the festival circuit

Where Do Music Festivals Go Now?

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella

Are you ready for music-festival nostalgia? Over the next few years, we’re likely to bear witness to fond remembrances and supersized celebrations as some of the biggest North American music festivals achieve a point of longevity meriting acknowledgment. Coachella unofficially turns 20 this year, but the fest itself hasn’t made a peep about the milestone — likely because its first installment, in 1999, clocked around 37,000 concertgoers in attendance, falling far short of an attendance goal of 70,000; the fest rebooted successfully in 2001, which means it’s just two short years before a history-recontextualizing 20th anniversary can be ballyhooed.

Bonnaroo will turn 20 in 2022, while Woodstock stands to celebrate a whopping three anniversaries this year, ringing in 50th (1969), 25th (1994), and 20th (1999) anniversaries for its respective installments. As expected, the latter fest’s commemorative festivities are already in the works; this week, Woodstock co-creator Michael Lang confirmed plans for a three-day excursion in August at upstate New York village Watkins Glen. The lineup won’t be announced until next month, but in an interview with Rolling Stone, Lang gestured at what the resulting fest might end up resembling: a mix of new acts, old acts, and new acts paying tribute to old acts, along with glamping tents, a focus on “social change and activism,” and jugglers. Yes, you read that right — jugglers.

The notion of celebrating Woodstock’s anniversary at a time when North American music festivals are coming of temporal age only serves to highlight the extreme differences (besides the jugglers, that is) between “then” and “now.” For starters, it’s nearly inarguable that, when it comes to the experience that most associate with the modern-day music festival, Woodstock possesses no real sphere of influence; today’s multiday gatherings are more directly indebted to the decades-standing tradition of British and European music festivals, a blueprint that Coachella’s original organizers readily admit to have copied.

The original Woodstock’s oft-romanticized reputation as an isolated “happening” — a rare occurrence that would be ostensibly impossible to replicate — clashes completely with the dime-a-dozen regularity of music festivals from the mid-late 2000s on. Even as the industry that keeps fests going seems to be in the midst of an economic slowdown, the proliferation of festivals big and small throughout this decade have made the act of attendance as remarkable as going to the grocery store. For younger folk, music festivals are a rite of passage on par with heading into a big city unsupervised for the first time; aging music fans, on the other hand, can pack several months’ worth of concertgoing into one or several days spent outdoors, a feat of food-truck-lined convenience.

Suffice to say, almost all of these events stopped feeling like “events” years ago. When Beyoncé took the stage at Coachella last year to deliver a mega-set of a headlining appearance that felt virtuosic even by her standards, a sizable amount of post-show internet chatter surmised that her instantly iconic performance rendered all future festival-headlining gigs irrelevant. Of course, such hyperbole is anything but foreign when talking about anything Beyoncé does — but, as it occasionally does, the internet had a point. The Coachella and Bonnaroo lineups were announced over the last week and a half, and aside from the typical pop-culture fantasy-league analysis of who got the biggest-font poster-placement, neither seems capable of delivering a Bey-esque sensation.

The latter counts a whopping three headlining sets from Phish (less a sign of laziness and more an indication of Bonnaroo knowing their crunchy, jam-friendly brand) alongside the Lumineers and Childish Gambino — who also sits pretty at the top of Coachella’s poster, alongside Tame Impala and Ariana Grande. Perhaps the most interesting observation about Coachella’s first two headliners is that their appearance indicates new music from them soon, which we basically already knew; as for Grande — who’s coming off what is undoubtedly her most creatively fertile year yet — she counts as the youngest Coachella headliner in history, as well as a female-identifying main event within an ecosystem that’s gradually (albeit not quickly enough) booking more female-identifying headliners.

About that last point: As the music festival-industrial-complex has become another way of American life, it’s also been increasingly and reasonably subjected to litmus tests reflecting the increased social awareness that society has taken on over the past several years. Drawing attention to Coachella-operation-company Goldenvoice owner Philip Anschutz’s history of donating to anti-LGBTQ causes and Republican candidates has become as much of an annual tradition as fireworks on the Fourth of July; last March, the Chicago-based advocacy campaign OurMusicMyBody reported that 90 percent of surveyed female concertgoers (at festivals and otherwise) had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Not only is the rampant, at-times violent culture of misogyny embedded within festival culture not new, it’s well-documented — specifically with regard to Woodstock ‘99, a century-ending catastrophe that resulted in reports of horrifying instances of sexual assault, along with riots and property damage and an overdose-related death. (Spin’s award-winning report on the festival from that year is essential, and horrifying, reading.)

Reflecting on the disaster that was Woodstock ‘99, it’s mind-boggling that festival culture managed to flourish in its wake to begin with — and equally dismaying that, taking into account the brand-celebrating festivities in motion, the organizers seem to be taking away the wrong lessons. When asked about the problems that surrounded Woodstock ‘99, Lang attempted to downplay the carnage to Rolling Stone as “just about 200 kids who went on a rampage … Woodstock ‘99 was just a musical experience with no social significance. It was just a big party.” His characterization is, among other things, blithely ignorant with regard to how the recent past is intertwined with festival culture’s questionably safe present.

In a just-published rare interview with the Los Angeles Times, Coachella co-founder Paul Tollett is slightly more pragmatic when addressing similar concerns, including a Teen Vogue report from last year in which its writer, Vera Papisova, claimed to be groped at the festival 22 times over the course of ten hours. “We’re challenging staff and attendees to be an integral part of this culture shift,” he stated while discussing the Every One campaign that will be rolled out for this year’s Coachella as well as its country-focused Stagecoach offshoot — and that’s included being forced to address the issues within. In late 2017, Tollett’s Goldenvoice company parted ways with FYF Festival organizer Sean Carlson after he faced allegations of sexual misconduct; after assuming full control of the L.A.-based festival, low ticket sales (a common malady facing many mid-to-small-scale festivals over the last several years) forced FYF’s cancellation entirely.

When asked about FYF’s general future, Tollett uses the phrase “scaled down” in his response, a reasonable ideal that nonetheless ignores the fact that plenty of FYF-scale festivals both existent and discontinued face myriad financial issues indicating that the festival industry’s bubble has long since burst. Even Bonnaroo’s struggled, dipping to a record-low 45,500 attendees in 2016 — a practical dent in its too-big-to-fail status. As festival culture and the industry that’s created it enters their unruly post-adolescent period, it’s worth thinking beyond the increasing sameness across lineups and experiences, instead considering whether, in 20 years’ more time, there will be enough festivals in existence to resemble each other at all.

Where Do Music Festivals Go Now?