In 1993, Pearl Jam put on a show in Indio, California, as an “up yours” gesture towards Ticketmaster, the corporation controlling most of the region’s music venues.
Empire Polo Club had never hosted a concert before, and the town itself was at that time best known for its date palms and proximity to places people actually wanted to visit. The promotion company, Goldenvoice, was funded through its founder’s drug trafficking side business. But the concert was a success; 25,000 people turned out to rock out. If that whole thing doesn’t scream “rebellious youth,” I don’t know what does.
Anybody who’s been to one will tell you the modern music festival is the closest we’re going to get to Shangri-La for a long time to come. They’re the ultimate destination for the fresh-hearted to come together and be free of the corporate and cultural shackles they face every other day. It’s been that way since at least ’69, when Woodstock proved that getting 400,000 acid hippies into one space isn’t a bad thing. That’s the image music festivals want, and since then, people have been building and building on those giant shoulders, mastering the aesthetic to really achieve that Utopian feel.
But there’s a weird disconnect between the development of the music festivals and those who attend them.
See, the audience is static. Woodstock was such a monumental occasion that every other music festival makes its name as a comparison. The Woodstock of the ’90s. The Woodstock of Hip-Hop. People expect their festival experience to be the same one that those lucky hippies had back when there was an actual statement behind getting naked and screwing everybody. It’s the reason you’ll still see those mildly offensive Native American headdresses strolling around Bonnaroo, despite the gradual progressive march of the people actually wearing the damn things. These expectations don’t change even as the size and popularity of the festival booms.
So while the audience expects things to stay the same, the music festival has to change to maintain the illusion. Enter: the corporations and greed which these festivals are supposed to be havens against.
Take Pearl Jam’s 1993 show. Smash cut to six years later, and Goldenvoice founds Coachella, a music festival hosted at the same unlikely venue. Cut again to the present day, and Coachella is the kind of festival that brings in $60 million a year. Goldenvoice went legitimate and AEG, one of the largest entertainment corporations on the planet, bought it out. The drug dealers started wearing suits. The company made land deals and signed contracts until the wild spirit of the thing was bridled and hitched to a butter churn.
So why do people still go?
Because looking at it, you’d never know. Sure, there’s the occasional adult wandering around, looking confused. But the vast majority of the audience at music festivals falls into a single demographic: young and — if their bugged-out pupils are any indicator — liberal. Those same headdresses are parading around the polo grounds, talking about hippie ideals with a $350 ticket wrapped around their wrist. We live in a post-Occupy world.
So how do you reconcile the image and the reality? I think it’s wrong to call the people who attend hypocrites (and sure, not everybody applies to the demographic in the first place. Generalizations!). It’s also wrong to call the music festivals themselves disingenuous.
The Woodstock Aesthetic is exactly that: an aesthetic. Even the original festival, that almost mythical gathering of peace and love, was a corporate event on some dirty farm in New York. People got paid. Hell, people died there. The Who almost didn’t play when they held out for more money. How’s that for the non-commodity ideal of peace and love? And yet, we still remember that weekend as one of the defining moments of youth culture, something that many people still strive for as they travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars just to experience a facsimile of it.
A destination is what you make it. Choosing where to go is less about accepting every aspect of a place than accepting what it does for you. When I was at Coachella last year, I spent some time alone. The temperature was hitting the 90s, so I took refuge under a giant rainbow horn, where I lay down in the grass and closed my eyes. The dubstep wub-wubs of the nearby stage blended into the folksy melodies coming into the opposite ear. The world seemed to drift out until existence was only the music.
That structure cost thousands of dollars to put up. The company that built it received money from plenty of corporate sponsors. But damn did its shade feel great all the same.