What might have been the most impressive festival in recent years, Desert Trip, just held its first of two weekends in Indio, California. The adjective “impressive” could be applied to a few things about the festival, which is known as “Oldchella.” The first would be the lineup, which consisted of the giants of 20th century rock — the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and The Who. All are headliners, with no supporting acts crammed into three days. The second is the money associated with the event, figures which manage to dwarf even the surprise of the Stones covering “Come Together.”
The cost of a seat runs from $700 to $1,600, while some VIP packages went for more than $3,000 resale. For the more spry attendees (the average age of spectators was 51 years old), there were standing-room tickets, priced $200 for a single day and $400 for three, that sold out almost immediately.
It’s amazing but not exactly surprising that the festival boom, and rock music itself, has reached this point. With streaming supplanting the actual buying of music, festivals have become one of, if not the biggest money makers in the industry. The largest ones, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Coachella, all draw tens of thousands of people per day, and are able to sell out passes before lineups are even announced, even with averaging at about $300 for a weekend pass. Smaller festivals are also hits. Bunbury in Cincinnati brought in 15,000 fans per day, and the inaugural PromoWest Fest in Columbus went off with great success in July.
With this kind of attendance, it’s no shock the number of festivals around the world is increasing each year.
Festivals are doing so well not just because they make so much money, but because they make for a great fan experience. The bigger festivals have multiple acts playing at once, providing choices for each listener. Attendees are surrounded by like-minded, usually good-hearted peers who are just trying to enjoy themselves. Beyond the cost of a ticket, my festival experiences have been mostly positive.
That perspective isn’t always shared by the performer, though. In a Q&A with members of the Third Man Records Vault, Jack White mentioned his dislike for festivals.
“I’d say half the shows I play I’d rather not play. Festivals, for example. But I have to make the best of it and try to get inspired,” White said.
In an interview with Rolling Stone this year, Kevin Parker of Tame Impala said, “If it’s a dance music festival or mainstream festival, there’s maybe like 10 percent who pay attention to the music. You just see guys with muscles – essentially Tarzan. A fucking hoard of Tarzans that are like, ‘I just want to scope out all the chicks!’”
That probably wasn’t the case at Desert Trip last weekend. The people who could afford to be there were there to hear the music and see the legends, not to scope out chicks. The whole thing seemed like a reward for the people who lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s, then made enough money to enjoy themselves.
As for rock ‘n’ roll, its egalitarian days have been gone for a long time. The idealism of the ‘60s passed and the danger of the teenager gave way to marketability, making rock a moneymaker. Attempts to rebel against corporatized rock came and went, from punk to grunge, until many youths stopped caring about rock altogether. Rock star is now a nomer for musicians broadcasted on classic rock stations, or is applied, more accurately, to modern rappers. Rappers are the larger-than-life personalities now, and make the rebellious music of the youths.
It’s a little surprising that a festival like Desert Trip is only just now happening. Maybe the performers just became able to set their egos aside, or maybe no one ever had the guts to ask the biggest stars in rock to share a stage. There is a lot that is great with the idea, mostly the assimilation of those discographies on one stage in one weekend, but there is also a lot that is disappointing.
The turn that many big-time events have taken toward being more exclusive to the elite, with the hike in prices and with the help of promoters and corporate sponsors, has damaged the spirit of inclusion in live music.
The old ethos of keeping live music accessible is still out there, but you have to look for it.
Let me know if you find it.