Method to Music Festival Madness

How music festivals are meeting our expectations, even when we think they aren’t

When the Coachella lineup was announced in late January, my Facebook feed looked like I had nothing but ultra-hipster friends. “Mediocre,” sighed some. “BO-ring,” yawned others. And the inevitable “Who are the Stone Roses?”

Yet this general malaise didn’t seem to stop the landmark festival from selling out just a few days later. Miami’s Ultra Music Festival also seemed to garner the same reaction. However, you’d assume that most would be overjoyed to see each band or act individually, if not for discovery’s sake, then curiosity’s. Blur and Trent Reznor’s new side gig, How to Destroy Angels, anyone? Even Ultra’s lineup featured a good chunk of DJs who play the major clubs on the Strip, yet somehow you put Eric Prydz, Kaskade and Afrojack on the same bill and suddenly the festival is blasé. Is this music festival ennui a symptom of oversaturation of music, that we can now hear essentially any DJ or band we want on demand? Or is it about wanting something more, some unicorn of music festival perfection where all the acts are headliners and unknowns that will be cool in five years?

Perhaps audiences have always been complaining about festival lineups—I have no doubts there are people who complained that Jefferson Airplane was playing Woodstock instead of the Beatles—but they’re only perceived as more vocal now thanks to the constant bullhorn that is social media.

Coachella in Las Vegas

The obvious solution to the music festival problem: If you don’t like the lineup, don’t go to the show. The other is that you’re in Las Vegas, where several Coachella acts will be playing while they’re in the “neighborhood”:

April 11

New Order, $40, Boulevard Pool, the Cosmopolitan.

April 12

Spiritualized, $25-$30, House of Blues.
Vampire Weekend, $31, Boulevard Pool, the Cosmopolitan.

April 13

Skinny Lister, $8-$10, Triple B: Backstage Bar & Billiards, 601 Fremont St.
How to Destroy Angels, $30 and up, the Pearl, the Palms.

April 14

The Selecter with Lee “Scratch” Perry, $22, Hard Rock Café on the Strip.

April 15

Beach House, $22, House of Blues.

April 16

The xx, $31, The Joint, Hard Rock Hotel.

April 17

Of Monsters and Men with Local Natives, $25, Boulevard Pool, the Cosmopolitan.

April 18

Hot Chip with Four Tet, $26, Boulevard Pool, the Cosmopolitan. (See our interview with Hot Chip here.)

April 19

Postal Service, $40, Chelsea Ballroom, the Cosmopolitan.

April 20

Band of Horses, $25, Boulevard Pool, the Cosmopolitan.

To gain some possible insight into why fans are filled with ambivalence toward what are mostly great lineups at great festivals, you have to look to those who are putting the lineups together. What it comes down to, it seems, is maintaining audience expectations. But is it the festival’s responsibility to exceed expectations every year or merely just meet them? Rehan Choudhry, founder and CEO of this fall’s Life Is Beautiful festival Downtown, points to Las Vegas’ other music festival as an example. Electric Daisy Carnival, set for June 21-23 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, doesn’t release its lineup until about two weeks before the festival, well after they’ve sold out months before. While some may view that tactic as catering to kids who don’t care who’s playing, who just want to party, there are those who don’t mind and say they know that no matter who is playing, they’re going to have a good time.

“Can you make a festival not as dependent on the lineup so you don’t get a Coachella-like response?” Choudhry asks. “Sure, I think Pasquale [Rotella] of EDC has done a phenomenal job of focusing on the experience first. So that’s people’s expectations; that’s the bar for success for everybody. The lineup is icing on the cake.” Most music festivals, unfortunately, cannot ascribe to the “under-promise, over-deliver” strategy. When an event produces powerhouse lineup after powerhouse lineup year after year, people assume that each year is going to top the last. There’s an ebb and flow that happens with music festivals, which Choudhry recognizes. “Coachella has been about what the headliner names are going to look like, and that’s largely because the Coachella founders have proven time and time again that they can bring out people for their lineup that haven’t performed in years or are completely obscure to completely catch people off guard. To be able to try to replicate that every year is going to be a little bit challenging.”

The fledging Life Is Beautiful festival, which has not released its lineup yet, but has announced it will happen on October 26 and 27, is in a unique position as it’s coming up on its inaugural event. Craig Nyman, head of music and live performances for the festival, is trying to ensure that this first year strikes a balance that not only appeals to potential visitors, but to the core Las Vegas crowd as well. “It’s about looking at Las Vegas [as a] whole and in a sense, seeing how diverse our market is and the different interests that Vegas people gravitate toward. It goes back to trying to be as diverse as possible to cover a lot of different genres, so there’s not going to be one specific focus.”

To battle any potential naysaying for future productions of Life Is Beautiful, the team is developing not only a music festival, but a full-fledged art and food festival in the process. “I think what we’re doing by focusing on music, art and food, it really allows us to have three separate audiences that we can dig into making happy and treat to an overwhelming experience in a variety of different levels,” Choudhry says.

Two lineups that came out strong with little backlash were Detroit’s Movement festival and, just last week, Lollapalooza in Chicago. Lolla has perennial favorites and crowd-pleasers The Cure, Nine Inch Nails and Mumford & Sons, while Movement came out swinging with a phase-one lineup that included techno greats Richie Hawtin, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May.

Chuck Flask, talent buyer for Paxahau, which produces Movement, looks at the bright side of complaints from audiences. According to Flask, the goal of the festival, held every year on Memorial Day weekend in downtown Detroit, is to “celebrate the talents of local, Detroit-based artists who had gained international notoriety and success for their music. Since we became the producers in 2006 we have maintained that Detroit flavor. We have carried on the tradition of representing underground artists and rising stars, as well as paying homage to musical icons in their own right. We have also been able to grow interest from an international audience because we have expanded the artists who perform to include artists who are international stars.”

But even with a festival that is geared toward a specific niche audience, from time to time there are grumblings that the lineup isn’t “techno” or “underground” enough.

This year, even though Movement’s first-phase announcement was strong, there still were haters. But for Flask, it’s a glass-half-full scenario. “I can’t think of any full lineup that will ever get people to stop complaining, but we actually love that,” he says. “It goes to show you how passionate people are about what we put out there, and most of the time they’re pretty happy about it.”

And that, ultimately, is what every festival organizer looks to have happen at an event. Sure, there are profits to be made, but all that is for naught if no one at the thing had a good time, which inevitably, and for the most part, crowds do, despite any prior misgivings about the content of the show. ”Our core objective in the event world, not just festivals, is to not only make everybody happy,” Choudhry says, “but to make everybody happier than they ever expected to be.”

Suggested Next Read

Real Steel Cage Match

Real Steel Cage Match

By Jason Scavone

When, inevitably, Skynet comes online and the robot apocalypse begins, you’ll be able to trace it back—as you can with so many terrible decisions—to Las Vegas. Not only do we have the drones being controlled out of Nellis (and how long will it be before they’re knocking on your door, wearing Groucho glasses and pretending to be a helpful repairman to gain access into your home?) but now the Robot Combat League is tearing up the SyFy network Tuesdays at 10 p.m., with running fight commentary by KXTE-FM 107.5 morning host Dave Farra.