The Gentrification of Music Festivals

Last year Bruce Dickinson, the singer of Iron Maiden, pissed off some people (who I’m sure dropped their chai lattes in anger) when he said that he would never, ever, perform at the Glastonbury Festival. He dismissed the festival as the most bourgeois thing in the planet. He mocked the air-conditioned yurts that are available (for an exorbitant fee) for some campers,  with luxuries such as rugs, doormats, hand-painted furniture, mattresses with Egyptian Cotton bedding and thick duvets.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot of complaints about music festivals, particularly when it comes to the lack of basic hygiene and the chances of catching some mysterious strand of syphilis at the chemical toilets that adorn the camping area (to their credit, they’re easy to find, since you only have to follow your nose!); I think that people often act like imbeciles, and that the security conditions could definitely be improved. Still, having said that, the “gentrification” of the festival environment in general, and of heavy metal in particular, is something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. While it is a completely legitimate exercise of the market power of the festival organizers (if an imbecile is willing to pay 2 thousand Euro to get a yurt for 3 days, I’m not going to be the one stopping him) it seems like a step in the wrong direction.

A couple of weeks ago I was covering Hellfest, and I was surprised to see how it is a prime example of a festival that, despite the quality of its acts, seems to be devoted to just becoming more and more gentrified. It’s an environment in which wristbands are worn as a symbol of status (AAA beats Artist, Artist beats VIP, VIP beats 3-Day Pass, 3-Day beats Day Pass) and in which  integrity is sacrificed in order to appeal to a pants-on-head retarded, yet well-financed, crowd that finds itself at home at both a Kanye West and an AC/DC gig, as long as they get an usher to direct them to their seat. A place that features a VIP area in which champagne glasses are passed around a bunch of flat-rim hat wearing assholes, and a press area in which the festival, aware of the kind of morons that are starting to populate it, has oysters and hipster barbershops available for a price. I’m absolutely serious on both counts.

Of course, Hellfest is not the only case of this nor, as we saw with Glastonbury, the worst offender; it’s merely part of a trend that has been sweeping music for years, and which seems destined to transform the festival environment for good. The root causes of this phenomenon are not hard to see; festivals that try to remain true to their roots by appealing to a demographic of hardcore music fans (particularly in the case of heavy metal) will not be able to build the kind of brand that they want. Festivals want, more and more, to be an expression of a lifestyle, like Apple is for morons at coffee shops, and hope to create this experience for the Starbucks crowd, who’ll be happy to go back to their loft and tell about their festival experience. This is what causes festivals like Rock in Rio, which started actually being located in Rio and offering rock and metal music, to shift to pop music and offer limo services with their Cabana packages, or Coachella (already a Hipster cesspool) offering the possibility of watching shows from a private pool (for over 3 thousand dollars), or the Cabanas at Loolapalooza, which can go for as much as 75,000 dollars. It’s a trend of manufacturing rebellion in a way that allows every entitled little shit with a manbun or a flat-brim hat with an ironic Burzum shirt to feel that they’re sticking it out to the man by shelling out hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to mingle with the riff-raff. The result is a social view in which consumption passes for rebellion, and in which what you consume defines you as a person.

Musicians are not particularly happy about this bullshit either. A couple of years ago, when I was in a very small Nine Inch Nails show in London, Trent Reznor gave a few heartfelt “Fuck You”s to the people watching the show comfortably from the VIP area (including the more established press, who were I guess too good to mingle with the rest of us). To his credit Fred Durst of the musical abortion known as Limp Bizkit, before starting his song “Break Stuff” at Hellfest paused, looked up and said:

This one goes out to all the people in the VIP: FUCK YOU!

For once, Fred, we agree.