Response - The Problem with Major Festivals According to NYTimes
The New York Times recently wrote an article regarding their choice to not cover Bonnaroo or Coachella music festivals for 2016.
According to their reasoning, while the festivals were at one point a hub for musical discovery, the folks at NYT have decided instead to cover smaller festival events in the hope of discovering untapped music scenes. The reason being, that although Coachella and Bonnaroo both had at one time premier line-ups full of buzzy up-and-comers paired with legendary returns to the stage, the line-ups at this point are now replicated by every other major festival in the country.
According to New York Times contributor Ben Ratliff,
"Their bookings used to be somewhat exciting, if exciting means special and special means rare and rare means meaningful; they aren’t anymore. Each of these festivals, as well as the many others that have sprung up in the last 15 years — including Panorama, Wayhome, Governor’s Ball, Firefly, Sasquatch, Outside Lands and Hangout — has its own essence, to some degree. But that essence has more and more to do with variations in clothes, drugs, topography and regional weather, and less to do with the sounds coming from the multiple stages."
(Photo courtesy of Renee Waldhelm)
Although the positioning of Ratliff's argument is that there are fewer obscure and unique performances to write about, the lack of 'notable content' that New York Times music critics claim is missing from large music festivals may instead be the crippling realization of the obsoleteness of their own positions. With the vast accessibility of music from all time periods, genres, and regions, individuals have the ability more now than ever to organically discover music that they enjoy, as opposed to digesting the opinion of high-brow music fans.
The availability of streaming music has also created a new environment from which musicians are able to build their brand. For musicians just starting their careers, the exposure through streaming platforms like Soundcloud can be the difference between a career as a bedroom producer, or a career as a traveling musical performer. However, for well-established acts, the norm of music streaming has left fewer avenues for generating income.
It is important to consider too, that the festival evolution can be broken down into the simple economics of supply and demand. Although LCD Soundsystem may be hitting every major North American festival rather than a solo Bonnaroo performance, that is a symptom of the environment that we, as fans, have created. There is a high demand for touring performers, and thus, the artists provide the supply of performances.
(Prince's 2008 Coachella Performance)
As consumers have drifted away from purchasing albums, vinyl, or merchandise, we’ve lost the sense of intimacy with an artist. No longer are fans pouring over album liners to remember every lyric to every song, instead we tweet, dm, and stream our way into an artist’s peripheral vision. As the meaningful artist/fan relationships increases in separation, the one thing that fans still do support is the touring musician. We’ve proven that we are willing to support artists careers by purchasing the live experience over and over again. This experience thrives at Coachella and Bonnaroo which bring in a crowd on 80-90,000 attendees each year.
At this point both festivals have also surpassed the point of being ‘just music festivals’. They have evolved into a social barometer for our cultural conscious. While music is still a focal point to both Bonnaroo and Coachella, innovation and creativity share the limelight. This year Coachella will be debuting virtual reality technology, the first festival to preview such innovation. With past holographic performances by Tupac, Coachella has shown us that technology and music are cut from the same cloth.
According to Anthony Marinelli, accomplished musician, composer, and producer for major acts like Michael Jackson, The Crystal Method, and James Brown,
“Computers and videos are integral to how we learn and how we do business. Electronic music festivals are an expression and often a snapshot of who we are and where we’re going with this technology. Festivals are an essential part of current artistic expression and a driving force.”
Although music critics may no longer appreciate the merit of major festivals, this may be a signal of the changing roles and models within the music industry. While there is certainly substance to be gained through gauging current cultural and technological trends provided by these events, the need for music critics to scrutinize each performance or track selection is becoming less desirable in todays highly connected and viral marketplace.