When festivals begin to wane
New York Times’ writers take aim at the festival season’s predictable offerings
As pop music critics at the New York Times, the trio of Jon Parales, Ben Ratliff and Jon Caramanica are well placed to tell which way the wind is blowing in the music world. They get to a heck of a lot of shows, listen to a lot of music and can be relied upon to give a good, honest, robust overview of what’s what and who’s who. Their filters can be trusted.
So when the trio come together to write a joint state-of-the-festival-nation piece, you do tend to pay attention. What they’re calling foul on is the low rate of return from covering festivals for themselves as music critics. Ratliff points out early on that they know that these festivals aren’t about music and, as a result, each festival’s essential essence now “has more and more to do with variations in clothes, drugs, topography and regional weather, and less to do with the sounds coming from the multiple stages.”
You’ll find roughly the same line-ups from event to event (again, some regional variations) so the importance of these events when it comes to “registering seismic pop events” is greatly diminished. One of the biggest changes with festivals, Ratliff notes, is that the festivalgoer is now taken seriously all over the place, though “something else is taken less seriously. Could it be music?”
For Caramanica, it’s the sameness of the festivals which jars and, again, the fact that the modern music festival is now a social event rather than a musical one. He believes it’s time to bother less with what’s happening at the big event and instead use the Times’ resources to cover smaller events to learn more about music as it’s currently being made and played.
“My instinct for the last few years has been to look smaller”, he writes. “Often I see notices for festivals and gatherings that are very narrowly focused thematically and almost completely ignored critically. To be fair, there is only so much budget money to go around and perhaps even less curiosity. But let’s aim higher. This year, I think, I’ll trust Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat to keep me updated on the big tents. It’s time to go hunting.”
Writing during his time at this year’s SXSW, Parales brings it back to news and narrative and also advocates looking beyond the usual heavy-hitters which command so much of the noise and oxegen by virtue of their ad spend. “I think readers get a better deal when we take them to a festival that has a story in it: a story about an aesthetic, a region, a reaction, maybe even a cool clique”, he writes.
“When festivals were rarer, each one was a kind of site-specific performance piece. Lollapalooza started as a festival of noisy outsiders; Bonnaroo was a lesson in jam bands chasing their roots. Festivals like that — call them artisanal, if you can take the mockery out of the word — are still being assembled. As writers, we are helped by those festivals to tell stories; as listeners, we learn things we can pass on to readers.”
It’s certainly a piece worth considering in the greater scheme of things as the festival season ramps up. Given that we have a festival in Ireland like the Electric Picnic which sold out with only two dozen or so acts announced, it’s clear that it’s certainly about more than just the music.
As a result, it’s not enough for the music media to merely cover the comings and goings of “the revellers” in their wellies and festival-fit gear from Penneys. If we’re serious about our trade, we need to dig a little deeper. Are the big festivals which clutter the summer calender really moving the music narrative on or have they simply become carefully tended templates to maximise return for corporate shareholders complete with laps of honour for heritage acts like LCD Soundystem et al? Is the fact that a lot of festivals are now clearly not just about music – if they ever were – a good reason to find a different, more critical way of covering them (even before they attract the attention of the crime desk when things go awry)? Is there a need to look more closely at the gigonomics of the festival scene as a way of providing another kind of coverage?
As the Times’ piece makes clear, there are still festivals out there which are all about showcasing the new leading lights when it comes to pushing music forward. These include showcase events like SXSW, The Great Escape, Iceland Airwaves, Hard Working Class Heroes, Eurosonic, Canadian Music Week and several others worldwide which definitely fit that particular bill. It will be fascinating to watch how the Times’ trio match their aims with the permutations and demands of the season and what festivals they’ll choose to cover to meet their aim of “registering seismic pop events”. It will also be interesting to see if their peers take notice and follow suit.