We were deep in day three, stuck firmly under the heat dome among the festival crowds at Panorama this weekend, when a Ghostbuster appeared. Sia was on stage in her signature oversized two-tone wig with a gigantic bow when she brought out noted celebrity ghost enemy Kristen Wiig wearing a similar wig (get it? Kristen … wig?) to dance around on stage. This caused great commotion among our festival crew and the crowd in general, especially since Sia’s show also featured celebrity appearances by Paul Dano, Tig Notaro and a bunch of extremely talented dancers. This was a rare moment of surprise during an otherwise by-the-books festival — except it wasn’t actually happening. The celebs on screen were just part of Sia’s tour video; the stage was full of actors reenacting the video, which wasn’t immediately clear to anyone not in the front rows.
Panorama was billed by many as the East Coast Coachella, a chance to bring a truly regal lineup of music and the brand of a highly successful festival team to New York City’s competitive music scene. The fest tickets were steep — too steep for many people it turns out, in a summer that’s already packed in a handful of music festivals. But it was loaded up in star power not seen elsewhere, with Kendrick Lamar, the freshly reunited LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire, plus a killer undercard featuring FKA Twigs, Run the Jewels, The Julie Ruin and a lot more. So was it actually worth the money, or is New York becoming victim to festival bloat?
First, let’s be clear: in terms of festival logistics, Panorama crushed it in ways you wouldn’t expect from a brand-new festival attended by tens of thousands of people. Goldenvoice, the organizers of Coachella and a handful of other fests around the country, lined up acts based on draw, not whoever was on the touring circuit, which is why the event featured Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem, even though they aren’t on the road promoting new albums.
Lining up acts is one thing, but arranging them in a way that lets crowds flow from one event to the next at a festival is another challenge entirely. Panorama had the markings of a veteran festival where a lot of the kinks had already been worked out: stages were set far enough away that performers didn’t bleed into each other, few shows we wanted to see conflicted with each other, and getting back and forth from each part of the festival was smooth (possibly because tickets didn’t sell out, so crowds were perhaps lighter than organizers prepared for). And air conditioning, glorious air conditioning, was plentiful — the above pictured Despacio tent was as cool as a department store, even with hundreds of people dancing inside.
Ferries moved people to and from the festival relatively smoothly; the only line we had to wait on was Sunday night, after LCD Soundsystem dumped everyone into the ferry line at the same time. This is also how we ended up drinking at a Murray Hill bar for an hour waiting for a cab.
These are two things that often get overlooked, but they are worth noting because of how much they lead to a happy festival crowd: Food and bathrooms. Panorama backed up its supply of porta potties with a bunch of air-conditioned trailer bathrooms — fancy shit usually reserved for the VIP section, and a welcome respite from the heat. And the food was solid as far as festivals go, with booths from Roberta’s, Asia Dog and other local favorites, including two all-vegan spots (a rarity at fests): Marty’s V Burger and Monk’s Meats.
There were lines to get into some of the tents, which means we never saw the much ballyhooed art exhibit called The Lab, which looked cool from pictures, but not cool enough to stand in a line in the sun for an hour.
So the music and the run of show were aces. But here’s what the weekend lacked: the intangible element we’ll call, for lack of a better phrase, festival magic. That element of “magic” is where unexpected things happen and surprises come at you in odd corners of the venue, is what you need to stand out in New York’s increasingly crowded summer festival scene.
New York festivals are by nature not usually magic, because you don’t camp overnight in the desert (like at Coachella) or have access to a 24-hour playground of music, art and strangeness, as you do at Bonnaroo. You get on a ferry or bus in the morning, arrive at the fest, see some music and are back in your apartment, showering off the day by the end of the night. You don’t have those idle hours between acts that are usually where the weird stuff happens, the odd encounters that stick with you and make it an experience rather than just an expensive concert buffet. At Bonnaroo, for instance, this is where you encounter hula hooping dancers, Burners with a “free hugs booth” or other mini tribes of festival culture covered in paint or battling with fire (real things I have seen at festivals). The crowd at Panorama was largely white (full disclosure: I am also largely white) and young; if I had to guess, I’d say the average age was 26. The crowd was well behaved and moderately turnt up when required. I was surprised to not once encounter anyone walking around selling or asking for drugs the entire weekend (or nutcrackers or any bootleg merchandise either). I did see security busting people for smoking pot at a Broken Social Scene show, which, c’mon guys.
Aside from the art installations, Panorama had no weird pockets of wonder, no mystery lurking between sets. There were no major surprise guests on stage (though many fans left thinking the Sia guest stars were real), no collaborations, which are often a perk of getting all these artists in the same place at the same time. You got the sense bands popped to Randall’s Island for their show, and didn’t stick around after. It was basically a showcase for bands, not a festival experience overall (unless you count paying $9 for Bud Lights an integral part of the festival experience).
That missing element of magic could prove important in coming years. New York is now suffering from festival bloat, too many events competing for the same crowds and dollars. By the time Panorama hit last weekend, New York had already hosted Governors Ball, Northside, the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival and Summer Jam. Still to come this year are Afropunk, the Brooklyn Music Festival on Governors Island, the Roots Picnic, which is expanding to Bryant Park for the first time, and The Meadows, a new festival headlined by Kanye West and Chance the Rapper coming to Citi Field in October. The below video from Improv Everywhere from this year’s Governors Ball serves as a metaphor for the festival scene in NYC: too many things packed into too small a space (the summer, not a portable toilet).
Not every festival is destined to survive in New York either: Remember the short-lived Great Googamooga? That was organized by the folks behind Bonnaroo, also members of the festival elite. In another city they might have been given a few years to iron out the kinks, but backlash to the way it was organized (long food lines, destructive footprint on Prospect Park) was swift, and New Yorkers have plenty of other outlets for their musical attention, so it died after just two years.
The obvious competition between festivals is Panorama vs. Governors Ball, as they both happen on Randall’s Island and go after the same audience (fans of indie-rockish bands and crossover hip hop acts). A three-day pass to Gov Ball ran $305, Panorama’s cost $369, with all fees included. Attending both, if either, is prohibitively expensive — many friends and fans at the fest this weekend said they were forced to choose between the two. I’ve never been to Gov Ball and probably don’t plan on going in the near future, as I have no desire to pay a lot of money to see the hottest indie rock bands of 2006. I would consider attending Panorama again depending on the lineup.
Lots of cities have an “iconic” festival: Think Outside Lands in San Francisco or Bumbershoot in Seattle. New York isn’t lots of cities, so we have a bunch of events competing for the crown. Should our “iconic” fest be Governors Ball, which has established a reputation over the past few years as a start-of-summer showcase for big-name acts? Or should it be Afropunk, whose multiculturalism more adequately reflects the diversity of New York? Or maybe it should be Northside, whose focus on small acts and DIY venues proves NYC is still a homing beacon for anyone looking for what’s new in music?
I usually meet a lot of strangers at a music festival, part of the camaraderie of being trapped together in a field for an extended period of time. At Panorama, I really met only one: a shirtless, square-jawed dude who sat down next to us in the back of a Schoolboy Q show, his hands idly playing some iPhone game while we talked. He asked if we were “festival regulars” and I was sure he was going to ask us if we wanted to buy drugs or had some to sell him. Instead, he just wanted to chat: he was a “festival regular” who had gone to Gov Ball this summer too. He used to buy two tickets to every fest, but got tired of eating the cost when he couldn’t find a buddy to go with, so he was riding solo. After Panorama, he was headed to Philly to protest the DNC. He had signed up to protest before Bernie actually endorsed Hillary; now he was a bit lost as to why he was still going.
If Panorama or other NYC music fests want to stand out from the pack and not just appeal to festival regulars, they had better find some magic. Was it worth the money? If you don’t go to any other music festivals this summer and don’t spend too much on big ticket shows throughout the year, sure, you could blow way more money on way worse experiences in New York. But the thing about living in New York is that even if you missed the festival, all the bands will eventually come through the city again. Organizers have to give you something else to get you to an island under a heat dome.
Follow Tim for more information about the best festival bathroom strategies: @timdonnelly.