This time of year, pretty much anyone with any taste in music is looking toward Austin. If you consider yourself a true music nerd, you’re probably still recovering from the first weekend of Austin City Limits, arguably the city’s best music festival. No doubt, there is some thrill in seeing Drake and the Foo Fighters and other cool bands all in the same weekend, but we really need to get real about how terrible music festivals actually are. They are, in fact, the worst.
The festival world’s suckage first reveals itself when you buy your ticket. With the exception of smaller festivals, like Oaktopia, you can generally expect to shell out a couple hundred bucks if you’re interested in the full festival experience. For Austin City Limits, you can spend as much as $10,000 for a swank travel and ticket package, including lodging at The Driskill. But you should never actually do that, unless you’re just sitting around on piles of money and have endless patience for the headache that comes along with enjoying a show at a major music festival.
For starters, it’s already pretty clear that you can see (nearly) all of the artists that swing through Austin for festival season in Dallas, and you could damn near buy a ticket to see each one of the five or six that you’re interested in play an opening or headlining set without having to drag your ass to Austin or see 15 bands that you have no interest in. Let’s be real: This ain’t Woodstock, and there’s a real likelihood that the bottom of that bill (or top, depending on your level of music snobbery) isn’t going to interest you much beyond a few interest-piqueing bands that you heard on NPR.
Worse, the likelihood of seeing a truly excellent headlining set at a festival is pretty much nil. Every artist plays a shorter, and arguably more watered-down, set of tracks on the festival circuit. Even at this summer’s inaugural Big City Bash, a one-day festival of sorts at Gexa Energy Pavilion featuring Jason Isbell, Whiskey Myers, Sunny Sweeney and the Randy Rogers Band, set times were impossibly short. Isbell, arguably the biggest artist on that bill (though not the headliner) played only seven or eight songs before saying goodnight to a thoroughly eager crowd.
Sadly, you’re also not going to hear very many stripped-down acoustic versions of tracks at music festivals, with the notable exception of artists playing massive pop hits in an attempt to go viral. You’ll also probably miss some of the music that the artist is just working on, tracks they’re only going to try on a friendly, forgiving crowd with plenty of time. That’s not what the crowd at ACL or Bonnaroo is there for — they want Weezer playing “Say It Ain’t So” and “Buddy Holly,” damn it, not those weird new songs from a largely unheard album.
When you’ve been waiting for six months to hear Isbell play deep cuts from his new album or want to hear CHVRCHES do a little experimenting, it’s pretty heartbreaking to realize that they’re just going to play seven or eight songs and then be quickly whisked away to make way for the next artist’s set up. Once you’ve realized that your own favorite song has been skipped to make room for the chart-topping crowd-pleasers, you’re going to wander along to the next set with a real heavy heart.
And there, you’ll encounter the crowd — you know, the one that’s seeing that band you really hate. Sure, people are generally nice (or whatever), even if they have terrible taste in music. But after they’ve been roughing it on festival grounds for a few days, they’re a little worse for the wear. You’re frequently exposed to rude, smelly people who don’t care about your existence at festivals because they’ve been angling for a good spot to see Leon Bridges for, like, an hour. Concertgoers can be rude and inconsiderate at their best, but the last day of a festival is certainly not a great time to catch humanity at its highest.
Even the one-day festival, like this weekend’s The Reunion with Weezer and Fitz & the Tantrums, is totally unacceptable. Instead of three days of drawn-out, sweaty, hungover misery, you’re cramming all that into one terrible, awful, no-good day. You’re already drunk and ready for a nap by 4 p.m.; don’t even think about making it all the way to the headliner if you get ahead of yourself with the whiskey before the first support act goes on. The alternative — staying mostly sober — is also out of the question. Have you seen the way crowds act these days?
The one benefit that festivals do have is their ability to introduce you to new music. You can be walking by one stage on your way to see Drake, and find out that you’d much rather rock out to Waxahatchee or chill with José González. But at this point, between the Internet and the dozens of constantly well-booked Dallas concert venues, you should already know who those artists are. Put simply, you can discover new music without having to plunk down a couple hundred bucks and hang out with thousands of sweaty people.
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Ultimately, festivals aren’t even really about the music. At least not anymore. They’re about showing off your awesome Urban Outfitters fest gear and drinking pricey bottled water at the Samsung-sponsored stage listening to the Apple-sponsored artist. The festivals have gone entirely corporate, reducing their diversity, which means that we no longer have to put up with the bullshit that comes along with festing just to hear some new, up-and-coming music.
Call us curmudgeons, but in the digital age, the festival is no longer the gateway to great music. It’s the path to ass sweat, heel blisters, an unrelenting sunburn and a whole new hatred for humanity.