Big summer festivals are the sub-prime mortgages of music

Governors Ball: Like Coachella you have to look at this instead of mountains. Via Flickr user Mike Cicchetti.
Governors Ball: Like Coachella but you have to look at this instead of beautiful mountains. Via Flickr user Mike Cicchetti.

If the groundhogs and the occasionally warm days haven’t been enough of an indication that summer is soon upon us, let us look to the one faithful sign of warmer days: the music festival lineup announcements. This week gave us a new entry into New York’s festival scene, Panorama, and people collectively lost their shit. The three-day festival features headliners Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, the reunited LCD Soundsystem (long may they live), and 50+ other acts. Our own Dave Colon provided the high service Panorama vs. Governors Ball breakdown, and as tickets go on sale today, people will no doubt be jumping online at noon and frantically coordinating with friends to nab passes. To all those people, and, even more so, to the people wondering if they should take a chance on the new Panorama Festival or the more established Governors Ball, I have one piece of advice: DON’T. Neither of them are worth your money, because music festivals actually are a scam for your hard-earned concert cash.

At this point I can already hear people scrolling to the comments section to put me on festival blast, but let’s run through the myths of why people think they enjoy festivals, and the facts of why they actually end up having a miserable time. 

MYTH: Look at that lineup! How could you have a bad time seeing all those acts???”
FACT: You’re getting caught up in the Big Short Set scam. 

You think the headliners are worth it? Ask people about the famous Kanye Bonnaroo meltdown of '08.  Via Flickr user divertingbailey.
You think the headliners are worth it? Ask people about the famous Kanye Bonnaroo meltdown of ’08. Via Flickr user divertingbailey.

Let’s tackle the biggest myth right up front. We’ve all seen the lineups for these festivals, and yes, they DO sound awesome. That’s the point! The entire raison d’etre for festival organizers and promoters is to make their festival sound like THE musical event of the year. And they know exactly how much power the names of their acts have. Kendrick Lamar is a huge act to book, and Alabama Shakes has a solid following, but then you’ve got Lloydski, whom I definitely have never heard of (no offense, Lloydski!). Defending festivals by mentioning their lineups is like suggesting dinner at McDonald’s because your mouth is watering at the idea of two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. Much like with McDonald’s, you should be looking a little closer at what you’re getting served.

And what you’re actually getting is hardly a full serving of any one of these concerts. Sure, maybe the headliner will do a two-hour set, you know, like a real concert, but you know for sure that everyone else will be doing more like 30-minute sets. So yes, you get to say you saw a bunch of hip acts, but what did you see? A handful of songs?  Was it really that immersive an experience?

Think about the concerts that you actually get really excited for in your life, the ones you bought tickets to months in advance. When the day of the show comes, what do you do? Do you go out for 8-10 hours in the sun and drink and get high until doors open?

To borrow a concept from an Academy Award-winning picture, festival lineups are essentially the subprime mortgages of live music, aka “The Big Short Set.” They take a few high demand acts, give them headliner status, and then get a large mixture of buzzy acts, up-and-comers and others that are likely trying to burst onto the scene, and they package all those concerts of unequal value to create an extremely high value ticket. Your $300-$400 would be better spent going to a la carte $10 concerts dedicated to the musicians you want to see throughout the year instead of taking your chances at the all-you-can-listen buffet.

MYTH: Festivals are about more than music! They’re fun, life events in themselves!
FACT: You’re more likely to have a life experience with a #brand or bathroom line.

The second and last Great Googamooga in 2013 was a festival of lines. Photo by Mary Dorn.
The second and last Great Googamooga in 2013 was a festival of lines. Photo by Mary Dorn.

Festivals sure are life events! But what kind of event? You pay a huge sum of money for anywhere from one to three days to go to a large area, filled with people who all want the same things you want. They’re the ones standing in front of you on the endless lines for beer, the bathrooms and food. And once you get to the front of the line, you’re gouged for more money. But hey, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said a million different ways by people. Let’s get to actual examples of lameness.

Remember The Great GoogaMooga? That was a FREE festival in Prospect Park that promised great music and great food. What did it deliver? Great music (but see above) and food that was comically difficult to buy, from places that many of us already eat at in New York. Ironically, the people who got the most out of GGM were those who paid for the VIP access, because they got to avoid the lines, and then were refunded their money.

The days of festivals being a cultural moment died somewhere between Woodstock 99 and the erection of the Honda Stage at Governors Ball. Every year people talk about going to All Points West and Governors Ball, but do you ever hear much about them after? At the end of the long weekend, how special were these events? And can you really afford to buy passes to each one in the hopes that you’ll finally attend that ONE SPECIAL FESTIVAL?

Even before I became enlightened (nope, not gonna use “woke” to talk about a $369 ticket), I went to one festival that made a bigger impression out of all the others. I was at the Tibetan Freedom Concert, back when Radiohead and The Beastie Boys were headlining at Randall’s Island. These are my memories: going crazy during Beastie Boys, walking out to get beer during Pavement and Blur (I have no excuse, I was an idiot), spending Bjork’s and Rancid’s sets trying to figure out which stage The Beastie Boys would play so I could position myself properly, and dirt boogers from the dust bowl that was Randall’s Island at the time. Mostly I remember the dirt boogers, though.

MYTH: Festivals are at least a cool way to escape the real world for a few hours or days.
FACT: Festivals that take place in the middle of cities are actually way better.

When people talk about festivals like Governors Ball or newcomer Panorama, they try to sell you on the idea of hanging out all day in the sun, like it’s a vacation from New York. But what are you taking a vacation from? This city is amazing, and you want to escape it for Randall’s Island? If you look at festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella, they’re destination festivals with an existing culture. At either of those festivals, you can camp in Tennessee or out under the desert sky for days and dance to your heart’s content. At Governors Ball, you get to dance your face off at the Samsung Galaxy Pavilion and stand on a cramped MTA bus back to the mainland at the end of each day.

If you must go to a festival, instead patronize ones that actually take place in and around a city, like New Orleans’ Jazz Fest or SXSW. They can be considered vacations, though they aren’t centralized like Bonnaroo or Coachella. When you go to Jazz Fest or SXSW you’re also visiting New Orleans and Austin, which I’ve heard are OK destinations.

Those festivals are strewn around the city, in different venues, where you can pick and choose what you’d like to participate in. And you don’t have to leave NYC for an experience like that: We have North Brooklyn’s Northside Festival, which has multiple venues strewn around the area, and you can buy individual tickets for each show or get a more expensive pass for all things. You have the choice to attend all, some, or one show, and you have the freedom to eat and drink wherever you want! You literally have to try hard to spend a ton of money at Northside because you’re an expert on Williamsburg. You don’t need a $12 Bud Light when you know where the happy hours are just a few blocks away on Berry Street.

Compare that to the Martian-like isolation of Randall’s Island and their vendors. You’re basically staying in New York and stripping out all the best parts (cheap eats, the subway). Randall’s Island is like the commuter college of festivals; once you show up, you’re there for the day until it’s time to go home, and you’re probably going to spend more time than you like figuring out how to get there and back.


Festivals can be a really good time, but don’t let yourself get blinded by the hype. Once you take into account the cost, the accessibility of the venue, and the harder things to include in promotion, like “Will this be really fun or just a lot of douchey scenesters and high prices?” you can make an educated decision about whether it’s worth shelling out major cash and blocking out one to three days of your life for a rain or shine event. But whatever you do, just don’t make a decision based on the lineup and promoters. It’s that kind of thinking that ends up with you miserable and at Terminal 5.

Follow Eric, who also thinks fireworks are for simps, here: @Primesilver.


  1. Sara N.

    Looks like american hustlers and hucksters. basement dwellers and other us imbeciles who don’t know what to do with that music, pollysci, history, english, art, or sociology “degree” from shystertown uni. onward and downward! Listen to the music, feel the beat, feel the desperation.

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