As this furious festival season comes to a close in many parts of North America we have some time to reflect on the multitude of events, and what it all means for the future. It was not too long ago when attending a music festival was a rare occurrence, or a quaint past time among an insulated group. This has changed, drastically. These days, festivals are competing with each other on the same dates every weekend for the whole summer, and the number of fans attending these festivals is growing each year. This might seem like it’s all a great thing, and for some reasons it is… It’s great because this offers the music fans an amazing amount of events to select from, and it’s not uncommon for many people to attend multiple festivals in a single summer. That’s awesome, and I am happy we have so much celebration all around. The disadvantage comes when we look at high-priced, watered-down, and over-commercialized events that I like to call the “corporate raves.”
It’s no secret that the electronic music industry is a big money-maker. It’s also no secret that people with a lot of money, or corporations, like to capitalize on growing industries and maximize their profits. The opportunity that the electronic music craze has offered was just too good to pass up, and now every company with deep pockets and a hip attitude wants to be a rave promoter. The constant wave of festivals the last few years left me feeling a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing, and wondering if the music fans weren’t being a bit exploited for their love of partying. Noticing the sky rocketed prices of festivals and the ridiculous amounts of money commanded by big DJs, I started to wonder who was behind it all.
I did some research to find out just who owned these massive festivals, and what I found was interesting to say the least. Just as with most mainstream media, a collection of a few companies comprise the majority of ownership in the industry. The people behind these parties might as well have been the Waltons themselves; a conglomerate of rich folks watching the middle class overdose on the marketing of indulgence. If rave wasn’t dead already, this is the silver bullet folks. This so-called underground music, and the celebration of creative personal freedom has become a commodity, traded on the market like a heartless tech stock. What’s worse is that this corporate takeover has contributed in large part to the commercialization of the dance music scene, homogenizing creativity, and turning what was once a spontaneous and beautiful experience into a cookie cutter cliché.
So who’s running the show? Coachella might be one of the best examples, being owned by Anschutz Enterainment Group, who are actually the world’s largest professional sports team owners, in addition to the second largest entertainment agency. They own stake in the LA Lakers, Kings, Galaxy, Sparks and many European teams. They also own countless sports complexes, like The Staples Center, Manchester Arena, the Home Depot Center and many more. They own “This Is It,” the Michael Jackson concert series, and allegedly tried to profit from his death, which they were sued for. They also had controversy with Berlin, where they own a stadium and prompted a boycott of their organization because the city felt that too much public space was being bought up by the private sector. Anschutz even removed a memorialized part of the Berlin wall to make room for their new additions to the stadium. Yep, I definitely want to go their parties.
How about Electric Daisy Carnival or Electric Forest? Both owned by “Insomniac Events.” They are responsible for hundreds of events across North America and at least 12 major festivals per year. Look into Insomniac even a little bit and you will find some crazy stuff. Although they may be the target of bad publicity, they certainly have done their fair share to deserve scrutiny. Most notably an incident with The LA Coliseum that landed the management of The Coliseum in jail along with the owner of the rave promotion company ”Go Venture” and the owner of “Insomniac Events.” They were also involved in a highly publicized occurrence of a girl dying from a drug overdose at one of their events in LA. I am not one to blame a promoter for things like this, but it simply highlights a growing sub-set of the culture that is being encouraged by these types of companies. It leads me to wonder what the future holds for our beloved festivals.
I could go on and on from the research I found but let me just make my point, all of these festivals popping up and all this money being paid to DJs that may or may not deserve it, is not a coincidence. Tomorrowland is owned by ID & T, the Netherlands largest event organizer, Bonaroo is owned by Superfly and AC Entertainment which runs at least 4 other large festivals within the region. Lollapalooza is owned by William Morris and Capital Sports. William Morris is the longest running talent agency started in 1898, with such acts as Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Borthers. Ultra is owned by a wealthy investor (Russel Faibisch) who inherited a Bailbonds investment company. The corporate giants have found their way into the underground music scene and as if it didn’t already have enough shady snakes, it now has perhaps the worst of them all, Corporate America. They are driving up the prices and creating a culture of people who think this is normal. $50 to see a guy spin MP3s for 3 hours, yep that seems reasonable… The very fans that started this movement could be all but priced out of the experience, only to leave room for the effluent bro culture currently glamourized in prime-time media. Festivals are great, but when they cost $500 and have the same 13 DJs you can start to grow weary of the sensory overload and long for a time when you waited for that one weekend a year, when you knew the vibe would be right, and so would the price.
It’s not all horrible, and the reason it is so alarming to see this corporate trend is because of what the potential holds for these gatherings of humanity. The communal nature of society is often ignored in our modern day-to-day lives, and these festivals offer a re-connection to our roots, to our ancestors, and to our soul. It’s like a modern day tribal ceremony, only the camp-fire and the beating of drums is replaced by the flashing lights and the pounding bass of giant speakers. It can cleanse the mind and body, it can create a feeling of beauty that is unlike any other, and it can create relationships that will last a lifetime. This is why it must be protected, and why the few good celebrations must be praised.
Of course Detroit’s Movement festival must be mentioned. It did start out as a free festival, ran by Carl Craig and Carol Marvin, and was titled DEMF (Detroit Electronic Music Festival). It then changed hands to Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and then finally to Paxahau, the event company that still runs it. It is now a fee-based event, but due to the loss of city funds that were provided to make the festival free, the costs had to be off-set, and this is why I give Paxahau so much credit. The price is extremely reasonable for a 3-day event, and the quality is unmatched if you are searching for true underground music. Most festivals have given way to the trendy forms of electronic music, and Movement remains for the most part uncompromised. Sure they have a few mainstream artists every year, but they truly do curate an eclectic and carefully selected lineup, done by people who care about the music and the development of the scene. Burning Man could be another festival to mention that attempts to maintain its responsibility to underground culture, and although it has gained mainstream appeal in recent years, it should still be commended for its dedication to an artistic vision. SXSW (South by Southwest) is a privately owned company, and while they certainly have their share of ties to corporate giants, they also strive to preserve a mentality of cutting-edge music, and a definite underground quality. They support the indie artists perhaps better than any other music festival around, and that deserves some congratulations. I would love to hear more festivals that you feel have these same qualities in the comments below.
Unfortunately most festivals don’t operate with the integrity of the few I just mentioned. The mainstream success of 120 bpm electronic music heard in many current top billboard songs has changed the face of these festivals from an underground vibe to a commercial clusterf*ck. It isn’t that there aren’t good festivals any more, it’s that there are so many companies vying for the almighty techno-dollar, that it is hard to muddle through the sea of ridiculousness to get to the realness (which is ironically how it feels to attend some of these festivals). The bro culture is gaining steam, and it’s a sad state of affairs when the corporate world steps firmly into the underground and shoves its greedy finger inside every nook and cranny. I suppose the corporate world has always been involved heavily in the entertainment industry, and music festivals have certainly been on their radar for quite some time. But, it’s the underground festivals, and even the underground one-off events that are now becoming targets for Wall Street’s finest to make a quick buck.
The risk we run when we let corporate society control the artistic community is a huge one, in my opinion. We risk art being compromised on its most critical level – the freedom of expression is at stake. The freedom of creativity and the freedom of not being controlled by a dollar sign. If we put too many dollar signs in front of underground artists, it will be underground no more. Perhaps we need this to truly develop a new underground, and that is my ultimate hope. We are already seeing a price boom for talent in the electronic scene, and as a notable talent buyer has told me in private conversations, they are worried about the state of the industry, and what happens when the bubble bursts. These corporations are pricing out the very people that brought them their huge profits. Underground dance music has always been about the community, about the vibe, and about the VALUE. I fear the events are trending more toward the allure of status, glamour, indulgence and $7 water.
When you have to get a second job to attend a festival, or you need to pawn your laptop to see your favorite DJ, something is wrong, and I assure you that something is corporate America. Blame on it on capitalism, or greed, or whatever you call it, but all I know is that it ain’t underground, and it ain’t art. Let’s take back the night, let’s take back the rave, and let’s take back our money. Support the local festivals, the non-profits, and the meaningful gatherings. The ones that strive to keep the line-up pure and do not compromise for a bottom line. Let’s tell the corporate world to leave our scene alone, or we will make a new one and we won’t tell you about it.