Why Music Festivals and Dating Just Don't Work in New York


Governor’s Ball, a two-day music festival on Randall's Island last month, was no Bonnaroo. It paled in comparison to Coachella, and was well below the level of Lollapolooza, Glastonbury, Benicassim, EDC, etc. Governor’s Ball was fun but modest at best, festively speaking. In a few weekends, New York will give a music festival a go once more with, “Catalpa,” an ethnically ambiguous name that better lends itself to a more exotic and evocative hype. 

Headlined by The Black Keys and Snoop Dog and with a similar lineup to that of Governor's Ball, Catalpa attempts to bridge the gap between ‘sophisticated hipsters’ and ‘posh gangsters.’ While Catalpa has more initial appeal than Governor’s Ball with aggressive marketing involving a 'High Times' Magazine sponsorship, the use of yuppie buzzwords such as ‘curation’, and a more consistent musical line up, Catalpa, like most New York City music festivals, will ultimately fail to be a game changer in the New York City music festival scene. At the root of the problem lies Catalpa’s inability to overcome the city’s overall disdain for commitment. That is, unless Jay-Z or Kanye are headlining the festival (cough, ‘Made in America,’ Philadelphia, cough). It is the same commitment issues that plague New York City’s dating scene that are just as relevant to the city’s inability to recreate Woodstock, or something like it. 

The fact is that, as The New Yorker wrote one year ago, New York City offers “abundance and access,” bestowing upon us the simultaneous privilege and curse of choice, or rather, “the tyranny of choice”. Collective action problems plague groups of friends, ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ syndrome dilutes otherwise satisfying experiences, and the constant possibility of ‘trading up’ challenges monogamy. The common assumption that New York City is the best place for single people because of the sheer density of single people, which glorifies New York City as the epicenter of dating, is mistakenly held. Unfortunately, studies have shown the bigger the pool to choose from, the more selective and picky people are about choosing.

In the 90’s, Sheena Iyengar , author of The Art of Choosing, and a professor at Columbia Business School, once noted that in her local luxury grocery store, “renowned for its huge selection of produce, packaged foods, and wine,” she often walked out of the store empty handed. This fueled her to research the psychology of choice. She discovered that “the task of having to choose is often experienced as suffering, not pleasure,” and that people have a difficult time identifying what they really want when they are inundated with opportunities and choices. Forbes listed New York as ranking the highest in online dating, with singles in the five boroughs consisting of 8% of the entire user database of Match.com. This desire to, literally and figuratively, be the person with the most cake, and control the surface area of your fate dominates not only the dating landscape, but also the social scene, making it very difficult for a large social and cultural event such as a music festival to take root and grow.

With so many working for the weekend and so many things occurring during said weekend, nothing worries people more than the possibility of not being where they want to be, which is quite naturally, everywhere. The emergence of terms such as FOMO, or, the ‘fear of missing out,’ and  ‘game-timing,’ has normalized and justified people’s tendencies to weigh their options, make last minute decisions, and avoid commitment. This also allows for one’s flakiness to be viewed in a positive light. Perhaps you are now just blissfully ‘spontaneous.’

The intimate and sacred relationship that many have with music can be analogous to searching for intimacy with a partner (there is no shame in admitting that you too were intensely moved by the appoggiaturas in Adele’s, “Someone Like You”). Listening to a new song or artist is not all that different than the courting process amongst humans, “Okay, this < song / person > is not that bad, but do I really want to <buy the whole CD/take her out on another date>?”

Festivals such as ‘Coachella,’ facilitate these musical courtships because of the initial allure of the bold faced names that the festivals showcase such as Rihanna,  Eminem, Wiz Khalifa, and even Tupac Shakur. Making the commitment to isolation in Palm Springs for a few days to listen to music is worth it simply because of such ‘wow-factor’ artists. Additionally, your attendance is a projection of your stylized self as much as your dating profile, Facebook profile, and Twitter persona are, since you will most likely be documenting the event through these online outlets. No matter the cost, people will pay for perceived value, which is dependent on the perceived tier of performers, location, branding and marketing. That in turn, helps to attract a large, high profile crowd, which thus helps to attract more and more people and increases the likelihood of commitment.

Only two days long and on a relatively small Randall’s Island with a very distinct musical feel to each day (Kid Cudi and Major Lazer on Saturday vs. Fiona Apple and Beck on Sunday), most people only attended Governor's Ball for one of the days and showed up late on that day. This model appeals to most New Yorkers but it won’t allow New York City to establish the special kind of festival that it is capable of hosting. In the end the model needs to offer value, demand commitment, and capture and successfully project the essence of New York City without coming across as desperate. You know, kind of like getting a boyfriend or girlfriend.