How Music Festivals Became Monsters

Random, overpriced monsters.

My first festival concert was Lollapalooza in 1993 at the old JFK Stadium site. I still have the ticket stub—it reads “Wherever you go … there you are.” The price was $30.50. That was the summer before I left home for college, and seeing the bands I worshipped perform live was something completely magical and transformative. Rage Against the Machine stood on the stage naked, hands over their crotches and mouths taped shut to challenge music censorship—it was, unwittingly, the first protest I attended. Nearly 20 years later, I can clearly see Alice in Chains playing “Rooster” in the twilight, as if I had an Instagram photo of the moment. The next year, I returned with my old high-school buddies for Lollapalooza ’94. Kurt Cobain’s death was still a fresh wound, and one of my pals scrawled the Nirvana frontman’s name across his stomach in tribute. It was the first time I saw the Beastie Boys, and sadly, now it’s the last.

Festivals are a rite of passage for most music fans (and for college kids looking to get a buzz on). So when I heard that three of this year’s biggest shows were headed to our area, it brought back memories of those day-long gigs. As someone who still enjoys live music, I planned to squirrel away some cash for at least two of these marathons: the Firefly Music Festival in Dover, the Orion festival in Atlantic City, and Made in America on the Parkway. But once the details emerged, my enthusiasm deflated like a nitrous balloon at a Dave Matthews gig.

The worst trend in festivals today is the ticketing itself. The old Lollapalooza model kept it simple—one ticket, one day. Made in America and Orion are two-day affairs, while Firefly spans three days with nearly 50 bands. That sounds great, but not when you’re forced to buy one pass for the entire weekend’s worth of music. They’ve also developed a crafty way to push fans into committing early, rather than waiting until the week of the show to pony up. An undisclosed number of discounted “early bird” tickets go on sale first. Once those are gone, a tiered price-increase system kicks in. Waiting to hear back from your Facebook friends to see if anyone’s going? It might literally cost you. As of today, here’s the damage for each event: $150 plus fees for Orion in June, $198 plus fees for Firefly in July, and $135 plus fees for Made in America over Labor Day weekend. So far, only Orion has opted to sell one-day tickets, presumably because sales are slow (early-bird passes are still available). It’s an odd model in this post-recession slump when college kids are strapped for cash and recent grads are struggling to find jobs. If I was 20 today, I’d be lucky if I could afford even one of these festivals.

Along with the steep prices, sluggish sales are likely due to the lineups on each bill. Firefly has the deepest roster, ranging from The Black Keys to John Legend and Lupe Fiasco, but the talent is spread rather thin over three days. Orion, headlined and organized by Metallica, erred by being a little too diverse, with support from bands like Cage the Elephant and Arctic Monkeys who have no crossover appeal to most headbangers (weeks after tickets went on sale, Orion added a metal-only side stage to draw more of Metallica’s core audience). Even more disappointing is the Made in America festival, whose hype has exceeded the goods so far. Pearl Jam and Jay-Z are bona fide superstars, and the return of self-exiled soul man D’Angelo is a draw; from there, it’s a big drop to Skrillex and Passion Pit (who are also playing two months earlier at Firefly). Pearl Jam is one of the best live bands in any genre, and the possibility of seeing Jay-Z re-team with the Roots, a la his Unplugged album, is worth skipping the Shore for a day. But it’s hard to justify $153.40 for two consecutive nights when there are only three acts I really want to see.

I figured my calendar would be packed with music, overpriced beer and sweaty personal-space invasion over these three summer weekends. Oddly enough, I was looking forward to it—that’s all part of the experience I fell in love with. But I’d rather save myself the $500-plus in ticket prices and seven days that should really be four, at the most. Somewhere, there’s a kid who will attend these shows and experience music in a way he or she never has before, like I did in my Lollapalooza days. It’s a shame they’ll have to break their banks to do it, and pay so much to see a lot of bands they wouldn’t even illegally download.