I thank this woman for her spirit of camaraderie (I may even use the phrase “Cheers, mate” without awkwardness for the first time ever). She speaks — an American! “Primavera brings out something in people.” I muster a “Yeah!” and hobble off, not fully realizing just how accurate these sentiments will prove to be.

All weekend long, I heard American acts — bands I’d seen play big festivals before — gush genuinely over Primavera from the stage, thanking the crowd and naming Barcelona among their favorite cities: Arcade Fire, The National, Disclosure, Sharon Van Etten, Spoon, Kendrick Lamar. In the last five years of covering Lollapalooza (not to mention other festivals with near-identical lineups), I have never heard such a statement sound so sincere. In other places it’s lip service, filler.

The thing is, Primavera — held annually in Barcelona since 2001 — doesn’t have much use for filler. In this respect, it’s the opposite of your average American music festival. The abundance of mediocre acts to bulk out lineups has become a problem on the US festival circuit as the industry has ballooned and bookings have begun to shift in order to attract the widest possible group of popular music consumers. Once a destination-oriented industry, the American music festival has become a regional concern. In towns you’ve never heard of across America, there are festivals with a few years under their belts, proudly boasting artisanal food stands and The Killers headlining every summer.

In general, our festival lineups have been invaded by what Grantland’s Steve Hyden calls “silent majority rock”: the sort of faceless hits that dominate alternative-format radio playlists and Billboard rock charts. I’ve overheard enough Young the Giant sets while power-walking from one stage to another to last me a lifetime. For this reason, I have decided to retire — at the ripe age of 25 — from music festivals altogether.

Except Primavera.

Disclosure at Primavera Sound 2014. (Dani Canto)

At first glance, Primavera’s lineup doesn’t look radically different from any other big festival. Nearly all the headliners this year were American bands, something I’ve always found curious about European festivals. The bill was topped by a lot of the same names that have headlined the big US events in recent seasons — Pixies, Arcade Fire, Nine Inch Nails, Queens of the Stone Age, Kendrick Lamar, The National. The focus was on critical-darling acts, legacy or otherwise — so there was Television playing Marquee Moon, certainly, but not the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing “Under the Bridge” to the So-Cal masses at Coachella yet again.

But it’s the smaller acts that reflect the real curation, betraying an experimental bent: Darkside, Mogwai, Kim Gordon’s Body/Head, Majical Cloudz, Factory Floor, Wolf Eyes, even the Slowdive reunion. With the exception of Pitchfork Music Fest — which curates in line with the publication’s tastemaking — and genre-focused fests like Rock the Bells, Moogfest, and Electric Daisy Carnival, American music festivals have come to be defined by everything but the music itself. Bonnaroo is the hippie one in Tennessee where you camp. Coachella is the Instagram-ready locale in the desert outside Palm Springs. Outside Lands is a little “crunchy,” focused heavily on local food and wine (it is San Francisco, after all). So on and so forth.

Part of the festival’s appeal is this curation — call me a snob or a premature curmudgeon, but I’m sick of seeing tube-topped teens on molly and day-drinking shirtless bros running from a Steve Aoki set to an Avicii set, even sicker of dudes who fit that description asking me if The Cure is Diplo. Primavera has a lot of electronic music — shout-out to the Boiler Room dome — but I wouldn’t exactly call Barcelona house hero John Talabot “EDM.”

John Talabot at Primavera Sound 2014. (Eric Pamies)

Accordingly, the median age of festival-goers is older at Primavera (I’d say mid-20s) than I’ve seen at most American festivals. Selfish assholes pushing to the front can be found at even a Rascals reunion — and not to be an ageist — but there’s a little more respect amongst an older crowd. With the exception of the packed, bro-heavy crowds I saw at Arcade Fire and Kendrick Lamar, festival-goers were packed in looser thus improving the sightlines.

It helped, of course, that there were fewer people packed in to Parc del Fòrum, where Prima has been held since 2005, than you’ll find at many American festivals. I’m told Primavera 2014 played host to 190,000 attendees over the course of its extended week-long celebration, including a free opening night featuring Sky Ferreira and Holy Ghost. Lollapalooza, according to fest organizer C3, plays host to 100,000 people on each of its three days.

Of course, Chicago’s Grant Park, where Lollapalooza is held, is 319 acres; the seaside Fòrum is a mere fraction of that, and not necessarily the open field venue one thinks of when envisioning a big music festival. But it works. Much of the structure is made of concrete, filled in with gravel where it’s not. There are only a few patches where mud can accumulate in the case of downpour — a big plus, as those who attended last year’s Governors Ball could attest. Likewise, there are pockets of covered spaces at Parc del Fòrum, which come in handy in the case of inclement weather. There’s something about the artistic architecture of Fòrum, first built in 2004 for the Universal Forum of Cultures, that makes one feel like it’s spacious, as though you’re entering different worlds as you move from stage to stage. At times the seaside horizon made me feel as though I was standing at the edge of the Earth.

Barcelona’s Parc del Fòrum, where Primavera Sound is held. (provided photo)

Audience demographics, curation, and venue aside, perhaps the biggest advantage of Primavera Sound is its pacing. The sets held at the main festival grounds (as opposed to a handful of small auditorium shows) get underway around 5:30-6 pm on each of the three days. By sunset around 10 pm, the weather has cooled down, and the bulk of your concert-going day is yet to come. The night’s headliners play the two main stages on opposing sides of a field, back to back with sets nearly flowing into one another, between the hours of 11 pm and 2 am. There are sets — mostly electronic acts in more intimate settings — starting as late as 4 am hour and lasting past sunrise.

Heat exhaustion mixed with day-drinking becomes a non-concern, and if you got tired by midway through a day’s program, chances are you didn’t miss the headliners — just the 2 am and 4 am sets. I understand that city-wide noise ordinances are the reason that festivals held in public parks, like Lollapalooza, have to shut things down around 11 pm. But being able to see music until the early hours, if you’re so inclined, really does make a difference in the mood of things.

I get the sense that, to Barcelona natives, Primavera Sound is not all that exciting. Crowds seemed to be comprised of western Europeans and a sprinkling of Americans. I certainly went to Primavera on a lark — a vacation. Friends were doing a multi-city European trip, and I decided at the last minute that a week-long jaunt to foreign countries was just what I needed, on a personal level. I wasn’t sent there by a publication [Sorry — Ed.

] or Primavera itself. I got my press pass just under the wire, and I went in with zero expectations, although I’d heard more than a few times — from other writers, music industry folks, and friends who’d spent a significant amount of money to go in the past — that this was The Festival To Attend, that it had taste and so whoever was playing would make for an entertaining time.

Our young, hip cab driver after the late-night Disclosure set, though, tells us that Primavera is for tourists. Sónar — featuring the likes of Chic, Robyn and Royksopp, and Massive Attack this year — is the go-to Barcelona festival, he says. I arrange for this cabbie to drive me to the airport a few days later, at which point he raves more about Sónar.

My high-school Spanish rusty, I make out through his Catalan that he’s asked if I liked Primavera. “Sí, muy… divertido? Divertido.” Too embarrassed to cobble together a broken translation, I tell him in English that I see myself coming back — despite a lack of desire to attend major music festivals. At least not until there’s a consideration to push back start times and try out unique venues, and most of all, book acts that exhibit some sense of curation distinct from the competition. “Hasta la vista,” he says with a wink when we reach my terminal, and I smile knowing I don’t have to go through the hell that is other festival-goers… not until next year’s Primavera Sound, anyway.

(lead Arcade Fire photo by Dani Canto)