Last Weekend's Levitation Festival was the Comedown from the Idyllic Psych Fest Dream
9 p.m. Levitation camping grounds: "It's five dollars to shit," he says. The gentlemen, a security guard dressed in blue, clarifies: "Well, it's five dollars every time -- each shit. You can use the port-a-potties over there, but I wouldn't recommend it for shitting; they're filthy. I'd say you really got to do that here. But you might want to hurry, these bathrooms close at 10:00. So do the showers by the way, but that's another five bucks."
Last year, all campers at the Austin music festival, then known as Psych Fest, had free access to showers and shit-appropriate facilities. Because, yeah, those are kind of essential needs under the circumstances. But times have changed for Levitation.
Hours before my conversation with this courteous, but direct, security guard I had a more unsettling experience with the makeshift (basically just a folding table under an awning) will call counter just outside the camping grounds. I wasn't alone. The faces around me were wrinkled with annoyance and fatigue. Disorganization was rampant. My goal was simple: acquire my camping pass and tickets. Twenty minutes standing in shin-deep mud, three fruitless person-to-person interactions, and a thousand keyboard strokes later and I was still empty-handed. The guy next to me, a professional photographer by all accounts, had already set up camp inside, but was having trouble re-entering. He was at the will call kiosk before I arrived, and remained there after I left.
Three other hopeless souls were waiting around empty handed, too. Last year the festival had only one entrance; it was here that all will calls (camping or no) and entrances took place. This year there were two: one strictly for campers and one for general day admission. The three hopeless souls in question were at the wrong entrance (the one for camping) and therefore needed to go to the general entrance to pick up their passes. (They had been given the wrong address by a Levitation employee over the phone.)
Sadly, they were dropped off and had no way to get there. It was several winding miles between the two locations, an hour-plus walk give-or-take. One Levitation employee jumped up with a suggestion: "How about trying a shortcut through the [very dense] woods?" I thought that hacking through some treacherously thick brush, and then wading across a snake-, mosquito-, leech-infested, hundred-or-so-feet-across creek, on account of an employee's mistake, sounded a touch unreasonable. "Welcome to Levitation," someone barked from the back of the will call line.
In an earlier post, I wrote about how Austin's Levitation (fka Psych Fest) was largely unique on account of its hands-off, all-but-commerce-less (as much as can be expected at a modern music festival, anyway) approach to operating a festival. In 2014, the atmosphere and the mood (or the "vibe" as many a concertgoer called it) of the event fostered was leisurely, idyllic and "hippie," but only in the very best, blissed-out and peaceful sense of that word. Scenes of people hanging in trees, wading in the cool relief of Carson Creek's many smaller tendrils and reclining in the grass were commonplace. To my surprise, I never once -- not once! -- saw an unhappy face or disturbance take place. Not for the entire festival.
What little management/security-type figures one could see last year, which were very few, simply fell in line with the festival's aforementioned "vibe" -- which, of course, lent itself to the already established bohemian free-for-all feel. The grounds were impeccably maintained (save for some unavoidable dust), and there certainly weren't any noticeable instances of neglect.
Another key element to last year's success and euphoric mood was an unusually rare absence of the tell-tale indications of the overt commercial interests endemic to contemporary music festivals. In this respect, all such outlets of commerce at 2014's event were few and far between. Except for a few tents selling name brand beverages, merchandise was marginalized to the outermost regions of the grounds, and of these, most were local vendors selling artistic or otherwise hand-made products. No big-wigs of note were present.
Fast forward to Levitation 2015 and I'm choking on the byproduct of corporate America. Literally. There was a tent donning the word "MARLBORO" in all-cap, bright white, bold lettering. For a dollar, and a bunch of personal information, they'd give you a promo pack of smokes. After a few beers -- brought to you by Dos Equis -- it was easy to figure: "Why not?" Now, the Dos Equis thing was no big change (they exclusively sold that brand of lager last year, too), but the company's presence was by contrast glaringly apparent this year. Case in point: There was a designated, fenced-off area exclusive to the Dos Equis brand (something like a temporary outdoor bar or club), complete with Dos Equis umbrellas and a roaming huddle of photo-ready luau girls.
The adverts were't just swimming in lungs and stomachs either, but inconspicuously plugged throughout the grounds as well. One of the more obvious examples was the glossy bound Converse catalogues neatly arranged on various tables in the food truck area of the festival. In something of an ironic testament to the organic nuance of marketing know-how, these catalogues could be seen later on, crumpled and spherical, whirring about the Levitation fields -- promotions as tumble weeds.
The stark change from 2014's fest to this year's was not purely commercial. Recall the hands-off approach in management I mentioned earlier, that beatific sense of freedom? That too was lost. Every turn, each bend, was stamped with a stone-cold, cagey security presence, a reminder of how "un-free" one really was:
"Cant' go there."
"Not past that patch of grass."
"Don't touch the trees. Or the water."
These admonishments were more prevalent than "hellos," or any sense of welcome for that matter. Sometimes, a human face wasn't even necessary. Signs marked "BEWARE OF VENOMOUS SNAKES" constituted one of the management's favorite devices to deter concertgoers from venturing off the beaten path. They unfailingly appeared any and everywhere audience members had previously climbed, touched or adventured beyond appointed boundaries.
So, why the changes? The differences between previous years' and 2015's festival can no doubt be traced to Psych Fest's recent and much-publicized business partnership with promotion company Transmission Events (of Fun Fun Fun Fest fame). By observation alone, the festival has grown extensively, both in physical size and audience. Older fans, and the very young -- infants even -- dotted the audience of what was previously a very niche-y group comprised almost entirely of sub-cultural millennials. And while the inclusion of new demographics is no doubt something to celebrate, that feature alone tells you that the promotion company has taken measures to expand the event's appeal, and it's this (too?) rapid expansion that's the likely culprit of Levitation's disorganization and watering-down.
Although heightened levels of security and procedural safeguards are arguably unavoidable necessities of a bigger festival, the result of larger insurance coverage and the like, it's hard not to mourn the purity that was Psych Fest prior to 2015. And I know, I know, "jaded music critic complains that music fest goes corporate" is an old-hat cliché at this point, but damn it, something great has been irrevocably lost -- what truly felt like the one last bastion of the romantic music festivals of lore.
And, no question, the negatives outlined here are accented, maybe even exaggerated, by the direct side-by-side, year-to-year comparison used in this article. Readers are probably more right than wrong to peg me an over-thinking fanboy of the earlier iterations of Levitation. After all, in the company of thousands upon thousands of genuinely satisfied people, taking part in what is quite obviously a marvel of scheduling and logistics, including some remarkably talented artists (most especially the tabla/sitar duo Gourisankar & Indrajait Banerjee and the barn-burning Lighting Bolt), what's the opinion of one paid-to-be-critical attendee? I'd buy into that take myself were I not privy to many conversations with fellow fans who shared similar attitudes to the ones expressed here. The overarching impression being that Levitation 2015 is the year the music died, to borrow an expression.
Objectively, that might not be entirely accurate, but it sure feels like it.
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