Music festivals. How could an innocuous phrase that essentially boils down to “a collection of concerts” inspire such polarizing opinions in music fans? Much of what differentiates festival culture from show-going culture has little to do with the music itself. Live music remains one of the few communal experiences in our digitally-minded world. What the rise of national music festivals has shown us is that we have different views about what constitutes ideal conditions for a shared musical experience. It’s a “duh” kind of statement, but go to a festival — any festival — and watch it play out. These differences are never more apparent than when you shove people of all different ages and lifestyles into a fenced-in park for three days of extreme heat and $6 bottled water.
Sometimes bad things happen. There were, for example, at least seven deaths at music festivals in 2013 that went reported by the media, not to mention those that go unreported, along with various injuries. As detailed by the Miami New Times, it took two weeks just to get public records regarding hospitalization of Ultra Music Festival attendees last year, and still the information was inconclusive. Drugs are the cause of many of these fatalities, but there’s also heat factors, which have played a role in Bonnaroo’s 11 deaths since 2002.
In the mainstream press, EDM festivals — like the traveling Electric Daisy Carnival, New York’s Electric Zoo, and Miami’s Ultra — are villifed as the drug lords on the block. In recent festival seasons, there have been widely covered deaths at each of these festivals: Electric Daisy in L.A. in 2010; Electric Zoo in 2013, which canceled its remaining day after two overdoses; and just this year, Ultra. In turn, many of their peers have implemented stricter no drug policies, in addition to working with educational organizations like DanceSafe on the premises. This is, of course, in addition to the multiple medical tents and security teams (including bag checkers at the entrances) that are mandatory at festivals across the board.
I’ve covered music festivals of all kinds for the last five years, and I can assure you that there were drugs at every single one of them. Did I witness more teenagers partaking in drugs at the Diplo set than at The Cure set last year at Lollapalooza? Yes. One of said teens even asked if The Cure was Diplo. It was the opposite of the “I’ll Have What She’s Having” moment in When Harry Met Sally. But it’s impossible to stop altogether when you consider the tens of thousands of attendees, whose ages and parental supervision vary across the board. Many major festivals don’t even have an age minimum.
Despite all this, new music festivals aiming for national status continue to pop up every summer, while those with a national presence continue to look for immersive experiences that will differentiate themselves from their peers. Some big players, like Outside Lands and Lollapalooza, have invested more energy and real estate into local cuisine and craft alcohol. The festivals in the hottest locales — and even Austin City Limits, which takes place in the fall — have partnered with brands to create “cooling suites” or lounges.
Some people say that the music has become secondary to the pursuit of a good time. That’s not entirely untrue. But recognizing that a handful of trivial personal experiences — be it other attendees you come into contact with, to how long you wait in line for the port-a-potty — can shade your entire festival experience, we went to the source on festival intel: organizers, artists, and those in the music industry who know the inside story. We asked five such sources several similar questions and compared results, compiling a range of responses. Here’s what they had to say regarding an increase in younger attendees, upcoming fest trends, drug safety, and what’s changed in the festival biz in the last five years.
Gregg Gillis — AKA Girl Talk, who’s been releasing electronic mash-ups for 12 years (including a new Broken Ankles EP with Freeway) and performing them live to massive festival crowds for nearly as long.
Jeff Cuellar — Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at AC Entertainment, the promotion giant that co-founded/co-produces Bonnaroo and produces distinct festivals like Forecastle, Big Ears, and Gentlemen of the Road.
Chris Kaskie — President of Pitchfork and The Dissolve, the quintessential music and film criticism sites, respectively; and organizer of the two annual Pitchfork Music Festivals (Chicago and Paris). (Writer’s full disclosure: I have written for Pitchfork.)
Kerri Mason — Senior Vice President, Music Group at SXF Entertainment, arguably the biggest EDM empire in the world, which went public last fall. (SFX’s properties include promoters like Made Event [Electric Zoo] and digital resources like Beatport.) Previously Kerri worked for a number of years as a writer covering electronic music for Billboard.
Rehan Choudhry — Founder of Life is Beautiful Festival, an annual Las Vegas music, food, and art fest that launched last October with big crowds and bigger headliners across rock, pop, EDM, and hip-hop.