In case you hadn’t heard—it’s music festival season again. SXSW in Austin just wrapped last week, and next month launches two weekends’ worth of Coachella in the California desert. What’s more, it seems music festivals are big business these days; more of ‘em seem to be popping up around the world each day (and selling out faster than ever), and summer tours by up-and-coming and mainstream bands alike seem to be more dictated by the “festival circuit” than anything else.
Yeah, music festivals are big business. But is necessarily that a good thing?
A couple of years ago, a music blogger friend of mine landed media passes to review Vans Warped Tour when it came through his town. He made the mistake of giving out his email address when applying for the passes. Literally within hours of getting on the media list, his email was flooded with spam—PR companies, indie labels and other corporate entities clamoring for him to check out this-and-such band on the [insert corporate brand] stage, and how thus-and-so were available for interviews—far too much for him to even process. And of course, once he got on the grounds for the day-long festival, everything was for sale—not just the band merchandise. Booths everywhere. Corporate sponsors galore. The whole grounds was one huge commercial, peppered with an occasional band performance on a [corporately sponsored] stage. It was so annoying and so detracted from the music itself that my blogger friend decided then and there he would not attend another Warped Tour event. And to my knowledge, he never has.
What I’m saying is nothing new. If you go to music festivals regularly, you’re probably used to this. Corporate sponsorship isn’t necessarily a crime—it’s how most festival promoters pay for their events. But when the corporate presence overshadows the reason the festival is supposed to exist in the first place, it’s worth asking a few questions.
The irony (dare I say hypocrisy?) behind what my blogger friend experienced at Vans Warped Tour is that even though a major brand name (Vans) underwrites the event, the entire tour is supposed to be built around counterculture, not corporate culture. The bands on the Warped bill are mostly indie, alternative, punk and hard music bands, many of them barely known to the mainstream. They have a fan base, but it’s usually a niche group who follow their particular brand or genre of underground acts. Most of the people who come to Vans Warped Tour are already fans of certain bands who found out about the event from their friends and social media. But when they get there, they are inundated with commercial after commercial. You have to wonder if things haven’t gotten a little out of hand.
I mentioned SXSW earlier. This is a highly popular festival in downtown Austin that brings thousands of bands and fans together every year, and it’s become one of the biggest indie/alternative events in the world, featuring hundreds of bands you never heard of, a few larger acts to keep things interesting, and inspiring keynote addresses from major figures in rock music. It’s still one of the few places where unknown bands can play in the same neighborhood with a few larger headliners, and maybe make some great connections. It began as a celebration of the little guys, the indie bands who were talented but fairly unknown—and for the most part, it still carries that vibe.
But there are signs of change, too. It used to be a big deal for Bruce Springsteen to come to SXSW and perform, let alone speak. This year, iTunes sponsored their own mini-festival and brought Coldplay (one of the world’s biggest bands) out of hibernation to perform, along with Imagine Dragons, Kendrick Lamar and many others. This year’s keynote speaker? Lady Gaga. So many national names that some of the up-and-comers were barely noticed. And don’t think for a minute this was all paid for by ticket prices. You expect this sort of thing at a place like Coachella or Bonnaroo. You don’t expect it at SXSW.
So what’s the big deal? Why make a stink about this?
Most of you young ‘uns aren’t old enough to remember this, but there was a day when music festivals weren’t about business—they were actually about the music. People coming out to enjoy marathon sets from their favorite bands, and the bands coming out to connect with their fans. Can you imagine Woodstock with the sort of name-pushing, arrogant promotional tactics and corporate jockeying that we see in festivals today? That’s still the heart and soul behind music festivals today, believe it or not. People aren’t crowding these festivals because they want the latest products—they are coming for the same reasons they’ve always been coming: for the music. The corporate sponsorship, heavy promotion and commercialism are somewhat necessary to pay for the festivals, and everyone understands that. But when the corporate noise gets so loud that the music starts taking a back seat, you have to ask if things are askew. Likewise, when festivals once devoted to indie music get overrun by bigger and bigger acts (along with the corporate sponsorship), it gives those bands fewer opportunities to get noticed.
Is this trend going to change? Not likely—at least not right away. But I have a feeling that at some point, music lovers are going to get tired of the corporate noise, and they’re going to be less likely to pay the high ticket prices to come through the gates (my blogger friend is just one example). Likewise, when indie festivals get too mainstream, the indie bands and their fans are going to stop coming out as well—they’ll start looking for other places to connect with other. I think ultimately the relationship between music festivals and corporate sponsorship is a necessary evil because the bottom line is, it costs money to put these events on. But there’s going to have be an equilibrium struck if the music festival boom is going to continue. In my view, the tipping point is pretty close at hand. Festival promoters and their sponsors alike need to remember that the fans are coming for the music, not the products and brands. If the corporate noise starts drowning out the music, the fans will become alienated and take their dollars elsewhere.