Crowd gathered at Coachella 2014. (Photo by Shawn Ahmed.)
“The spectacle is not an ensemble of images, but a social connection between people, mediated by images.” –Guy Debord, writer and philosopher, 'The Society of the Spectacle,' 1967
The myth of the modern music festival
Major music festivals like Wayhome and Coachella may create the illusion of freedom from the spectacle of consumerism-led mass culture, but they’re a system, controlled, organised and scheduled to create constant stimulation for their participants.
Wayhome’s website says: “Life was different before the internet. Probably better. Everything is social-in-your-face-all-the-time connected now. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something”. Yet, every year, the festival bombards attendees with perpetual advertising urging them to use social media to capture the moment.
Coachella is no different. Upon entering the festival, you’re blasted with fireworks sponsored by Coca Cola, Ferris wheels slathered with the Nike logo, and other, equally branded sensory overloads. The crowd is transported into the consumerist city of Coachella. The audience no longer wants reality, they want Coachella’s reproduction of it.
The modern festival is commercial beast. The hyper-concentration on structure and dependence on corporate sponsorship stands in stark contrast with the laissez-faire escapism of musical gatherings past. The reality is that Wayhome and Coachella are temporary consumerist cities that reflect the societies of the real, permanent cities their crowds come from, including every iota of their toxic digital cultures.
The continuous stream of mass media being consumed at these festivals leaves little room for independent thought. Permanent cities contain periods of monotony and boredom, like driving home from work or washing the dishes, but these aspects are removed and replaced with constant excitement at Coachella and Wayhome. The “spectacle” is never broken within these festivals.
This is what we’re seeing in “real life” with the increased usage of mobile technologies like smartphones. No longer are the rides home spent in thought; now, that time is spent watching Netflix or playing a game on your phone. As mass culture takes over more and more of our personal time, the permanent city further resembles the temporary consumerist microcosm of Coachella and Wayhome.
Coachella and other similar festivals bill themselves as purveyors of personal freedom. Coachella’s promotional videos show attendees, most of whom appear to be in their 20s or 30s, riding inflatable dinosaurs and shooting toy bows and arrows – activities most people would never be able do in the confines of their day-to-day lives. But this advertised fantasy of freedom is unattainable. The implementation of a strict structure surrounding festival events killed it.
Professor of sociology Kevin Fox Gotham states in his article on the festivals of New Orleans, Theorizing Urban Spectacles, that: “Today, all spectacles are produced and organised to occupy precisely the length of clock time given for them and to end on time, regardless of the desires of the participants. By reifying clock time, modern spectacles are the antithesis of spontaneity, creativity and originality”.
“Clock time”, the definitive beginning, ending and plotting of everything in-between during festivals, is restrictive to the freedom and creativity of the audience. With festivals like Wayhome and Coachella, schedules are used extensively, whether it be the allotted set times each band receives, or the hours in which showers are open to the audience. This strict order of events creates a temporality in which, despite the illusion of counter-culture freedom, real restrictions on the creative and personal freedoms an audience can experience are presented.
The structured schedule of music festivals like Coachella subtly push crowds in certain directions at different points during the day. This is analogous to crowd control techniques employed by Disneyland organisers “to maximise control over the movement of the crowd through the meticulous organisation of space,” as author and professor Eric Avila puts it in his article Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Film Noir, Disneyland, and the Cold War (Sub)Urban Imaginary.
While Disneyland’s use of space helps to control crowds, for major music festivals it’s the management of time rather than space that’s most effective. The use of schedules enables festivals like Coachella to keep crowds where they want them, when they want them. Crowd control allows for increased security, but it also for the strategic positioning of advertisements and installations.
This type of temporal crowd control is not dissimilar to what we see in major North American cities. It is an extreme version of what’s seen every day through the scheduling of transit and the laws around liquor sales. By ensuring that their inhabitants can only use public transportation and buy alcohol during certain parts of the day, cities can control when and where people are, and companies can make informed decisions about where their advertisements should be placed.
This is how we get places like Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto, paradoxically known as a privately operated public space. A nearby subway station, the proximity to Ryerson University, the Eaton Centre mall and numerous apartment buildings and residences makes Yonge and Dundas Square one of the busiest intersections in Canada. Corporations know this; that’s why they’ve covered the entire square in bright, sensory stimulating billboards and video-screens.
These corporations, however, also need assurance that their property won’t be destroyed or vandalised. That’s why the city ensures that the large crowds of the day will not still be there at night to destroy their property by shutting down the nearby liquor stores and subway station at early hours.
This strict structuring of time allows for the consumerist culture of Yonge and Dundas Square to exist. Wayhome and Coachella also use these techniques, but to a more extreme level, structuring every single part of their audience’s day.
Coachella and its contemporaries keep close tabs on audience movement through extensive scheduling. They’ve even taken steps to keep closer watch with the emergence of wristband tickets that have GPS capabilities. Not only is this to maintain a high level of security, as mentioned earlier, but by knowing where and when crowds move throughout the day installations and advertisements can be positioned to ensure that their audience is experiencing the maximum amount of sensory stimulation at all times.
Then vs. now
Coachella and Wayhome are not only attempting to recreate the reality of the city, but also the ideal that was Woodstock. The hippy style of clothing is mimicked, the key phrases of “Peace and Love” are everywhere. This is nothing but a gilded reconstruction of a golden age.
Current major music festivals can be seen as instruments of “mass manipulation.” Through the use of controlled scheduling and strategically positioned sensory stimulants, these festivals manipulate the feelings and actions of their consumers to assure their sponsors maximum advertisement efficiency.
In contrast to the “mass manipulation” of Coachella or Wayhome, Woodstock was a festival that empowered the masses. It gave its community a vehicle to rebel against the elite. Unlike the commodity fetishism that permeates current major music festivals, Woodstock was a temporary city that functioned with little money being spent. Because of its counter-culture ideals, sponsorship was almost nonexistent. The scheduling and “clock time” that rules modern festivals wasn’t nearly as prevalent. Large groups stayed in the area after the festival was over, and many people didn’t attend any of the musical events at all. A New York Times article from 1969 quotes one of the attendees who “never made it to the concert. [She] never heard any music at all”.
This woman’s decision to not go to the concert highlights the difference between Woodstock and the modern music festival. Instead of the extreme rigidity and consumerism of Coachella, Woodstock offered an alternative to the persistent scheduling of the working world. Woodstock was an escape from the materialism, while Coachella and Wayhome accentuate it.
We live in a different world than the people at Woodstock did. Woodstock had free entry and a stage for members of the audience to perform on. An event like that could never gain the same traction today that it did in 1969. There’s just no incentive for the elite.
Like Walmart to a mom and pop store, the growth of major festivals has begun to take over the live music market. This increasing domination makes the market for minor venues – which is already niche – exponentially smaller. These minor venues are unable to match the never-ending stimulation and number of headlining bands major festivals can offer. With most people only willing to spend a certain amount of money on live music every year, the minor venues lose their business. With that, a unique experience is lost.
The proliferation of festivals like Wayhome are strangling the life out of the Toronto music scene's indie start-up soul. In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed closures of infamous venues like Hugh's Room, the Silver Dollar Room and Soybomb. Consumerist pop-up cities exert their influence on our permanent cities more every year, twisting and morphing them into something unrecognisable, and worse.