Will Brand Names Ruin Alt Festivals?
Back in 2014, the Glastonbury Festival lineup was a who's who of alternative superstars: Jack White, Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, Interpol, and Phosphorescent, just to name a few. But the big story was Saturday's closer: Metallica.
The BBC reported that Metallica were the first metal act to headline the show in its 44 year history. Reviews of their set were positive overall -- and there were lots of reviews. You don't just drop Metallica into the lineup of one of the world's best known festivals without generating some serious press.
So ... any guesses what happened next?
The first batch of big 2015 U.S. festivals have announced their lineups, and the tops of the bills are loaded with classic rockers. You can catch AC/DC at Coachella and Billy Joel at Bonnaroo. To get the most for your classic rock dollar, head down to the New Orleans Jazz Fest for Steve Winwood, the Who, Jimmy Buffett and Elton John.
The lawyers and investment bankers want to get in on the newest trendy thing, so a bidding war starts ...
We see a similar phenomenon in cities. Struggling artists move into the rundown area of town because it's all they can afford, and next thing you know yesterday's hood is today's hip, funky, city center. The lawyers and investment bankers want to get in on the newest trendy thing, so a bidding war starts for old warehouses that can be converted into luxury lofts, and the artists that made the neighborhood cool are priced out of their own apartments.
That's one version of the classic revitalization story. The other is that the influx of money from the new residents helps everyone. Who doesn't want higher property values, mega-franchises and overpriced coffee, after all? Well, some people. I don't have names for you, but some people prefer their neighborhoods a little funky, and name brand stores don't cut it. Consider the Disney-fication of Times Square, for example.
So that's what we have going on this festival season -- the big franchises moving in to the hip neighborhoods. I'm conflicted. Anything that gets people out of their musical neighborhoods and exploring other styles is great, and listen: If you turn your nose up at Robert Plant because he's "that Led Zeppelin guy," you're missing out on some of the best roots music of the last 10-15 years. Getting Plant onto festival bills populated by alt-indie artists is absolutely brilliant.
But there's something so un-Bonnaroo about Billy Joel. I've seen the Who a few times, and they've always been amazing, but what the heck do they bring to the New Orleans Jazz Festival? The billing is such a mismatch.
Of course, music history is littered with classic tour mismatches: Jimi Hendrix opening for the Monkees; the Clash opening for the Who; Prince opening for the Stones. In each of these examples those young openers went on to become legendary headliners, but on those tours they were booed off the stage for no other reason than they were playing for the wrong crowds.
It's a question of context. Building a festival bill is like building a live action playlist. If I'm listening to Vivaldi, for example, and Five Finger Death Punch pops up next on shuffle I'm likely to pee my pants and blow a snot bubble. On the other hand, if I'm rocking Slayer and punch dancing out my anger Kevin Bacon-style, Abba's 'Waterloo' is going to kill my mojo. I don't want my Alabama Shakes reverie disrupted with 120 decibels of 'You Shook Me All Night Long."
Festivals need a cohesive thread, some thematic element that carries all the way through the experience. Producer Michael Lang wanted Roy Rogers to close Woodstock with 'Happy Trails,' which would have been the perfect denouement for young baby boomers who watched Roy's and Dale's western adventures throughout their childhoods. It didn't happen, but the point is this: For that audience, a singing cowboy following Hendrix would've made sense.
How does 'Cheeseburger In Paradise' fit with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?
But Jimmy Buffett at a jazz festival? I just don't get it. How does 'Cheeseburger In Paradise' fit with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band?
Perhaps what we've always considered the alternative festivals are following the latest boom in urban planning: mixed-use development. Coachella as loft/apartment/retail/gallery/restaurant space, something for everybody. You kids run off and see your precious Benjamin Booker, Daddy is going to hang by the main stage in his 'Free Phil Rudd' t-shirt.
What's dangerous about that, though, is that big headliners cost big money, and that cost is passed along to ticket holders. Some of these festivals are already too expensive for the average kid to afford. How much is the Dirty South fan paying to cover AC/DC's Coachella nut?
That's just the way of the world. Non-sports viewers subsidize cable/satellite sports simply by subscribing. We all get jammed into kennel class on airlines so that premium ticket holders can have more leg room. All that matters to the organizers of Bonnaroo is whether Billy Joel puts cheeks in the seats. They don't care whose cheeks.
In the end, 2016 lineups will reflect whatever the market will bear. If the event organizers turn a profit by putting big names on their bills they'll do more of the same, context be damned. But we're losing something special here, like when the local diner is torn down to make room for an Olive Garden. Every town doesn't need the same depressing strip of franchise restaurants, nor does every festival need big brand names on the top of the bill.
Then again, as long as "that Led Zeppelin guy" keeps getting booked, my faith might get restored in festival-kind. An alternative music guy can always hope.