I’ve never believed music festivals are just for the zealots, young punks who have to mash themselves against the lip of the stage or dress in “festival fashions”. Festivals are for all of us who love music, love it enough to want to be there as its happening, even if being there gives us sore feet and headaches more than it used to. Multi-act festivals are inherently more democratic than single-acts shows. As long as you love music, you’re invited. But if 9 hours of standing up amid the elements is a bit intimidating, that’s fine. You just have to be a little bit squarer, a little more prepared, a grownup about it. So you can have as much fun as the kids.
I’ve put together what I’ve called a Mix-Tape of preparedness. Listen. Then rock on.
Side 1: Before
I. Communicate Expectations. You’re probably going to this festival with someone else. Unless that someone else is a cyborg duplicate, you and your pals will not all want to see the same acts. At a mid-sized festival (think 30-50 bands at an Outside Lands, a Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo) it’s highly unlikely. At a giant festival (The “world’s largest music festival” Milwaukee’s Summerfest had 700 bands last year. SXSW Music had nearly 3 times that many), it’s a mathematical impossibility. And whatever their taste, your friends reasons for attending will be at least somewhat different than yours too.
So who are these good people and how do they approach such things? Do they like to stay all day or see three acts and go home? Are they looking for a sampler platter of music or a binge on one genre? Do they have a must-see band or are they mostly along for the experience? Remember the advantage of being a bit older is that you and your friends have some experience to fall back on, some war stories about great shows and one’s you just as soon forget.
Have a pre-conference jawbone with coffee, or booze or my choice, lavish desserts. Ask about everyone’s skin in the game and don’t be afraid to show your own.
Now having a meeting about concert going might sound about as hip as bringing a life jacket to a waterpark. But believe me, this meeting thing is about maximizing fun and not throwing a wet blanket over it. Showing up with everyone wanting different things is asking for an argument midday with everyone running off in different directions. Which sucks. Then why did you go together at all?
II. Listen. Prep.
We’ve been around enough to know that festival going ain’t just about seeing your favorite bands but discovering new favorites too. We also know that going in cold may be the easiest but not best way to do that. We music junkies are already hooked up six ways from yesterday to streaming services, music blogs, favorite radio programs. We’ve got two raised-fistfuls of ways to discover new music without ever leaving the house. Doing the same with 300$ festival tickets and a weekend of your life is lighting birthday candles with a flamethrower.
Read the festival lineup. Make a quick three column list of must-sees, could sees and never-heard-of-em’s. Compare it with your friends lists. Now take your “don’t knows” and their “must sees”, plug them into the online music service of your choice and listen. Give an artist two songs and pass judgement. Now redo your lists, based on what you’ve heard. There’s your potential new favorites list, ready and waiting.
III. Compare Notes.
Any festival worth its hype has a place on its website to create your ideal schedule and share it with a friend. Do this with your friends and bring it to the meeting. Show them your schedule and include when you’d like to arrive, leave and eat meals. Again, not very “rock n roll” right? But is isn’t any more "rock n’ roll" going to a great set of shows and only remembering how hungry or tired you were and wondering where the hell the john was. A little planning gets rid of distractions and lets you focus on the music. And face facts. We aren’t 19 anymore. Our body and its stupid complaints are more distracting than they should be.
IV. Weed out.
Not the green, fragrant kind (we’ll get to that) but the process of elimination. Every festival has its own set of physical conditions (outside/inside, raucous/intimate) and some bands just aren’t suited to them. You aren’t doing yourself as a fan or them as an artist any favors seeing them at a show where their music has to battle circumstance. So skip the solo guy playing the guitar at the giant summer outdoor stage or the 19-piece afro-percussion band inside the 900 square foot club with tin walls. If the musicians are any good and you don’t live in the middle of nowhere, they’ll be back around soon and you can see them where the music, not the setting, is primary.
Side 2: At the festival
I. Suiting up. Each of us is old enough to probably remember the pre-giant music festival days where the only entertainment were the bands. Nowadays, a festival is a event unto itself where the audience are just as much a part of the show. Which means you might feel tempted to dress in something fun even outrageous, befitting the occasion.
To which I say “enjoy” but don’t feel like you must. Much more important are comfortable shoes (see “Standing Up. Hours of it.”), layers to get warmer/cooler, a small over- the-shoulder-bag for water, earplugs, keys, flask, bus pass etc. Think of fashion here as utilitarian first. Wear a papel robe if you'll have a better time doing it. Otherwise, you want to focus on the music. And clothes that make you uncomfortable are a distracting pain in the rear.
III. Easy on the booze. Off the drugs. None of us just fell off the the 10th grade turnip truck. We’d had the “I got bombed at that show” experience 100 times and no one is impressed with those stories anymore. A 22 year old knackered at a concert is be expected. A grown adult with a job and two nickels of dignity to rub together is pathetic.
Put the shit down. Have a few drinks, a hit of whatever. But no more than a normal weekend’s amount because you’ve probably been excited about this festival for months now making it the furthest thing from a normal weekend.
Then why not celebrate you say? Use your head. You really need to juice up dozens of bands, thousands of people, something as amazing as a music festival with MORE STIMULATION? Then you’re an ADD kindergardener and let me suggest a weekend detox with Yo Gabba Gabba. On mute. In the dark.
V. Sit down if you need to.
Yes, really. No one cares. No one is going to give you a not-rocking-out demerit. We are years past the point of anyone’s “cred” being in question? What are your friends doing this weekend? Putting up storm windows?
VI. Communicate. Repeating from Side 1. Honest communication makes for good festival going. If you’re tired, say so. If you’re hungry, tell your friends and go eat. Don’t whine of course but also don’t think that not listening to your body is being a good sport or a more dedicated fan. It’s stupid. You’ll be in much better shape to do all of that if your body isn’t yelling at you. And you’ll be a better festival buddy if you’re on acting like passive aggressive by not saying what you need.
That includes going home. When you’re done or feeling like the end is coming, say so. Then discuss. And keep right at the front of your mind that music is eternal and wonderful and everything great in life but so is friendship. Don’t knock over one for the other.
I. Day after. You’ll probably be sore and tired. I wouldn’t book time at the gym, a day at the playground with your kids or plan to work late. Think of it as the day after a long flight. Go as easy as you can.
II. Follow-up. I love this part almost as much as the festival itself. If you heard anything you liked at this festival you liked, download some tracks immediately, book time at the nearest record store and put your discoveries in regular listening rotation. That way for at least a week or so, every time you fire up your music library, you’re reminded of the fun you had the festival. The festival then has a comet tail. It’s a complete waste to spent all this time and money and energy planning, getting excited and attending something that you, effectively, forget right after its over.
You’re going to be tired, no doubt. But hopefully tired and happy and ready to share in your joy. Upload your photos and share them. Tell a few friends about the great new bands you experience. Make what you experienced part of your life instead of a memory. Which, hey, is why we love music so much to begin with.