No. 22: Summer Festivals Blanket America, Leave Music Fans Gasping For Air


A glut of festivals rode the 2000s’ bubble all the way to various parks and open spaces in America this summer, with new ones seemingly taking up every weekend between May and September and somehow attracting enough paying customers to not get canceled in advance, despite bills that boasted the same headliners week-in and week-out (hello, Jack Johnson!) and sorta-high ticket prices that were only ginned up by absurd “VIP” add-ons like air-conditioned cabanas and picnic tables away from the riff raff. On the one hand, it may be true that the festival setup, in which as many as 100 bands can be smushed onto one lineup and served up alongside tasty fried treats and sponsored booths, is the only way for people to feel like they actually got something of a handle on the ever-sprawling music scene of today. But on the other hand, could the sheer number of opportunities to drop three bills and distractedly catch a song or two by some blogged-about buzz band before heading along to the next tent result in anything but fatigue on the part of concertgoers, resulting in a less-than-optimal experience all around? (Although I guess that could also be the best way to get a handle, etc.)

Of course, there were other signs aside from the sheer glut that the “lots of festivals” model that worked so well in the UK all this time wasn’t exactly going to be a smash hit over here. Coachella—one of the top-tier fests, alongside Bonnaroo—decided to go way left-field with booking headliners, snagging Prince and Roger Waters alongside Jack Johnson. (Guess whose headlining set was the worst-attended?) Bonnaroo decided to get Kanye, a decision that resulted in lots of anger both offine and on; the Tennessee fest also lined up Metallica, a move that shook up the jam-band fans who are that festival’s bread and butter. With the exception of Kanye, the key for sticking out in the crowd of larger festivals seemed to hinge on getting acts with legacies that stretched back to the ’90s, or even earlier; boutique fests like Pitchfork’s annual shindig and the My Bloody Valentine-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties took a similar tack, albeit with artists that were a bit cultier. What happens when the well of bands that enough people have heard about to allow a big production to break even runs dry remains to be seen.

As does whether or not 2008’s full dance card will be a blip, or a sign of things to come. The 2009 installment of the Vineland Festival—a New Jersey extravaganza that had its plug pulled this year as well—was canceled in July, and even those festivals that are still around have already started rearranging the chairs: Bonnaroo and the twangy Coachella sibling festival Stagecoach are but two festivals that have informed potential visitors that they can buy tickets on lay-away, in case their credit cards were swallowed whole by the credit crunch.

80 ’08 (and heartbreak)