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.

festivals

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.

17th July, 2015

Comments

  • Honestly, that Villalobo set you’ve linked to looks like a parody.I mean, it’s a 7 minute loop playing unaltered with a “DJ” who doesn’t bother to do *anything* except getting even more drunk – it really looks like one of these DJ parody videos.

    This is not a good example for artistiry or making a statement other than how truly overhyped and overpaid douches like Villalobo really are..

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  • Totally agree with Frank. He is more focused on mixing drinks than music.
    Interesting article though. .

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  • “But at the top of the bill for many festivals you’ll often find the most unimaginative, dull and undeserving names ”

    This is a big problem, imo. My hometown in the UK doesn’t have a big scene, and has only got on dance music because there is £££ in putting on those nights now. 5 years ago or whatever the one “proper” club here only did Hed Candi nights once a month and that was it.

    I should be happy there is at least “some” scene here now, but it’s the same names on repeat. Lee Foss, MK, Maya Jane Coles, Hannah Wants, Hot Creations. Honestly I’ve lost count how many times this year alone I’ve seen Lee Foss billed.

    I’m all for music outside of the club though. I’ve hit a few smaller one day festival type things, with only a few hundred people. They’re really fun, and usually have decent lineups.

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  • That Ricardo Villalobos footage is shocking.

    …wonder how much he got paid?

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  • It’s been a long time that large mainstream electronic acts have been “rocknrollized”. It’s about money of course, and about the younger people’s musical illiteracy and their ignorance of what the scene really was in the 80s and 90s: sadly they have no anchor point.

    Regarding Ricardo Villalobos, some people should remember (or get acquainted with) his extraordinary and stunning contribution to electronic music, as well as the fantastic depth of his talent before getting their panties in a bunch just because god forbid ! he is having a good time mixing and partying like and with everybody else, instead of standing in front of the decks like some heart surgeon doing a complicate bypass with the mouth stuck in a sphincter pose, and basking in his own divine self-importance.

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  • Villalobos thrived in a mediocre scene of wealthy drugged up Eurotrash MNML. Times have changed his brand of noodly, self-indulgent exercises in tedium are no longer popular. Fair play to him he’s sticking with it rather than jumping on the current popular trends: Tech-House/EDM (bad) or tough Techno (good) but playing a set stuck in a 2006 time warp isn’t going to work at a huge UK festival.

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  • Though I agree, for the most part, with the soundsystem argument the rig at the Exit Festival (Serbia) Dance Arena was one of the best outdoor sound experiences I’ve ever had. The system blasted into a natural amphitheater and the sound was incredible!

    Honestly though I kinda disagree with the whole premise of this article. It only really talks about one type of festival and that’s the ‘super-festival’ with barrels of EDM kitsch and the like. People like festivals as they’re a great way to get out of ‘normality’ and feel free to party for a few days straight. It seems to be the way of it, for now, so for me it’s just about curating them well. The smaller, niche led festivals are a great example of this. For example, I regularly go to Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide festivals and its small size and selective nature is why I go. Another local example is a festival called the Kelburn Garden Festival and that’s where everyone in the ‘scene’ in Edinburgh goes to party once a year and for me it unifies the ‘underground’ music scene locally rather than inherently undermining people going to clubs. For me festivals are great. You just have to pick the right one to go to.

    So I’d say to the author, Thomas, just don’t go to these style of festivals. Perhaps it’s more prevalent in the states? I dunno. But people who like good music, presented well, will seek it out anyway. Whether it’s at a festival or in a club.

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  • He is mostly complaining about types of music being played then anything. His style of music is non mainstream stuff that never sells and festival EDM is another style all together. Want to get into styles, why not badmouth the crap thats not even EDM that keeps being played at festivals. Hiphop and dubstep crap. I am not a fan of the trance tents, but eh it’s good for those who are rolling, that’s about all trance is good for.

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  • Leave the kids alone to go to their massive festivals. There are plenty of small 1000-5000 people festivals scattered around the UK that cater for the discerning electronica lover.

    Small stages. Big sound systems. No EDM.

    I was at Nozstock in Herefordshire at the weekend – classic example.

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