Thomas Cox explores the problems with the growing influence of festivals and argues that we should choose to attend events that support the long-term health of dance music.
The summer is upon us, and festival season is once again in full swing. As the years go by, these festivals are becoming more and more a part of underground dance music, whether that be through more generalised music festivals booking dance acts or the increasing numbers of dance-specific events. Despite their popularity, it seems as though very little is thought about the long-term effects this might have on the music, or on the social role festival culture might play. Now, with the number of music festivals reaching an all-time peak, seems like a good time to dig into some of these ideas.
Some people might argue that bigger crowds and wider exposure are necessarily bad things, but I don’t agree.
One of the most positive aspects of the festival scene has to do with the general popularity of festivals in and of themselves. People clearly have come to enjoy this method of presentation, leading to huge attendances at established festivals and thus even bigger exposure (and of course paychecks) for artists. Some people might argue that bigger crowds and wider exposure are necessarily bad things, but I don’t agree. Dating back to the beginnings of techno and house, mainstream media like FM radio was a huge – and very positive – influence on dance music culture. The exposure DJs and artists receive from festivals could have a similarly positive impact, but the key to ensuring it has the best results is in the quality of the presentation as well as the integrity of the music being presented. This is where perhaps the biggest problems with festivals come in.
The presentation of dance music is a major aspect of how the music is meant to be consumed, from soundsystems to lighting and the rest of the surrounding environment. How many of the people running festivals understand how to present dance music properly? Soundsystems are important to all music, but for dance music they’re quite simply the most important element after the music itself. Festival soundsystems can never compare to a well-tuned club system, while the placement of a festival stage in an acoustically poor location can ruin even the best soundsystem. When compared to the heavily planned and expertly executed infrastructures of the best clubs around the world, it’s easy to see how even some of the best and most knowledgeable festivals can still encounter problems in presenting dance music properly.
EDM has pretty much sold itself on the 'stadium ready' nature of its music and experience.
Another hallmark of dance music is the way in which individual performances are consumed. Ideally, a DJ set should be an extended affair, giving the artist time to create an atmosphere and take the crowd on a journey. This is defeated by the typical festival setup in a number of ways. When there are many stages playing music at one time, this can lead to DJs trying to play more hype music to compete with what might be going on at other stages. Compounding this issue is the tendency for festivals to book name artists in volume, reducing their set length, which also leads to the “all bangers all the time” mentality. Just this week, the backlash against Ricardo Villalobos’s set at Cocoon in the Park shows the results of a DJ who isn’t interested in playing that game. I’m no fan of Mr Villalobos, but this set of his wouldn’t have elicited anything like this response in a typical dance music setting.
EDM has pretty much sold itself on the ‘stadium ready’ nature of its music and experience. Aside from a handful of exceptions, underground dance music repeatedly tries to distance itself from this, but to me it seems like festivals are the primary factor which could push more underground music into a similar style of consumption. It’s already well known that there’s often a difference between what a big name DJ would play at a festival mainstage and what they would play in a nightclub – what does that say about the festival experience if the results are so different from what you should get in a proper dance music setting? I’m not much of a believer in the gateway drug theory of dance music, which states that people will hear and enjoy bad music and eventually find their way to better things. Hitting people with the best music, presented as well as possible, is the best way to create new lifelong fans of dance music.
At the top of the bill you'll often find the most unimaginative, dull and undeserving names. Are you comfortable with those artists being the ambassadors for dance music?
This is all before we actually arrive at the artists being booked for a lot of these festivals. Sure, the festivals at the top of the game are undoubtedly giving some opportunities to up-and-coming artists as well as the truly deserving artists in underground dance genres. But at the top of the bill for many festivals you’ll often find the most unimaginative, dull and undeserving names – and that goes for many of the bigger European festivals as well as the obvious North American examples. Are you comfortable with those artists being the ambassadors for dance music, playing to huge crowds of people who might not really know much about it?
Finally, we arrive at the type of people attracted to music festivals. Aside from fans who are looking to get value for their money in seeing many name artists on one bill, you’re also going to get lots of inexperienced young partygoers. These kids know that festivals are good places to get fucked up on drugs while away from their parents. The symbiotic nature of illicit substances and dance music is not something that can be denied, so I’m not going to sit here and condemn their usage, but frequent news reports of teenagers overdosing at electronic music festivals are not going to do any favours for dance music’s future, nor its ability to be taken seriously by anyone other than anti-drug authorities. There’s clearly a much bigger debate around this problem, but having watched the demise of the American rave scene due to exactly this issue, I can tell you that in the end it takes more energy, time and luck to bounce back from that type of negative media coverage than the short-term money and publicity are worth. Our house and techno cultures here in the US are only now starting to really become a force, over a decade and a half on from the death of the rave scene.
When choosing which festivals to support this and every other festival season, I urge you to think about these issues. Consider how this will all play out for the music you love and the people behind it. If you’re in the music for the long run, this should all be very important to you. The long-term impact of festival culture may not be as positive as the short-term boom would suggest.
Thomas Cox has been causing trouble on teh interwebs since 1996 and representing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania since birth. You can find him on Twitter.