It’s no secret by now, but if you’re still under the impression that American music festivals matter as anything other than money-making enterprises for the people throwing them, rest assured, they do not. It’s been a long time coming, and wasn’t always this way, but the modern American music festival that we came to know and love over the last, oh, twenty years or so is dead and gone.
We don’t need to get too deep into the culprits here, except to say that it’s the usual hustling greed perpetrated by LiveNation and a couple other super-rich dickheads.
Eventually, every cool and fun thing is slowly bled out and annihilated by people who want to use its spirit and energy to fatten their wallets. So it goes, as the man once said.
Earlier this summer, Consequence of Sound published a stunning, stirring post-mortem on their decision to stop covering Bonnaroo from the festival as it happens. It is a deep and devastating piece I highly recommend you read if you care about this sort of thing, but long story short, while they blame a few things for changing Bonnaroo from what it was to what it is (LiveNation first and foremost), they also acknowledge that a new generation of fans has come on the scene that sees the entire festival production as more of an overall cultural experience than a collection of live music shows to watch and enjoy.
And that’s fine. It really is. Everything changes, always and forever.
As members of a certain generation age out of being the ones in charge of what bands are considered cool and what behavior is considered appropriate, the best they can do is gracefully step aside and let that new target demographic dictate its own terms. Whether or not it’s some of the most soul-crushing nonsense and oblivious corporate devotion and money blindness matters not. It’s important to note, also, that none of this is particularly new. Lollapalooza has always been all about the money, and they taught everyone else how to swing.
That said, it is truly galling to see how far the pendulum has swung in favor of the brands and sponsors and money, in particular in how it segregates people who are supposedly at the same event but most definitely not having the same kind of good time. The money won here, as it tends to, in no small part because, perhaps unique among art forms, music is virtually impossible to monetize in and of itself.
The music industry has been a motherfucker among motherfuckers since its inception for exactly this reason (“That’s why they call it show business: without business, there’s no show”).
Even as the industry imploded for the most part in the new millennium, those paying close attention realized there was still one place where fans would always be willing to put their money, live shows, and, more to the point, these big huge festivals that grew in prominence in the early part of the twenty-first century. As money has become tighter everywhere and entertainment options have become more numerous, festivals became the most cost-effective way for music fans to get their kicks and get their music (whether or not festival shows are fair representations of any given artist’s work, and there’s plenty of evidence that says they are not, though that’s another story for another day). And so it went that, as more people began spending more money on and at festivals, more companies of all shapes and sizes wanted in on that ever-expanding kitty.
Which brings us to Big Thief.
It’s a tale as old as time in this increasingly-manic capitalist hellscape we call America, and though anyone can throw up a fence around a public park and brand every square inch of it while doing the bare minimum to provide basic services for the thousands of people who’ve paid good money to realize they probably should have paid a little more to be a VIP (at least then they’d have access to free water), there’s one thing festival organizers can’t do anything about: the bands and artists themselves. Eventually, when the time comes, musicians come out on the stage and turn on their amplifiers and do their thing, and from the time they begin to the time they stop, however it goes, whatever the crowd’s like, the rest of everything else takes a backseat to their show.
I don’t know shit about Big Thief, but a friend of mine is into them and told me we should check them out at the 2018 Pitchfork Music Festival. I was in Chicago for the day, free of the kids and any adult responsibilities for 28 hours or so, pumped to see Courtney Barnett and Tame Impala that night and up for literally anything else before or afterward. We got to the grounds early, got the lay of the land, grabbed a couple beers and headed over to the Blue stage, the smallest of the festival’s three, the one designed for up-and-coming bands and the people who like them, about ten minutes before Big Thief started.
I guess I shouldn’t say I don’t know shit about Big Thief. I knew one song of theirs prior to their show, what my buddy assured me was their big hit, “Masterpiece.” It is a great song, packed with heart and soul, based around a yummy chord progression that holds each change a fraction of a beat longer than expected to lend the tune a rhythm all its own. The singer’s voice is beautiful and aching and just plaintive enough to make you think you know her and she’s singing about you. The chorus drops the way I remember that first long drag off a Camel felt on a clear Chicago night three beers deep at twenty-six and standing outside a cash-only dive bar somehow positive that, one way or the other, I’d figure this all out. There is love and there is hope and there is life in “Masterpiece,” and whether or not Big Thief ever cracks the Top 40 or sells a million records, it is an anthem that validates the band’s existence and gives music fans reason enough to keep paying attention, keep going to shows, and keep singing along.
We’d only planned to watch Big Thief for three or four songs, as there was some crossover with Barnett’s set and I wanted to make sure we got a good spot for her show, so I had no expectations of seeing “Masterpiece” that day. Which was cool with me, I was happy to see what else they could do in the twenty minutes I had to spare. We posted up in front of the soundboard and goofed around with the surrounding crowd for a few minutes before Big Thief walked out on the stage, threw on their guitars, turned on their amplifiers, and blasted off directly into “Masterpiece.”
They opened with the hit!
Bands usually don’t open with their biggest song, and “Masterpiece” in particular, with its rattling energy and wide open spaces, would seem to be an easier undertaking after a couple simpler tunes loosened the band up. But no, straight into the breach, fuck y’all, here’s the hit, and it went smoothly for about two minutes, right until they completely blew the change heading into the guitar solo. The drummer lost the beat and fumbled getting back into it, the guitar player missed his mark and biffed the solo’s opening notes, and for a few seconds everything but the bass and rhythm guitar came to an awkward standstill. Nobody panicked, the band members reassuring one another until they righted the ship, but something had obviously gone sideways.
Lucky for them, the crowd was on their side, and a wild, enthusiastic cheer erupted as the guitar player found the note and the beat came back, not exactly where it had been, but there, and forceful, and the solo sounded great, too, smoother and more traditional than on the single. The guitar player laughed and mugged, the drummer stayed strong, and the singer roared in on-key and in-rhythm when it was her time to shine, and the crowd went nuts again.
It was a heartwarming, human moment that could have been a terrible embarrassment were it not for the understanding, receptive, and encouraging people in the crowd.
The next two songs were tight, strong, and compelling, the band having gone big and fucked it up but hung onto themselves enough to remember who they were and what they were trying to do. Though I missed it, I’m sure the rest of the set was a real barnburner, Big Thief ready to rock and unscathed by the flub, and with fair weather types like me gone, the crowd at the Blue stage 100% in their corner on the other side of the worst thing that could probably happen to that band, at that show, in that place.
It wasn’t until I turned to leave that I was forced to remember the VIP bleachers behind me, and the overwhelming branding everywhere I looked on the broader festival grounds. The paucity of free water, and the fewer toilets than in years past. The long beer lines, and longer food lines. More space cleared out for corporate installations and VIP areas, the unwashed masses in the main field packed tighter than ever. So many people drinking craft cocktails and special beers and free samples of sugar water while admiring each other’s outfits and tattoos and taking selfies and sharing Instagram information and not giving a shit what was going on at any given stage, whoever happened to be playing, it didn’t really matter, it was Pitchfork, it would definitely be good, whenever they got around to checking the music out.