Vogue Australia, September, 2019 (PDF)
In the 50 years since Woodstock, music festivals have morphed into a billion-dollar industry complete with sponsored posts, media walls and a fashion micro-season. How did this happen, and what’s next? By Noelle Faulkner.
Among all the takes on Woodstock, an iconic event that celebrated its 50th anniversary this August, none may be as timeless as musician Neil Young’s retelling to Charlie Rose. “It was something special. We were just realising: ‘We are a generation, we are somebody ... we are making a difference,’” he told the American TV journalist in a 2014 interview. “[We realised] the music is not a commodity or content. The music is the life of the thing.”
Woodstock was not the first festival of its kind, but its legend is cemented in history: one rain-soaked weekend, 400,000 people and a line-up that included Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and the Who. Young was against the onstage filming of the documentary, which was released under the same name a year later and even won an Academy Award. “These guys with their cameras all over the stage were in the way of the music and the people, and they were a distraction. The music was for us, and this thing was in between it.” For him, video killed the festival vibe. “It made it a pose instead of a sound.”
Whether it’s Kate Moss in a micro-dress and Wellington boots at Glastonbury, Selena Gomez in a floppy hat a Coachella or supermodels diving off a yacht promoting the ill-fated Fyre Festival, the international music festival is often a pose. A reflection and an accelerator of youth culture, pop culture and style (‘festival’ is now an entire fashion micro-season), many have wondered if the mythology of the festival has, over time, become less about the music.
How many looks versus line-ups do you remember? Think back to mid-2000s Glastonbury. Kate Moss, Coldplay, Alexa Chung, Sienna Miller, Lilly Allen and a number of other artists rocked the enfant terrible grittiness fashion loved at the time. We pored over the boho-muddiness of the Glasto look and copy/pasted it into our blogspots. Then came the Californians: a cleaner, sparklier and more luxurious version of boho-chic introduced by Los Angeles It girls of the noughties. Their festival playground? Coachella.
For music fans, Coachella was put on the global map thanks to a now-legendary set by French duo Daft Punk in 2006, a Tupac Shakur hologram in 2012 and a number of big acts emerging from a hiatus. But its legend – and branding – has always rested on its luxury laurels. Instead of schlepping through mud and rain, Coachella’s attendees drifted through grassy lawns and relaxed on garden chairs against a backdrop of the San Bernardino mountains or a branded media wall. It flaunted comfort, VIP, poolside parties and that Californian glitz written into the sartorial playbook by Rachel Zoe. Fast-forward a few years and the supermodels, Kardashians and influencers have taken over. In 2019, the summer of ’69-dressing is over, moving to a high-end, logo- stamped athleisure mood of ‘wellness’, and the oddest trend of Splendour ’19: ass-less chaps and cowgirl braids.
The idea of a day or weekend of escapism shared with friends, with enough hype to get you through the work week and reminisce about for years to come remains the essence of festival culture. This includes lifestyle-driven festivals, like food, beer or idea festivals as well. Just look at the success of Dark Mofo, Vivid Sydney, Rainbow Serpent Festival, Tamworth Country Music Festival and overseas bucket-list events like Burning Man, Primavera Sound, Sónar and Iceland Airwaves. They pair a cleverly curated line-up of music with unique FOMO-inducing experiences. Let’s not forget: if it wasn’t for the incredible Instagram- filtered sell of azure beaches and partying with the most beautiful one per cent, thousands of people wouldn’t have been sucked into the Fyre Festival dumpster fire.
“Creating moments is an important part of our festival,” says Jean-François Ponthieux, founder of boutique music festival So Frenchy So Chic. “So we have a garden party experience aimed at discovery and creating special memories.” Attended by influencers, fashion lovers, Francophiles and families, So Frenchy is one of the most meticulously themed small festivals in Australia. Think Yé-yé-era fashion, crafted picnic spreads, barefoot dancing, joie de vivre and a female-majority line-up of French acts. “We know it helps spread the world, but we don’t do it for Instagram,” says Ponthieux. “We host the hottest and most- loved acts from France; not everyone will know who they are. So we like to offer something alongside our acts that is a unique and genuine cultural experience – an escape.”
Festivals are an expensive undertaking, and this is where valuable commercial partnerships and on-brand alignment have come into play. Brands like Rimmel, The Iconic, Contiki, Durex, Volkswagen, Lancôme, Icebergs, Mary’s and Chiswick dining have all set up side of stage. “Not everyone wants to watch a band for 24 hours, three days in a row. You might want to get a coffee or do something else,” says Emily Collins, managing director at Music NSW, a not-for-profit organisation that supports the sustainability of the music industry in the state. “I think festival promoters are understanding that patrons need different things to engage in.” Even Silicon Valley sees big money in music festivals. Uber partners with many around the world, Tinder now has a ‘festival mode’ for select events and at this year’s Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Spanish car manufacturer SEAT teamed up with Google to create a groundbreaking app to help people locate their friends using augmented reality.
It could be argued that Australia cares less about the commercialisation of festivals and remains more true to the music. Being on the other end of the world means multi-artist concerts are often the only way to see large international acts in one place or take a punt on discovering someone new. As a result, many local events have built a reputation on music programming to the point line-up guessing has become part of the hype. Look at Splendour in the Grass, Byron Bay Bluesfest, WOMADelaide, Download Festival and the beanstalk-like growth of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival. Starting as a summer party series in Melbourne in 2005 and growing into a much-loved event that now tours Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Fremantle, Adelaide, Auckland and Singapore, Laneway is known both as a barometer and a launch pad.
“We’ve gone from being a festival begging artists to play to one that has become a strategic move for artists to do,” says co-founder Danny Rogers. “To this day, we look back at some of our previous artists and go: ‘Wow, they’re one of the biggest acts in the world now!’” Laneway’s bills have featured Tame Impala, Lorde, Billie Eilish, Florence + the Machine, Flume and many more well before the A-list parties and stadium sets. “I guess we try to focus on the music first,” Rogers says. “We like to have fun, but ultimately it is about the music and discovery, and you see that in our crowd’s behaviour, too.” Laneway may not be an event to pose at, but it has garnered a cult-like following without the need for hashtag gimmicks.
It is difficult to talk about the growth of Australia’s biggest festivals, including Splendour in the Grass and Falls Festival’s recent $42 million site redevelopment plans in Byron Bay, without touching on the recent grey clouds – especially within New South Wales. At the time of writing, a coronial inquest was underway into the devastating deaths of seven young people. Festival regulations are under review and findings from a study into sexual assault at festivals have also been released, resulting in a number of recommendations around management, environment and cultural change. “Obviously it’s an enormous concern for promoters and the wider industry,” says Rogers, who is also on the board of the industry body Australian Festival Association. “From our end, a lot of the findings and feedback is really useful. Things like having X amount of doctors onsite to deal with more than two or three overdoses at a time – those kinds of situations that might have been unlikely but are things we now just have to consider.” He adds: “I know most festivals are not cutting corners on their medical or their security staff, and every festival has police operations, but there are many reasons why it can get tricky.”
Collins notes how notoriously hard it is to do business in New South Wales already, let alone when you add in the complications that can occur with knee-jerk legislation, particularly made without consulting the people it affects directly. She uses the impact of losing nearly 200 live music venues in Sydney (due to lockout laws) as an example. “The music industry is a fragile ecosystem, with many moving parts,” says Collins. “If you knock out one really crucial element, the ripples are felt throughout everything else. And that includes artists, management and festivals, too.”
She points out that lamenting the negatives might be doing more harm too. “Each state has its challenges ... But sometimes talking about how hard it is can make it worse and create a culture of panic and decimate business confidence.” It’s an issue also echoed around the world – a planned event to mark Woodstock’s 50th anniversary was marred with investor issues and ended up being cancelled less than a month before it was set to start. “I met [founder] Michael Lang at Lollapalooza last year,” says Laneway’s Rogers. “He was so lovely, passionate and spirited. We talked a lot about how he was trying to protect the [Woodstock] brand and celebrate it, and the challenges he’d come across.” He adds: “From where I stand ... there are similarities there. With any event, there are two types of people: those with a clear brain for monetisation and others who do it because it is culturally relevant.”
Half a century later, Woodstock’s legacy lives on in ways beyond the floppy hats. The cinematic element might have been a disruption to Neil Young when he was on stage, but it was a precursor to the way we consume music now. Consider the impact made by Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé, a chronicle of her 2018 Coachella set; the complexity of BBC’s Glastonbury live coverage (it sent almost as many staff as it did to the Beijing Olympics); Triple J’s live festival streams or even Gen Z’s appetite for concerts broadcasted via the Periscope app.
Would Jimi Hendrix be the idol he is today without the grainy evidence of his legendary Woodstock-closing set? The music festival may have moved on from a movement into a billion-dollar industry that swallows music, fashion, pop culture, politics, tourism, mass corporations, hospitality and tech. But has that adulterated the spirit of Woodstock as it intended to be? “People still want the same thing,” says Ponthieux. And that’s peace, love and music, no?