Money Before Music

Corporate music festivals amplify the power of capital, to the detriment of artists and fans.

Austin City Limits, 2013. Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman

I sing and play guitar in a DIY pop band. We’ve been touring for the past few years, and have recently broken into the festival scene. Big festivals have grown explosively in the American music industry over the past two decades. Festivals like Coachella and Electric Zoo combine the summer camp and Agamben’s camp, creating a space where social norms are temporarily suspended. But these festivals are not rule-free — they are spaces where the behavior of musicians and fans is strictly regulated by a for-profit authority.

Corporate music festivals are winning because they’ve innovated a contract that appeals to both the creative class and the consumer class, all while channeling profits and power into the hands of capital. The highly capitalized industry behind festivals has made this space the ascendant American experience of live music.

Huge outdoor festivals have been around in Europe for a long time, but the US is catching up fast. Pop-punk and alt-rock traveling festivals like Lollapalooza and the Van’s Warped Tour took off in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the traveling festivals had petered out, and regional festivals like Coachella became the new model.

Since then, the industry has saturated every corner of the US with stationary, three-day festivals that cost upwards of $200 and attract more than 50,000 people. The early, big festivals’ fusion of alt-rock, classic rock, and mainstream pop acts has expanded in the last decade to include indie, hip hop, and electronic and dance acts.

Along with market share, ticket prices and festival revenue have exploded. Coachella’s weekend ticket price in 2004 was $140. In 2014 the weekend ticket was $375, and the festival sold out in less than three hours. In 2007 Coachella grossed $17 million in revenue. By 2014 the festival had been extended to two weekends and took in $78 million.

The rapid growth of mega-festivals is a physical expression of the increasingly aggressive class barriers and inequities that fracture the social economy of art and music. They offer only a few strictly defined identities. You can be a member of the creative elite; an owner of capital; hired staff; or a member of the policed, regulated audience. The fences, hierarchy of privileges, and security guards are a live theater version of our cultural life’s stratification.

Big Pay at High Cost

The musicians who get tapped to play at big festivals get a temporary taste of how the contemporary art world rewards its creative elite. Perks include separate roads and parking; private space (typically trailers with sofas, stocked food, and air-conditioning); musicians-only lounges with open bars, hired masseuses and catered food; and gifts (cosmetics, liquor, chocolate) from festival sponsors — all provided by dedicated hospitality and tech support staff. Musicians also get to watch and rub shoulders with top musical acts in the VIP and backstage zones.

In a time when most musicians’ income streams have narrowed fast, big festivals are offering serious pay. How much? The standard festival formula guarantees an advance fee for each artist, and even the smallest billed acts usually take home between $500–1000. Festival pay easily outcompetes what most bands earn at a local venue — young bands often get only $100–300 for their first shows away from their home turf.

High pay comes with serious restrictions. Musicians must agree to a radius clause that prohibits them from performing within a radius (say one hundred miles) of the festival for a certain number of months (often six). The radius clause is also coupled with a subtler exclusivity clause: the inability of fans who can’t afford the $200+ ticket prices to enter a major festival. When a show at a high-cost festival will be your only show for six months in a region, you offer your working-class fans a cold silence.

For many small to mid-sized bands, going on tour across the US is a tough financial prospect without having a few major festival dates, so it is now extremely common for bands to “anchor” their tours around festival dates. This means that the band (or its agents) waits to plan and book its schedule for other shows until the festival offers are locked up.

The increasing centrality of festivals is troubling — it’s getting harder for bands to opt out. If I told my band and agent that I wanted to stop playing big corporate festivals, they would call me financially reckless and naïve— and they’d basically be right. Without the anchor of festivals, it’s very hard to earn enough on the road to support ourselves until the next tour.

Higher pay doesn’t mean more power for musicians. At festivals, the band is a contractor in a weak bargaining position, not a partner. Bands don’t get a share of ticket revenue (like they do at most smaller venues). They get paid “what they’re worth,” which means a price slightly higher than a band could expect on a good night at a venue nearby.

Good pay shouldn’t obscure the fact that bands don’t have a real voice or a fair share of the profits in the fastest growing part of the live music business. The big festival is a powerful contract between festival companies like LiveNation and musicians wielding creative power and consumer demand. Each side needs the other, but the musician’s position is far more insecure.

Fences for Music Browsers

For the paying masses, big festivals provide a summer camp of Jumbotron wonders. As a music listening experience, the corporate festival is like HypeMachine in real space — a way to browse music, sorted by popularity, at a distance of non-commitment. Unless you camp out all day at the front of a single stage, you won’t get much closer than YouTube; you’ll watch the bigger acts from so far away you’ll only be able to make them out on the big screens.

Unlike most music streaming apps, however, no payment can make your music ad-free; nearly all major festivals have embraced ubiquitous brand advertising as a revenue stream. The audience watches the music sets in a shopping mall of logos, sponsored content, and merchandise.

The spaces where the crowd walks, listens, eats, uses the bathroom, sits, rests, and gets water are fully planned, surveilled, and policed by the festival company and its security staff. Steel fences line the walkways and guard the fifteen-foot buffer zones between the stage and crowd. Admission comes with a bracelet, containing an RFID chip that’s scanned by security staff at all gates to the privileged zones. Your social position is embedded on your wrist.

The stratification of privilege at the big festivals plays out most brazenly in the VIP zones. For packages that regularly exceed $1,000, VIP ticket holders get private, guarded, fenced zones that are close to the stage, special parking, camping access, private access routes, bars, and food stands.

Festivals have been diligently working to sweeten the deal for VIPs, with gift bags of snacks and booze, private queen-size bed tents with AC and security staff, and beer-stocked kiddie pools near the stage. The VIP zones become their own stages, showing the general admission the pleasures money can buy.

Stratification isn’t novel, but the major festivals have started using colorful, upbeat camouflage to hide the intense restriction of space. Cartoon animals, patterned LED arrays, murals, adult playgrounds, and temporary fountains corral crowds, all while disguising the fences and restricted access zones.

Festivals actively promote the idea of their space as a community with a culture of positivity. At Bonnaroo, the 90,000-capacity Tennessee festival, the official “Bonnaroo Code” urges the audience to “Radiate positivity” and “Consider the community.” The code implores the festival goers: “Don’t be that guy/gal” who’s a “vibe killer.”

The festival annually surveys the audience with questions like, “Do you feel like part of a community at Bonnaroo?” and “Did you make new friends at Bonnaroo?” Bonnaroo says 74 percent of festival attendees answered “yes” to both questions. The consensus is not surprising — you’d have to be a real vibe killer to pay $275 and say, “No, I didn’t make new friends here.”

For all its restrictions, the space of these festivals is attractive because it welcomes a certain kind of collective play. Along with the corporate promotion of unflinching positivity and community, the big festivals provide a laissez-faire environment, turning a blind eye to drug use, embracing colorful and revealing (and often blithely colonial) clothing, and providing a space where physical affection is ubiquitous — at least among friends and straight couples.

And major festivals do allow one outlet for audience creativity: crowd members are permitted to make tall signs and flags, often outfitted with variations on web memes, to signal their location to friends across the crowd. (Getting lost in the crowd is a sure vibe killer.)

While professing a culture of tolerance and encouraged weirdness, the demographics of the big music festivals speak of a narrower inclusiveness. The great bulk of general admission looks white and eighteen to twenty-five; the VIP zones luxuriate with well-clad twenty-eight to thirty-five-year-olds, speckled with a few wary old-timers. People of color are few and far between.

And, as festivals squeeze audiences into a blandly “positive” community mold, little about the big festival space feels queer or welcoming of queerness (even though most festivalgoers are likely in the “I support gay marriage!” camp).

The class barriers posed by big festivals need little explanation: working-class fans are cut off from seeing either the headliners or their favorite smaller acts, who otherwise might have cost them $10 to see at a venue.

Still, all the criticisms of festivals don’t justify condescension towards the people who go, searching for good music and fun among friends. My generation has few other big carnivals or opportunities for collective celebration, and the festival can feel like a welcome departure from the daily grind and its social restrictions. There is real appeal in the chance to play, position, and photograph yourself with your friends on an extraordinary social terrain.

The music offered at major festivals can be incredible, even if you see it from far away, and many bands use the opportunity to develop stage sets and visuals that could never fit at smaller urban venues. The chance to see more live shows in a single day than in weeks or months of concerts can be extremely satisfying — the catharsis of a year spent listening and anticipating.

The big festival has grown fast because it presents artists and fans alike with a good deal, relative to their remaining options. But the contract of the corporate festival is one that fundamentally amplifies the power of capital and undermines the power of musicians and audiences in the creation of live music.

Festivals and Public Space

The music festival is the special economic zone of the entertainment industry — festival companies are often provided use of public land and are routinely given special rights and tax breaks. Local governments justify special festival privileges as a necessary incentive to boost the local economy.

In 2012, when a city council member for the Coachella area proposed a 6 percent local tax on tickets for 2,500+ person events (due in part to the local costs of safety and maintenance), the festival threatened to relocate as quickly as possible, and the mayor and rest of the city council swiftly lined up with the company to kill the proposal.

It’s common for big festivals to be given the right to use public fairgrounds and parks — an agreement that usually runs the entire year and prevents any other music festival from using the same space. For many such festivals, these land rights — provided under the neoliberal logic that granting special privileges to a private firm will have trickle-down benefits — are the most critical asset they have.

New festivals are springing up yearly in cities across the US as a local governments scramble to attract creative class residents and revenue for local businesses. Playing on local economic insecurity and our desire for spaces of collective fun, festivals advance the privatization of public spaces, the limitation of its experience to the privileged, and the restriction of creative performance to the profitable elite.

A wave of rapid acquisitions has centralized the festival industry in the hands of a few large owners. Today companies like LiveNation and AEG are the dominant corporate players, and they have aggressively acquired smaller, promising festivals across the country. Once a festival proves it has a reliable market, and can make a profit for even one year, it is bought out.

Increasing consolidation has even spurred outright franchising. The mega-festival Electric Daisy Carnival, which started from a single weekend outside LA, has spawned franchises across the US, UK, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Lollapalooza died as a traveling festival in 1998, but was relaunched as a stationary festival in Chicago in 2002, and has been spun off into massive festivals in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.

Alternatives and Opposition

As the festival industry has both exploded and consolidated, it’s hard to find many festival-level musicians who have taken a public stand of criticism. Perhaps the best example is when indie rockers DIIV, amid their show at 2013’s South by Southwest (SXSW), shot off a brief Tumblr polemic arguing that music “is all a front” for “a glorified corporate networking party” and “branding, branding, branding.”

As powerful as the critique felt at the moment, it was limited to the peculiar music-industry gala of SXSW, and DIIV followed that criticism with a lap of Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza. To be fair, DIIV was a young band in their first serious year on the road, with much less leverage than the stars to speak out and take a stand against mega-festivals. And it’s hard to blame the musician for silence and complicity: why take a position of outright opposition if it seems like it can only hurt you and your chances for making it in the cutthroat music industry?

But, as a musician, the more I realize how hard it is for me to criticize or avoid playing corporate festivals, the more I sense that the silence of musicians is a retreat from the conversation we need to have. We should be asking what beautiful, transformational spaces for live music are possible.

To me, the great social role of music is to bend time and possibility; in the present, to give us a shared freedom and catharsis; to root us in the most liberating traditions of past cultures; and to give us a sense of a better future, one so real you feel it in your body. Too often, music festivals provide only an intense vision of the worst of our present cultural life — and a vision of a future where we’ve accepted increasingly tighter confines as our best available deal from the owners of capital.

More practically, we need a new kind of musicians’ union. We need a union to back each other up as artists, to give us security to challenge the industry without fear of retribution, and to strengthen our solidarity with festival workers and everybody in general admission. We need an alliance of the superstars and the young acts alike.

If talk of a musicians’ union sounds like Old Left fantasy for a post-post-punk era, it’s worth considering one recent example of musicians organizing in support of industry workers against major capitalists: the campaign to unionize Guitar Center workers, which has rallied a “Musician’s Alliance,” with hundreds of members ranging from Kathleen Hanna to Roger Waters, standing in solidarity with shop-floor employees nationwide.

Young organizers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union led the charge to bring in musicians. Despite the aggressive opposition of Bain Capital — Guitar Center’s private-equity overlord — workers, backed by the campaign and the musicians, have won the right to unionize stores in New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas, in addition to a big win on pay structure that affects every store in the chain.

In addition, the ascendance of the big corporate festival hasn’t killed experimentation with alternative festival models. Bumbershoot, in Seattle, is a big, nonprofit festival that explicitly aims to keep ticket prices low (though it is sponsored by Starbucks and McDonalds). What The Heck Fest, running in the northern Washington woods from 2001–2011 (and now superseded by K Records Fest), was a largely musician-organized festival legendary for its warm camp-out community and lack of barriers between musicians and audience.

Innumerable local festivals, especially in punk and experimental music scenes, embed anti-oppression ideas and a bring-your-own-instrument culture. Allston DIY Fest, organized in Boston in 2011 and 2012, exemplified this kind of festival, with its open-to-all organizing process, invitation for all attendees to bring their art and unpowered instruments, and “punk, anarcho-communist, anti-authoritarian family values.”

It is difficult to sustain radical local festivals that depend on the hard work of unpaid organizers, and the use of public spaces or warehouses that often lack capacity and stable tenure for future growth. Nonetheless, radical alternative festivals keep emerging in local scenes across the country, and offer a model that deserves expansion.

Musicians can help these festivals by playing them, instructing their booking agents to seek them out, and by helping organize whenever they can. The opportunity for audiences and musicians to organize together is a chance to start building a more fluid and open creative economy.

I’m sick of my generation’s biggest festivals being spaces that tell audience members they are just passive music consumers, to be herded and fenced at great cost. I want the festival to be a free space, pulling in creative expression from everyone in attendance.

The terms of our big celebrations set the stage for our collective imagination, and the terms are increasingly being fixed by the corporate music festival. It’s a deal that’s hard to turn down — my band will probably take it many more times — but I know it’ll hurt us, and the collective potential of music, in the long run. It’s time to start fighting for big festivals that live up to the music we love.