Let's face it, music festivals have gone soft

Festival Goer
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Every year, when the Coachella lineup is announced, there is some hemming and hawing about the same issues: Are there enough women on the lineup? Do we all remember that the owner of the festival regularly donates to anti-LGBTQ organizations? And more recently: Aren’t these festivals bad for the environment? All of those concerns are valid and worthy of conversation, of course, but the result is usually somewhat the same: Coachella tickets are sold to the masses, the discontent pushed to the back of attendees’ minds so that they may enjoy a lineup led entirely or predominantly by men.

The cognitive dissonance required to attend a festival like Coachella while also maintaining a certain set of principles is not unique to that one party in the California desert. Delve deep enough into any festival and you’re bound to find some element — the lineup, the funding, the brand sponsorships — that conflict with the rights of LGBTQ people, the protection and conservation of the Earth and its resources, or even gender parity. And that’s true with nearly everything these days. There’s no good or service that doesn’t come with a price tag of some moral or societal failing. Festivals are particularly sinister because while they increasingly require an element of apathy about their inner workings, they are also becoming a favored tool in providing public relations mending for entities accused of more severe crimes than failing to include any women as headliners.

In December, Amazon Web Services hosted Intersect, a music festival that featured performances from Foo Fighters, Anderson .Paak, Kacey Musgraves, and more. AWS has been linked to supplying technology services to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the larger parent company has drawn repeated criticism for its treatment of its workers and its negative environmental impact. Amazon’s political failings — including growing concerns about its development of facial recognition technologies that can be utilized by law enforcement — was enough to inspire some artists to boycott performing at Intersect. But, in the end, the festival still went on as planned.

Amazon effectively utilized the festival as a way to ingratiate itself in popular culture. Amazon was able to use the festival to put a sizable distance between its public image and its critics. This is seemingly what Saudi Arabia tried to replicate when Armie Hammer, Joan Smalls, and Wilmer Valderrama were invited out to the country’s MDL Beast Festival in Riyadh, to enjoy the musical stylings of Steve Aoki, David Guetta, and J Balvin.

The country has been embroiled in human rights controversies and accusations of war crimes for the better part of the last decade. In 2018, the Kingdom and its leadership was heavily implicated in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was kidnapped from a Saudi consulate in Turkey and never seen again. Attendees of the event received plenty of criticism, but Armie Hammer’s assessment of the event, that the country was experiencing its own “cultural revolution” akin to Woodstock, was transmitted to millions of people through Instagram posts from models, celebrities, and other paid-per-post influencers.

Peggy Gou, one of the DJs paid to attend MDL Beast and post videos to her 1.3 million Instagram followers, addressed the criticism she received dismissively in an interview with i-D. “Influencers are a different story,” Gou told i-D, drawing a line between performing and advertising. “I went there to play music for fans,” she continued. It’s a familiar defense. Even though it is suspected that the Kingdom organized the festival, supporters argue that MDL was about the people of Saudi Arabia getting the opportunity to attend a music festival with major artists for the first time.

Thinking about this seems bizarre when you reflect on the storied history of music festivals as the meeting place of hippies, potheads, and anti-war protesters. The public imagination of festivals is images of Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969, or the Monterey International Pop festival in 1967, which was as much a rock festival as it was a rapid cultural response to the draft and the escalating war in Vietnam. Without intending to, these festivals sustained a cultural revolution built on anti-war sentiment and a generations’ exhaustion with the draft and an apathetic government.

“Early on, these were festivals that were seen as being kind of counter-cultural landmarks,” Jonathan Wynn told Mic over the phone. Wynn is an associate professor at the The University of Massachusetts Amherst, and the author of Music/City: American Festivals and Placemaking in Austin, Nashville, and Newport. “But then in the 80s, the culture changed a little bit where festivals became a little less countercultural, and then fasting forwarding a few more years, where we have music being consumed in a kind of digital landscape and not as being something that is physically experienced in the sense of cassettes and LPs.”

As festivals became more common, they have also become more profitable. Tickets prices skyrocketed and brand partnerships flourished. A Nielsen Music poll determined that 23 percent of Americans attended a music festival in 2018. In the way that brands like Free People make expensive sweaters meant to evoke the stylings of 1970s anti-war protesters, the aesthetics of counterculture have been co-opted by festivals with no real message.

Is there any meaning to bringing thousands of young people together anymore? The original ideas behind festivals like Woodstock were that they were a place for subversion and subcultures to flourish when they couldn’t survive or be appreciated elsewhere. As the counterculture became folded into the market driven realities of mass culture, music festivals appear to be moving in the opposite direction of their predecessors. At best, they offer a place where the most sought after brands, faces, and artists are in one place. An opportunity to consume and create social media content valued by its likability and virality. At worst, they have become a relatively cheap way for corporations and governments to rehabilitate their image with young people.

“Would Woodstock really have been the same cultural event, If there were 20 other big branded festivals happening at the same time? Probably not,” Wynn continued.

There’s now an uncomfortable tension at the heart of most festivals. Instinct suggests that gathering tens of thousands of young people in one place should be inherently political. Something that people in power might fear. Except now it is precisely those in power who stand to benefit.

“The producers [of the festivals] definitely want to shy away from any kind of overt political stances,” Wynn told Mic. ”They want good brands to be on the marquee, they want advertisers.”

The powers that be have successfully cultivated ideology-free, brand-friendly festivals with advertising friendly acts. Millennials and Gen Z are experience-driven consumers trying to find tangible moments in an increasingly digital world — one that is curated to suggest a weekend in Saudi Arabia listening to EDM could be the panacea to existential angst. Meanwhile, those who stand to make the most money from these festivals are the source of a generation's worth of dread. It's as if, after the tumultuous gatherings of the 60's and 70's, someone figured out the key to controlling young people is throwing them a huge party.