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The Downbeat: Festival bliss marred by greed?

By Purbita Saha
On April 19, 2012

When once there was only one Woodstock, now there are a hundred copycats.

Just look up a list of U.S. festivals and you'll be left with a headache. There's everything from the Kroq Weenie Roast in Irvine, Calif., to the Purple Hatter's Ball in Live Oak, Fla. Or if you're anywhere near Augusta, N.J. on June 1, you can check out Michael Arnone's Crawfish Fest. If not for the music then do it for the local culture. It's said to be very...unique.

The uprising of musical conglomerates during the past few years brings about one question: are the organizers in it for the money or the public service? Are artists and bands congregating simply because they want to pay off their pool boys, or are they flocking together to educate us on the current atmosphere of music?

From a pessimist's perspective, the answer is the former. Top-notch festivals like Lollapalooza (August 3-5, Chicago) and Bonnaroo (June 7-10, Manchester, Tenn.) rake in heaps of revenue from ticket sales, accommodation fees, food stands and vendor rentals. In 2010, California's Coachella was dubbed as the top-grossing "show" after it made $22 million on admission alone.

Ever since the festival trend took off, these events have expanded to an astronomical degree. Bonnaroo for example, has been selling out from the time it was conceived in 2002. The festival has been so popular that a permanent stage has been erected for it. It has also lengthened its run time from three days to four days. But Bonnaroo has also done wonders for the homely city of Manchester. The yearly migration of yuppies and hippies has driven the local economy, as the population goes from 10,000 to 100,000. Hope is momentarily restored in a place where 18 percent of the residents fall under the poverty line and the per-capita income is merely $17,000.

Not all music jubilees have such jubilant results though. Denver's Mile High Festival only made it through three seasons before crumbling under financial strain. All Points West, which was held on Liberty Island in N.J., gave up its annual reservation after a final encore with Jay-Z and Coldplay in 2009. Finally, the Monolith festival, which was also held in Colorado, struck out on its third attempt. Despite its indie-folk design it was too genre specific, and was not able to hold on to a sustainable fan base.

Ultimately, there is a lot of evidence on how and why music festivals are giant money-making schemes. But the fact that Coachella live-streamed its performances on YouTube last week proves that its creators still have a desire to foster musical awareness. Fans from all around the country and the world journey to the Volunteer State because Bonnaroo does harbor some sort of magic. And students scrape out their bank accounts to attend Lollapalooza, not only because Lady Gaga puts on a good show, but also because it is the chance of a lifetime to see a diversity of artists under one roof.

So this summer when you're trying to sneak backstage and paying $9 for a funnel cake, remember to think about the music. Then maybe, just maybe, you won't feel the hurt from that $300 ticket.


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