The Diet Coke Diaries: What Happened to Festival Season?

There’s not much in this world I love more than cracking open a cold one with friends.

No, not that kind of cold one.

I’m talking about a can of Diet Coke and I’m talking about cracking it open at one of the countless music festivals I attend each year. However, as I’m sure many of you have noticed, this summer’s calendar has an odd scarcity of festivals in comparison to years passed.

Taste of Italy

While last year there seemed to be a festival every weekend, this year I find myself lined up for a corn dog in the middle of a usually busy but barricaded city street- Think Dundas West Fest, Taste of Little Italy and most likely Taste of the Danforth in the very near future.  Long gone are the days of me lining up at a refillable water station trying to stay hydrated in the middle of a heatwave and not murder the 19 year old kandi kid (see 2nd year Honours Science student at Queens) next to me. Seriously, why are you in a tutu? Why do you need a beaded mask? Are you Future? Mask off. Go back to Kingston.

So yes, the music festival landscape of our beloved city seems to be changing, however, we saw this coming didn’t we? With such a quick rise to the top, it was inevitable that there would be a plummet to the bottom. In 2012 saw the launch of arguably Toronto’s most known festival, Digital Dreams Music Festival. The opening season boasted a line up of Richie Hawtin, Duck Sauce and Chuckie. Along with Digital Dreams, Toronto festivals like Veld, Electric Island, Time Festival, Bestival, Play Festival, and the one off favourites like Corona Sunsets, the Dirtybird BBQ and a few other day parties and Cabana rips have populated our summer passed. However, this summer’s layout looks much different.

There are a visible lack of the all these festivals. The big boys (Coachella, Bonaroo, Gov Ball, etc)  are very much still ruling their weekends, but suddenly I’m booking off fewer and fewer summer days.  I’m also able to occupy my weekends with day adventures around the city- you know the type. The days when you start at one restaurant, then friends come and join you and suddenly you’re on Cherry Beach watching the sunset or on a friends roof watching the sun come up. No, not a rooftop patio- just a roof.

Digital Dreams Music Festival

But what happened to the festivals? Why are they no more? There are a few reasons that  could attribute to the drop of popularity. Like the Toronto housing bubble, the North American (and some could argue European as well) festival bubble was bound to pop at some point and while it may not completely burst this year, we’re not far off.  In my very unofficial opinion, I can look to three main reasons why this is happening.

  1. Over-commercialization
  2. Consolidation & Decision Paralysis
  3. Festival Stereotypes & Fatigue

Over-commercialization can be summed up pretty easily. Festivals are still about the music, about dancing in the rain and about your feet in the sand and throwing your hands in the air, but they have also quickly become about the best brand activation, the free give-aways, and what brand is watermarked on all your Snapchat filters. However, festival goers understand that sometimes the commercialization isn’t all evil. Due to the oodles and oodles of money that sponsors toss out to festival, ticket prices can remain semi-affordable.

I know, imagine if they didn’t?! But it’s still a lot.

Veld Music Festiva – Barry Martelle

It’s a lot of paid media thrown in your face.  I mean, I don’t care that much. If Intergalactic Gary is throwing down a fire set, or if The Black Madonna is about to tear apart a stage only to build it back up again, I don’t care what Snapchat filter I may be in; the name on the banner behind the stage; or the name on the beer in my friends hand (they will have Coke products though, right?).  But there’s something blatantly not rock and roll about the whole sponsorship element.

Consolidation of the festivals can be traced back to 2001 when AEG, one of the leading sports and entertainment presenters in the world bought Goldenvoice and the countless festivals under it’s umbrella. Back in 2001 these included Stagecoach, Firefly, Hangout and the behemoth that is Coachella. It’s counterpart and equally as massive corporation,  Live Nation quickly bought up all the other boutique festivals which launched both companies into a buying spree. Eventually, all festivals began to look very similar.

In 2001 twenty of the 103 performers at AEG’s Coachella this year are among the 166 acts playing at Live Nation’s Bonaroo. That means that one-tenth of Bonaroo’s lineup and one-fifth of Coachella’s lineup are exactly the same. So, at that point does it just come down to whether you rather be in Tennessee or Indo? Do you want to look around and see mountains or fields? I’ll stick to that desert heat, please.

This consolidation was followed by decision paralysis- there’s a lot of festivals, how can you pick? They all have eerily similar line ups (this is from Live Nation and AEG respectively being able to buy more headlining acts for a better rate because of the Costco pricing system. AKA buying in bulk is always best!) This same system lends itself to festival talent buying quite seamlessly.  However, it turns into a stale and strikingly standard list of artists.

Coachella (via Youtube)

Finally, the idea of festival fatigue mixed with the overbearing stereotyping of festivals. At this point, I went to my first festival 7 years ago and at that point they weren’t even branded as festivals- just weekend long rips at Guvernment and leaving my car in the Loblaws parking lot. Since then I’ve been to festivals all around the world- each one boasting beautiful set designs, an over hyped headliner, a knock out no-name that quickly becomes your new favorite talent, and of course a corn-dog and an after party you’re sure changed you to your core.

However, as I slowly enter my late (ew) 20s, the appeal of hitting a three day party seems like a lot (ask any of my friends and they’ll stop me after saying “three day” knowing damn well I rarely make a Day 3 and personally turn most festivals into 2 day events. And then there’s the stereotype of festivals that no doubt hinder new business and new attendees from puling trigger and spending their money on what is perceived by many to be an event with as many flower crowned femmes and tank top bros as possible, all ingesting whatever pink,  blue, or white chemical they’ve been told is clean and so good.

It’s clear festivals are slowly becoming less and less of a lure for music lovers, so the question is, can the corporations step up to the challenge and evolve or will something else fill the void?

I’m excited to find out, and might just crack open a cold one to so how it unfolds.