Utopia for a Price: All Tomorrow’s Parties

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Watching Broken Social Scene at ATP. Photo: Waddie's flickr

So you want to start a rock-and-roll festival? Here’s the first rule: Rope in as many sponsors as possible to create a Times Square–like miasma of branding — “The Neo-Psychedelic Math Rock Tent, Brought to You by Doritos,” that kind of thing. Do enough of it and the box office is pure gravy. You might even get away with charging nothing. You’ve already cleared a profit by selling your crowd.

This is the model of cultural event based on the obviously attractive notion that it's possible to get something for nothing. It represents a certain kind of Utopia, one in which the power of branding bestows great gifts on all of us. All we have to do in return is open our minds to the possibility of signing up for Sprint mobile service.

But is that really free? A completely different kind of Utopia was successfully brought off last weekend at the All Tomorrow’s’ Parties festival in Monticello, New York, a three-day lineup of 38 bands and assorted other attractions.

There were no corporate sponsors, so tickets cost real money. But in exchange for paying $235 for the whole weekend, fans and bands were put in as close, unmediated proximity as possible. There were no backstages, no VIP rooms, no swag. The result was an incredible adventure in cultural escapism.

The festival was held at Kutcher’s Country Club, the sprawling Catskills relic where Dirty Dancing was filmed. The lineup, “curated” by the Flaming Lips, was not mainstream stuff, ranging from the blistering punk rock of the micro-legendary Jesus Lizard to the fanciful experimentation of Animal Collective. If your grandmother had made a surprise return to the summer haunts of her youth, the music would have deeply disturbed her, and she would have also been tweaked by the grubby lumberjack-chic dress code. But she would’ve been tickled by everyone’s decorous behavior. The bartenders were doing brisk business, but the partying maintained a friendly vibe. Even the stage-diving and moshing during the Jesus Lizard set had a cooperative spirit — “Hey, everybody get to the front of the stage, that disgusting, sweat-drenched singer is about to fling himself into the crowd again!”

Promoters of highly sponsored events argue that marketing messages do not carry a cost — that the fact that our favorite band is performing under a Bud Light banner shouldn’t matter because, well, it’s our favorite band and we’re seeing them for nothing (or at least less than we otherwise would). This is true to a degree, but I think we fool ourselves into believing that we’re inured to these intrusions. Only when the Bud Light banners are stripped away, as they were at All Tomorrow’s Parties, do you get a proper sense of how much better music feels when the noise of marketing isn’t part of the mix.

The not-so-good news is that the festival wasn’t a financial success. “We’re taking a bath,” organizer Barry Horgan admitted to The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones, “but I don’t care.” He shouldn’t — because after the 1,900 satisfied fans who attended got home and told their friends about it, next year’s crowd ought to be a lot bigger. That’s good ol’ “word of mouth,” supposedly the most powerful form of marketing on earth. With any luck, it ought to turn Horgan’s loss into a good investment.

Editor's note: The original version of this story included a mischaracterization of an argument made in Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson. The reference to the book has been removed.