Dating back over 40 years, music festivals have become a quintessential part of the life of America’s youth. Join us on a tour of music festivals around the United States, and uncover with us the pros and cons of each festival.
By Matthew Wilkinson
merican author Rob Kirkpatrick refers to 1969 as “The Year Everything Changed.” Quarterback Joe Namath led the underdog New York Jets to a historic Super Bowl victory, Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president of the United States, The Godfather was published, the peace movement was in full swing, and while Bryan Adams was picking up his first six string guitar, approximately 500,000 people came together on a dairy farm in Woodstock, N.Y., for the most notorious music festival in history: Woodstock.
The three-day music and art festival has been immortalized in albums, documentaries, photos, and movies. Images of hippies sliding around in the mud to the music of legends like the Grateful Dead, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, and Janis Joplin personify the festival for anybody who wasn’t there.
But although Woodstock was more than 40 years ago, the music festival is still one of America’s favorite pastimes. More than 100 music festivals still take place each year in the United States, all following the road first paved by Woodstock. Let’s explore some lesser-known music festivals.
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Launched in 1999, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (or simply Coachella) is the premiere music festival for Southern California. Held in Indio, the festival is known for a strong line-up, onsite camping, and intense heat.
In its earlier days, Coachella was a one or two-day festival, but with its surging popularity over the last couple of years have been three days of music, sprawling over a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Three days is a bit too long for me to hang in the middle of the desert in mid April, so I was looking to score a one-day ticket, but I got lucky and found a guy outside the gate who wanted to go home and sold me his wristband for $60.
Because it’s held in the desert, Coachella has one luxury other festivals don’t: space. The obvious downside, however, being that it’s in the middle of the desert and baking. Water is a hot commodity at Coachella, but the festival doesn’t gouge like some others. A bottle of water was less than $3 – at others it can be as much as $5 (on the street it’s about $1).
Sunday was the strongest single day line-up of music. I made my way from stage to stage checking out sets by “Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars” crooner B.o.B., alt-rockers MuteMath, The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, emo kids Sunny Day Real Estate and indie mainstays Spoon.
But as the sun set over the mountains, the big boys came out to play. French rockers Phoenix (who almost didn’t make the festival due to the Icelandic volcano eruption) were the show-stealers of the day, delivering a powerhouse hour-long set comprised mostly of songs from their Grammy-award winning record Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
It was obvious, though, who the headliners were, and everybody packed in around the main stage, curious to see what the Gorillaz would bring. A band whose members are constantly changing and are represented by cartoon illustrations in their videos, when the band hit the stage, they appeared surprisingly normal. They weren’t hiding behind screens projecting cartoon characters or holograms, they came out like a normal band with Gorillaz spelled out in big lights behind them and large video screens that projected a video to go along with each song.
Pros: Spread out and lots of space, refillable water for $12, great mix of music and big headliners, onsite camping.
Cons: Hot and dusty, one-day tickets not available.
Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival
In its third year, San Francisco’s Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival put a little Bay-Area spin on the music festival. Held in the beautiful Golden Gate Park, the two-day festival is one of the newest and smallest ones on the circuit, but enjoyable for those reasons.
Filling the park with more than 30,000 people daily on a Friday and Saturday, Outside Lands had a few of the same powerhouse acts as Coachella, but in a more intimate setting.
Nobody appealed to me enough to drop $80 for a ticket on Saturday, but I was willing to spend that much for a ticket on Sunday to see gospel singer and rock-and-roll hall of famer Al Green, indie powerhouses Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, and 500 Days Of Summer soundtrack stars The Temper Trap, amongst others.
Because ‘Outside Lands’ is held in Golden Gate Park, a gorgeously green area just southwest of downtown San Francisco, the festival has a very strong “green” influence. All trash was sorted by type to make recycling easy and disposing of trash in proper containers was highly encouraged.
One of my favorite parts of Outside Lands was the food and drink. The festival rented booths out to local Bay-Area eateries, so there was a wide variety of local tastes from the city. There was also an emphasis on wine options. Being so close to the Napa Valley wineries, Outside Lands had a wide variety of wines to taste and buy.
They also had refillable water options as well. You could purchase a stainless steel water bottle for free refills all weekend long, or bring your own bottle from home and purchase refills.
One of the hardest parts of attending a music festival for me is positioning. I worked my way up to the front of the main stage to snap a few pictures of Al Green, but when he finished I was faced with a dilemma: I could wonder across the festival or I could stay put and enjoy prime positioning for the next act. Normally music festivals are a prime opportunity to check out bands that you’ve never seen before or wouldn’t pay full price to see solo, but in this instance the next act was Phoenix and with how awesome they were at Coachella, I decided to stay put.
There was no doubt about who should be closing the night though. Kings Of Leon were about ready to take the stage and a pair of girls that had flown in from Canada worked their way up beside me. Behind me was another pair of girls visiting from England. Concertgoers seem more willing to travel longer distances for music festivals than one-off shows, so festivals normally have a more eclectic mix of fans.
Pros: Same powerhouse acts as other festivals, but fewer and in a more intimate setting. Strong “green” influence. Great “Taste of the Bay” food and wine options.
Austin City Limits
In just nine years, the Austin City Limits Music Festival (or ACL) in Austin, Texas, has become one of the U.S.’s premier music festivals. Although Texas is known as one of the most conservative states in the country, Austin is one of its most liberal cities and calls itself the live-music capital of the world.
With more than 130 acts playing across the three days, ACL offers something for everybody.
Austin City Limits is a festival a lot of other festivals could learn from. The festival was the most efficient when it came to ticketing, variety of music, and clean grounds. They also offered refillable water bottles, but if you brought your own water bottle they would refill it for no charge. And if you wanted a free festival T-shirt, you could grab a green trash bag from a booth and fill it up with recyclables – because so many festivalgoers were doing this, the grounds were spotless.
The only problem I came across was that there were so many bands playing I wanted to see, but the times completely overlapped. And although the festival was well Spread out, I felt the pedestrian traffic areas were too narrow, often causing large traffic jams where you couldn’t move either way.
ACL had an “Art Market” which was full of local art vendors offering random goods. There were also free wireless Internet hotspots, encouraging festivalgoers to share content on Facebook and to Tweet.
Pros: Efficient, spread out, best music line-up, clean, free water if you bring your own bottle, easy to get to.
Cons: Narrow high traffic areas, sold out quickly.
Music festivals aren’t for everybody. They are hot and crowded and you are often herded through areas like cattle. In most cases portable toilets are your only bathroom option. Food is expensive and water can be too depending on the festival. Hippie culture is still very evident at these shows and drug and alcohol use is very common.
But if you can stand the aforementioned, going to a music festival is an experience unlike any other. You get to see a wide variety of music and bands and be a part of a community of music lovers that you can’t find anywhere else.