WHEN I WENT to my first summer musical festival a few years back, I was unprepared and could’ve used a little guidance. Since then, I’ve covered Lollapalooza, Pitchfork Music Festival, moe.down, and other summer festivals, acquiring along the way a checklist of sorts that I wish I’d had before embarking on that first one.
Seasoned veteran or festival novice, I hope these tips can make your experience more rocking, relaxing, and fun.
Find the right festival for you
One of the best places to start is Jambase.com, an aggregator of all things related to music festivals and concerts. Check out the history of each particular festival via its website or third-party music blogs/sites.
Each festival tries to set itself apart, creating a specific slant through lineup, location, and overall vibe. Generally, festivals will be teaming up with local and regional media and artists to offer unique side shows ranging from improv theater to art exhibits to on-site record stores and activist booths promoting voter registration and green initiatives.
As you do your research, ask yourself the following four questions:
1. How much can you spend?
Festival passes range from $50 to $250 or higher, depending on venue, location, and who’s headlining and promoting the festival.
2. What type of music do you want to hear?
Musical tastes are pretty diverse these days, as most people enjoy several genres, and festival lineups reflect this. Though some are genre-exclusive, most showcase acts playing everything from bluegrass to hip hop.
3. Are you prepared to camp?
For festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella, much of the experience is about pitching your tent and camping out for the weekend. Some camping events do offer luxury cabins or tents in return for higher ticket prices.
Most festivals provide maps pre-arrival, so you’ll want to know where the camping areas are in relation to the parking and stages. If the distance is far, try to keep your gear light or invest in a small pull wagon or cart.
Depending on how much sleep you want to get or how close you want to be to the action (many festivals run 24 hours), you’ll want to know if the camping sites are near the stages, scattered across the grounds, or both.
Bring the usual camping gear — tent, sleeping bag, etc. — and don’t forget a car charger for your phone, laptop, and other gadgets.
4. Are hotels an option?
If you’re attending a festival located in a city or metropolitan area, such as Pitchfork in Chicago, getting a hotel room for the weekend on your own is an option, or you can take advantage of the festival’s package lodging deals.
Learn the local history before you go
As with all travel, having a cultural awareness of where you’re going can enrich your festival experience and take you beyond simple enjoyment of the music. The uniqueness of many of the best festivals is rooted in their locality. For example, Glastonbury in the UK is held on festival grounds that have been used as such for centuries.
Being clued in on local culture and history will also help if you plan on venturing away during the show to give your ears a rest or want to take a pre- or post-festival excursion to visit nearby attractions.
Stretch your comfort zone
One of the best parts about the summer music festival experience is observing the meshing of different cultures and being around new groups of people. As more and more festivals incorporate different genres, I’ve seen an increasingly diverse cross-section of fans at festivals.
Take the opportunity to interact with other festival-goers, and don’t be afraid to ask for that camping tool you forgot. Chat about last night’s set, or join in a game of Frisbee.
Be smart about drugs and alcohol
I don’t include this tip to be a killjoy, but only as a word of caution. I’ve seen festival experiences come to an early and nightmarish end as a result of irresponsible drug and alcohol use.
It’s a fact that music culture and drug culture overlap, especially in a live-music setting, but be wise about bringing drugs or large amounts of booze with you. At most festivals, you’re going to be thoroughly searched before you even get though the gates. Security will either confiscate prohibited materials or ask you to leave with no ticket refunds.
Make time to chill
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to plan out a few intervals of rest and not run myself ragged trying to see every band. If you’ve done initial research on the area, take a short trek to one of the quiet spots you learned about and give your cochleas a break.
Many festivals have also begun featuring morning yoga classes, a great chance to recharge the mind and body.
I can’t stress this enough: however you do it, whether it’s reading a book, taking a nap, or journaling in a quiet spot, make time to give your ears and other senses a rest. Knowing the festival ground layout and scheduling in time to relax is the most important tip I can give.
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Chris Catania is the owner and author of Live Fix Media where he explores why fans, bands & brands are addicted to the live concert experience, and how new media is revolutionizing live music culture.