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dear mr. fantasy: a word on festivals

December 1, 2014

woodstockpostersI’ve spent a pretty staggering amount of time in my life daydreaming about what it would have been like to be young in the Sixties. In this daydream fantasy world I live a very Forrest Gumpian existence – somehow breaking free of the shackles of geography, time, and funding to have been at Monterey Pop, and in Haight-Ashbury, and part of the Sunset Strip scene, and Greenwich Village, and surely I would have skipped across the pond to witness Swinging London, and of course I would have been at Woodstock.


The hard truth that I’ve come to accept is, probably not. This article recently reprinted by The New Republic illuminates part of why Woodstock really wasn’t all sunbeams and rainbows but also the fact is – I just don’t like festivals.

There, I said it.

Maybe I’m just getting old (I am). Maybe I’m not as hip as I’d like to think I am (I’m not). Maybe going to Burning Man in 2006 just ruined port-a-potties for me forever (It did). Maybe it’s all of the above.

I know I’m risking all my music-blog-writing-street-cred here but festivals are like the prom night of the live music world: so much hype and so much fanfare over something that rarely achieves its promised potential. (Not to mention so much strategic “festival costume” planning that there’s now a whole cottage industry behind it. I’m looking at you Coachella.)

I’ve been to a fair number of festivals, and every time I walk away from the weekend wishing I’d saved my money to go see the handful of bands I wanted to see in the first place playing full shows on their own. I wouldn’t have had to juggle competing schedules, only to catch the last 20 minutes of every set I wanted to see. I wouldn’t have had to fight through phalanxes of drunk college kids in crop tops and neon hats fending off dehydration with an endless stream of twist-top Bud Lights. And I wouldn’t have had to question my own commitment to the music at the end of every day when I felt more bummed out than energized by the previous 8 hours of fighting for a spot to see and hear.

I used to fight this feeling. Every year when festival lineup announcements started rolling out I’d get amped up – of course I’d want to see Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan and Sharon Jones in the same hour. And then my annual trip of remembering how I really feel about festivals would start to bum me out. But then a year or so ago I read Rolling Stone’s expansive coverage of the Altamont nightmare from their January 1970 issue. In it was a quote from legendary concert promoter Bill Graham that seemed to perfectly capture so much of my own anti-festival sentiment:

As Graham sees it, about the only good thing that could possibly have come out of this festival is that it means the end of festivals. “The strange thing that went on this past weekend is that in the long run, it may help to eliminate festivals, which I think is one of the best things that can happen to rock and roll. Woodstock — the film that is coming out of Woodstock, is a masterpiece; I’ve seen it, but the after-effects of Woodstock and the after-effects of this one and the after-effects of many of the others. The question that I’ve asked after every one and that hasn’t been answered by anyone justifiably is: Who gains? Other than the people in the 50-foot perimeter of the stage? 290,000 others can’t see or hear anything. But I think that we are losing the major groups because they’re becoming as guilty as anyone else . . . the big dollar very quickly. It’s not for me to speak for any of the groups, but if you speak to the Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, any of the heavy groups who have tremendous integrity, they’ve gone sour. They went sour before this weekend, but this weekend, I think, blew their minds. I knew it blew mine.”

In 1970 Graham was already calling out the major problems with the rise of the mega-festival. While in the immediate wake of Altamont the festival utopia dream did seem to fade away it returned with a vengeance in the late 90’s and has exploded in the past decade. A more recent Rolling Stone special report titled “How Coachella, Bonnaroo and More Festivals Revamped the Music Industry” explores the new reality of the festival economy and how it now governs tour decisions for bands large and small.

That is one thing I will give festivals, they can be a great forum for up and coming bands. If they can land a time slot where there’s enough of an audience to play for, and if some part of that audience is new ears that didn’t get there early just to see them, then there is a lot of exposure to be gained by playing the festival circuit.

But as a fan I have to say unless the universe puts together some kind of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Rolling Stones, CSNY, Dolly Parton, Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin reunion festival-specifically-for-old-people-and-Alison I think my festival days are through. I’m certainly not trying to knock the whole scene – a lot of people love festivals, and have a great time at them. And they are one of the few remaining ways the music industry still generates revenue. They just aren’t for me.

So I’ve had to modify my Forrest Gump fantasy life a bit, and bring it just slightly back to reality. Maybe instead of being at Woodstock I would have just lived in Woodstock… Probably as Rick Danko’s girlfriend. Yeah, I think that sounds about right.

Hey, it’s still a fantasy life. A girl can dream.


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