The Music Festival Bubble Didn’t Burst; It’s Slowly Deflating

There are certain conventions in the music industry, and one of them is that everyone has to make a show of being very excited about festival line-ups. So it went this week, when the line-up for Coachella was announced, featuring a reunited Outkast, two determinedly vanilla co-headliners (Muse and Arcade Fire), and a tidal wave of other bands that tries to cover every possible stylistic base — from Bryan Ferry to Waxahatchee, The Cult to Factory Floor, Nas to Laurent Garnier. It’s kind of like the Costco of music consumption experiences — you pony up once a year and get the chance to see pretty much every band you could conceivably want to see, in bulk. It’s the show you go to if you don’t go to shows any more.

It’s worth reviewing how we got here. The music festival has really only existed in its current form since the mid-1960s, and the industry has followed the trajectory of many other young industries: it started as a ramshackle bunch of small players, the sort of Hobbesian free market that right-wing economists are fond of talking about and less fond of actually participating in, but soon enough, big fish started swallowing up the little ones, consolidating the majority of the market in the hands of a relatively small group of mega-festivals. That’s essentially where we’re at at the moment; sure, there are still plenty of small festivals around the country, but the roost is ruled by the likes of huge events like Bonnaroo, Coachella, etc, along with traveling extravaganzas like Warped.

The interesting question is what happens next. The thing about individual music festivals is that they have a limited lifespan — their audience grows up and drifts away, and the organizers inevitably lose touch with what the next generation is listening to. As festivals get bigger, their line-ups become less progressive and more based on commercial considerations, and they bloat like dying stars into things that are less about music and more about being events. You can see this happening with Coachella — compare and contrast its inaugural line-up and this year’s bill, and you’ll see they’re aimed at essentially the same audience, one that was in its late teens and early 20s in 1999 and is hitting its 30s in 2014.

Sure, there are younger bands on the bill, but they’re not so much there to attract a new audience as they are to convince the existing audience that they’re seeing something cutting edge. After all, why would you go to the desert to see Future Islands when you can see them at your local DIY venue for $10? If you’re a late-20s type with a Serious Job, you go to Coachella for the nostalgic appeal of OutKast and Neutral Milk Hotel and Queens of the Stone Age, and to get fucked up for a weekend, and as a bonus you can tell everyone in the office when you get back that you’ve also seen Haim and Disclosure and all these other allegedly hip new bands — and so long as you don’t notice the interns are kinda sniggering at you, everything will be just fine.

Except everything’s not just fine — not for the festival, anyway, because history shows that this being-everything-to-everyone phase generally predates being nothing to anyone. Case in point: the Big Day Out in my native Australia, a festival that started as a one-day event in Sydney in 1992, grew to encompass events around the entire country (and eventually in New Zealand, too), and by the late ’90s was the biggest news in the Southern Hemisphere as far as festivals went. As the years went by, its line-ups slowly drifted away from the relatively progressive bills that had brought its initial success. As the 2000s progressed, tickets sold out more on the strength of the brand and the lack of competition than on the strength of the bills. The festival became a once-a-year ritual that cost more every time, something you went to because everyone else did.

And then, suddenly, no one else did. The festival’s core attendees hit their late 20s, had kids, and settled down, and the younger generation was lured away by a new festival that spoke far more to their tastes. The whole process was exemplified beautifully by the fact that in 1994, the first year the festival went national, it was headlined by Soundgarden, and in 2012, the year that things really started to go wrong, it was headlined by… Soundgarden. These days, the BDO is very much in late red giant phase, with new owners trying to revamp it and the original promoters sunning themselves somewhere in the Bahamas.

This is the sort of natural attrition that’s always likely to take place in a field as neophilic as rock music, but in recent years, the consequences of that attrition have become more serious. The generation that should be taking the place of the current group of festival goers has grown up in a world where festivals are big commercial crapfests, and they seem less interested in the whole idea than my generation (late-period Gen X, since you’re asking) was. The gravy train days of music festivals are over, I think. Whereas in the mid-’00s, pretty much any festival that could print a bright poster and attract a somewhat decent bill was assured of attendees, these days audiences are both more discerning and less excited by the whole idea of camping in the middle of nowhere and paying $10 for a beer.

People have been predicting that the festival bubble will burst for a decade now, but as it’s transpired, the bubble isn’t so much bursting as slowly deflating. This might seem like an overly pessimistic view, but if you disagree, I’d be interested in knowing which festivals you think are emerging these days that will follow the same trajectory as Coachella or the BDO, i.e. starting as relatively small events for young music lovers and growing over a decade or so into commercial behemoths. It’s a lot harder to launch a festival these days, because you start out immediately trying to compete with the big boys, and doing so in a difficult financial climate. And you’re trying to attract an audience that sees festivals as things you go to once a year.

I think that if anything, we’ll see a sort of deconsolidation, where specialized small festivals start small and stay small, and a small group of highly financed large festivals will continue to chase a declining market of ever-aging attendees. I might be wrong, of course — who knows, maybe in five years’ time Basilica Soundscape will be held over two weekends in a bespoke arena in Hudson, and attended by 20,000 girls in faux-Native American headdresses. But I doubt it. And honestly, that’s not such a bad thing. If it means that people go back to attending shows at local venues instead of shelling out a couple of hundred dollars to camp in the desert for a weekend, it’s probably to the ultimate benefit of musicians — and lord knows, they need all the help they can get.