For many music festival lovers, the start of a new year is one of excitement. In other words, the collective world gets to look finally at the lineups hundreds of festivals have been working on for months. Today we’re going to gloss over some of the most interesting bills, the good or bad, the issues facing modern fests, and where to go from here.
First up we have what is widely considered the best of the American Fests (We’ll be mostly covering those today), Coachella. For years the Indio, CA juggernaut has been known for awe-inspiring bands and unmatched moments. For christ-sakes, Daft Punk’s revolutionary set haphazardly led to the EDM craze full of insane productions but nearly nothing in terms of substance (Skrillex, Deadmau5, Calvin Harris and various others we’re trying to forget still come to mind), but lately the lineups have been veering further and further away from what made them so interesting to begin with. Some of this is sure to be caused by the varying degrees in which people are choosing more hip hop influenced and dance acts over rock music, but it’s almost as if Goldenvoice, who produces Coachella, purposely went out of their way to avoid rock bands mostly as a whole. Over the vast lineup of artists, there’s some solid rock bands, but in no way is there an even mix of demographics. More puzzling than anything though is the dramatic order of the billing among the three days and their choices for headliners.
Sure Beyonce is currently the Queen of Pop music, but at a festival known for hosting amazing songwriters, it’s an odd choice. Solange, who writes all her own songs and isn’t able to afford a team of writers would have been better, but she’d in no way move the number of tickets her sister will. Beyonce will shine, and likely make history, but whether that will go down as the beginning of the end for an alternative music festival remains to be seen. The other two headliners though, aren’t nearly as exciting as they would have been a year ago and 10 years ago, respectively. The Weeknd is still touring off his tamest and uninteresting album, while Enimen hasn’t had a great album since I was 23, which feels so much longer ago than it was. His new albums have all been regarded as being far short of the greatness he touched during his first four albums, and he’s headlining multiple other festivals that have already been announced, which doesn’t do anything in terms of making it a special moment.
One of the biggest issues, as I mentioned earlier, is the billing order. Now that isn’t to demean or put down the talents of any of the bands I’m about to mention, just specifically ordering in terms of visibility. Sza and Kygo on day one over St. Vincent, with Jamiroquai in between is leaving me vexed for one. Like, “Virtual Insanity” is a solid gold track, but who’s really excited about this? And who can name literally any other song by that band? Maybe it’s just me. The bigger issue for me though comes on Saturday, which sees the barely one hit wonder of the Haim sisters second billed over the perennial alternative star and creator of the Talking Heads, also known as David Byrne. By my account these girls are known for decent albums, being sisters, friends with Taylor Swift, and little else. After seeing them a few years ago at Bonnaroo, I swore never again, but maybe it’s just me once again. I’m clearly out of touch with the kids these days, but with choices like that I can’t say I feel bad about it.
One lineup so far has been excellent though. That festival, Atlanta’s Shaky Knees has, over the course of five previous years, been steadily becoming a can't miss for music fans. The lineups have consistently bordered on brilliant and imaginative. In terms of festivals, they’ve taken the less is more approach of sticking to mostly rock oriented bands who mixed many different genres into one singular bill full of amazing bands. 2018 is no different. Starting at the top with Jack White, Queens of the Stone Age and the National is exceptional, but there’s much more beyond the stacked top three. Once again Byrne shows up, but so do Tenacious D, as does Courtney Barnett, whose sure to deliver her signature rock mixed with nonsensical lyrics, and many others, among them Japandroids, the Black Angels and countless others.
I have a rule when deciding on festivals. If I can find 30 bands I’m interesting in seeing, I try to do it. Among the Coachella lineup there’s certainly more than at Shaky (39 and 32 respectively) but the cost of festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo tend to outweigh the thrills of going.
Which brings us to what was once a landmark when it came to eastern seaboard festivals. When I first went to ‘Roo I felt enveloped by the happiness and joy among my peers. Honestly I imagined this becoming my yearly getaway from the world. It was that amazing. But as the years went on, the lineups became more and more predictive and well, uninspiring. Lineups including Tool, Sigur Ros, the final Beastie Boys show, Paul McCartney, and a multitude of others dwindled away to where we are now, with a lineup whose top three consists of Eminem, Muse and The Killers. Two of those are subjectively great bands, but in a year where Eminem is playing more fests than anyone would have thought possible, and The Killers sharing the bill with him at at least four of these, it begs the question, where’s the originality? Again this leads to a natural conversation about the bursting of the festival scene. All of these fests started out as mostly independent, but with success brings corporate greed and a homogenized state of affairs. Coachella has gone the way of a pop fest where it’s more about being seen than seeing bands, and Roo is being smooshed among all the others in a desperate bid to stay relevant, which leads to easy bookings. My point though, is that it should be the opposite. LiveNation, C3, and others are partially to blame. Big corps tend to think in broad terms, but when it comes to music and festivals that’s never worked, or been a good idea. You go to these events for the special nature, to see bands you can’t just see on any random day, but that seems to be getting lost.
That’s why Shaky Knees is doing as well as they are. Sure they have repeats from the others, but the devil lies in the details. There’s a ton of bands in the shaky lineup that aren’t appearing at the other majors, and ultimately that’s what draws people like to me to that fest in particular. If you look at some of the Europeans festivals, the game is always changing and it’s always diverse. Take Mad Cool for example. With a staggering lineup of Depeche Mode, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Queens, Tame Impala, and Massive Attack it demonstrates how massive and diverse fests across the pond are compared to homeland festivals. My point is, why aren’t these bands showing up at any of the U.S. events. Of course you could factor in availability or a reluctance, but when you look at Mad Cool compared to the others mentioned, you get bummed when comparing the quality.
In closing, yes the festival market of our great United States is dying, perhaps it needs to. Fest after fest with vastly similar bills is killing the uniqueness of our festivals and if this isn’t the moment where the bubble explodes, I’m afraid to see what comes after. To stay relevant you have to be better at booking, and getting stale acts like Eminem and various others isn’t the way to go. maybe I’m just so far out of the loop that I’ve lost sight of what’s relevant, but when you have bands like Sza, Migos and Bassnectar filling up spots that used to held by a reunion like the Pixies and Portishead, clearly something is amiss. Thanks for reading!
Landon Murray is a New Orleans native, who thrives on painting the world he interprets through the useful forms of all types of art he feels connected to. He's seen over 1000 bands, and had loved mostly every minute of it. He has an amazing 10 year old dog, and is loving life.
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