A Rational Conversation: Do We Really Need A Rock Festival?
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
This weekend — as the summer music festival season nears its sunburned, ear-ringing end — California will host two major two-day events: First City Festival in Monterey (held on the same location as 1967's Monterey Pop Festival) and FYF Fest in Los Angeles. This is First City's second year and the eleventh for FYF, which began as punk-spirited free event around the Echo Park neighborhood and now follows the more common model of multiple stages in one large outdoor venue. The Southern California concert promotions company Goldenvoice, which is best known for its annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, is involved with both events. It's responsible for all of First City, and since 2012 has handled many of the logistical and infrastructure aspects of FYF, with FYF founder Sean Carlson taking charge of the booking and vision.
The acts playing First City and FYF are mostly indie rock or indie-sounding rock, with Beck, the National, Best Coast, the Strokes, Phoenix and the Blood Brothers toward the top of the posters. This stands in contrast to the direction that the Coachella Festival is heading, where the emphasis of both the programming and the crowd is trending dance music. With so many American festivals now clamoring for attention and attendees, is positioning a festival as rock-centric still a smart move if you're looking to draw concert-goers? Or are these two particular festivals filling a gap for music fans that Coachella has now left open?
Eric Ducker discussed these questions with Mikael Wood, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, who has attended multiple editions of FYF and Coachella.
I don't know if or what you've been assigned, but if you could chose between attending this year's First City Festival or FYF Fest, which would it be?
First City, but that might just be the lure of the seaside setting, in contrast to another weekend in scorching downtown L.A.
Does First City's lineup appeal to you at all?
Parts of it do. Dawes? Sure. Best Coast? Yes, please. And I'm always happy to see Beck. But I have no use for the National. Or CocoRosie. Or Tokyo Police Club. And it continues to surprise me that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. is actually a thing.
Right. I feel like there's a precipitous drop in enticing acts as you work your way down the lineup. There's a lot of filler there and acts I'm not sure I'd even go see for $10 at the Echo.
LOTS of filler. I've literally never heard of Mr. Little Jeans.
Electro pop, School Night at Bardot-type act. Not the worst!
I can see the blurb already.
What if, by some amazing instance of clusterf--- booking, Coachella was happening the same weekend as First City and FYF. Which of the three would you go to?
My gut reaction is Coachella — it's well run, reliably entertaining, plenty of creature comforts and of course it's a story in a way most festivals aren't. So the journalist in me wants to cover that one, because people care about it (or anyway are thought to care about it). But every Coachella, I'm so burnt by Sunday morning, there's always a "never again!" moment. So that leaves another festival that's fairly familiar and a new one. I'd probably go with the new one, though FYF has a more persuasive lineup.
You went to Coachella this year, right?
The bigger "story" I saw coming out of it was that it's becoming more and more of a dance music festival. Even though there has been dance music at Coachella since it started in 1999, now it's the dance acts who most people are really there for, even if in the way the lineup is presented, rock is still given the main emphasis. I haven't gone to Coachella in several years, but is that depiction accurate?
For sure. The biggest crowds were undoubtedly gathered to see the dance acts like Calvin Harris, Zedd, Skrillex and Martin Garrix.
So who was watching the rock bands? Olds? People looking to chill for a minute?
It kind of varied. The crowd for the Replacements could safely be described as olds, even if it could not safely be described as a crowd. Tiny.
But the Pixies played to a much larger group. And more varied. There was a definite vibe of kids who know the Pixies from hearing "Where Is My Mind?" in Fight Club.
They might know it as the song covered in the anti-texting and driving AT&T commercial or the song that Bassnectar remixed.
You may well be right about Bassnectar. The Pixies should have more remixes.
It wasn't quite true that rock bands were drawing no kids. Some of the younger bands, like Two Door Cinema Club, drew really big, young crowds, which is interesting to me. I couldn't care less about Two Door Cinema Club, but there they were appealing to all these young people who I'd have thought couldn't have cared less about rock. Wait a minute. I think I'm talking about Bombay Bicycle Club. Are these two different bands?
Ugh, they're all so useless to me. So Bombay Bicycle Club had the big crowd.
Does Coachella now feel like Hard Fest, one of Southern California's biggest dance music festivals, in terms of who is there, what they're there for and how they're acting? Has it gotten to that stage yet?
The portion of the Coachella audience that is there for Zedd and Skrillex and Martin Garrix overlaps pretty clearly with the Hard Fest crowd, but Coachella still has this other contingent, the people who do want to see the Replacements or whoever. And I don't think those folks are interested in Hard at all.
Right, and we should say that not all young people are only interested in dance music. Events like the recent Burger A Go Go in Orange County prove that, even though the crowd there was a fraction of the size as the one at Coachella. It's just that the young people (from around the country) that Coachella draws are more likely to be interested in dance music.
Coachella is actively courting them. The Sahara Tent is obviously a bid to seduce that audience. It's full all day. You get the idea that some people aren't coming to Coachella so much as they're coming to the Sahara Tent. I kept finding myself drawn back there. It's super-stimulating in a thrilling, almost frightening way, whereas so much of the rest of Coachella can feel like business as usual.
The organizers of FYF Fest would probably disagree with me and say that they have an "eclectic" lineup, but it's very heavy on indie rock or indie-inspired rock; and their choice of headliners the past couple years really cements that. Meanwhile First City's lineup is pretty much straight up-and-down indie or alternative rock. Do these festivals and their programming feel like a reaction to the direction that Coachella is going? Are they trying to fill a gap?
That's happening to some extent, yeah. I mean, FYF didn't start out as part of Goldenvoice, so I'm inclined to believe the idea that FYF is reflecting the taste of the people that put it on more than it's trying to be strategic. But obviously Goldenvoice's linking with FYF was a way for Goldenvoice to be strategic, so perhaps that's a distinction without a difference. The FYF brand is definitely more indie-aligned than Coachella has become. It also has that punk energy, which is kind of the opposite of indie in 2014. But you've also got loads of acts on FYF this year who've played Coachella recently: Phoenix, Julian Casablancas, Blood Orange, Haim ...
From what I understand, FYF books the acts separately and Goldenvoice mainly handles the logistics and "the festival experience," which they've excelled at, but part of me thinks that both sides got together and realized that having the Strokes at FYF would be a much bigger deal than having them at Coachella in 2014.
I think that's right. And it's good for the Strokes, too. For them the FYF brand has some cool factor; at Coachella, they're just another reunion.
Is FYF in danger of falling into Coachella's nostalgia trap (the "Who's reuniting this year?" question)? I'm not really talking about having Slint and Slowdive on the lineup since they probably account for a small percentage of the reason tickets sold out this year — both groups also have upcoming LA club/theater shows that seem more geared toward the people who were listening to them when their music was released — and I guess the Blood Brothers coming back could be a bigger deal to the festival's target demographic, but I more mean having the Strokes and Interpol at the top of the poster. I hadn't really considered them nostalgia acts, or even felt like they hadn't been around, but when reading reviews of Governors Ball in New York from earlier this summer, I was surprised by how many writers in their early 20s were like, Oh my god, I can't believe I finally got to see the Strokes and/or Interpol.
I hadn't really thought of FYF as having a nostalgia problem before this year (though it did have the Breeders and My Bloody Valentine in 2013, so maybe I should have). But, yeah, it could be in danger of becoming a destination for bands like the Stokes and Interpol that aren't quite into full-on reunion mode but might be in need of somewhere safe to re-launch after a bit of time away. Goldenvoice has always tried to present itself to artists as a trusted accomplice in that way.
Is a big rock-centric music festival financially viable in 2014 with the direction things are going? The average festival-goer is pretty young, and as we've discussed, many of them might not be stoked on a 90-minute set from the National.
It's really hard to imagine a rock-centric festival on the scale of Coachella doing well. That's why so many of the new festivals we're seeing are quite a bit smaller. And then of course that smallness becomes a supposed selling point. They're boutique, small-batch, etc. And if you're only looking to draw 10 or 20 thousand people (or perhaps even more), then you're probably safe(ish) booking rock bands.
It's funny, I realized I might be willing to pay First City's one-day ticket price of $79.75 to just see Beck, Best Coast, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Tanlines play a show where they held Monterey Pop. Surrounding that four-act lineup with a whole festival only makes me want to go less. But that's probably a reflection of my age.
Right, standing in the sun for eight hours: barf. But that kind of seems like a problem from a marketing P.O.V. Everything about First City — the setting, the history, the emphasis on sustainability — seems directed at an older demographic. But at 36, I'm part of that demographic, and I don't think I'd ever go if it weren't my job. Clearly not everyone my age thinks that way.
Is it for Silicon Valley folks?
That's a good question. There's Outside Lands [in San Francisco], which kind of has that affluent tech-idealist vibe.
But I can see how First City could develop into more of an escape from the city rather than a journey into it. You rent a house, you go for a hike in Big Sur one morning ...
Right, the seaside sanctuary. That gets at the whole resort-ification of Coachella that we've seen more and more of, where the festival is pitching itself as a destination unto itself beyond the music.
I also wonder if First City is appealing to these indie bands because they rarely stop on tour between the Bay Area and L.A. Some might do Santa Cruz, or a very select bunch might play the Henry Miller Memorial Library, but that's rare.
Yeah, it's kind of long stretch that most bands don't play. It would be interesting to analyze how many bands are playing the festival as a one-off and how many are playing between shows in LA and SF.
Are you into how FYF's booking has progressed over the years?
This year's lineup is pretty strong. I'm not sure if I can draw a clear identity for the festival from it, though there does seem to be something connecting "older" rock bands like the Strokes and Interpol and Phoenix with younger artists like Flying Lotus and Blood Orange.
In terms of what?
Some sensibility of stylishness? These aren't sloppy acts, they're precise, tailored in sound and appearance. There's something I like about that. But then of course you have Built to Spill and Against Me! and the Bronx — sloppiness-as-a-virtue bands.
I like that FYF feels like a festival for Los Angeles. I remember when it seemed like certain neighborhoods here were empty on Coachella weekend, but as its national and international reputation has grown, it doesn't feel that way anymore. FYF still feels local to me, to the extent that this year, because they've changed venues, I'm kind of bummed I can't just take the Gold Line there from the Metro stop near my house, but will have to transfer to the Red and then the Expo line.
The vibe feels L.A.-ish or the lineup or both?
Vibe more than lineup. They don't pile on the local bands, which is fine, because there are so many "neighborhood" style festivals here that do that: Echo Park Rising, Eagle Rock Music Festival, Topanga Days ... My conception of what an L.A. crowd is (or an L.A. crowd that I like) is a lot different than the national perception, but FYF brings in a good crew. They're stylish, they know the music, they want to have fun but aren't obnoxious about it, not too many jerks.
FYF strikes an appealing combination of professional and DIY.
Well, that's what you get when you combine the promotion companies of Goldenvoice and FYF, right?
Yeah, I think that was precisely their thinking.
I know you've never been to First City, but down the road, any thoughts on how you'd like to see FYF Fest and First City develop?
It'd be cool to see FYF figure out — or keep figuring out — how to combine the punk thing and the pop thing. The scrappiness and the polish. They're doing a good job of that now, but how pop could they go and still retain that gritty downtown vibe? I don't think we're gonna see Lorde at FYF any time soon, but what kind of big pop act could come in and make sense? It might be Kesha.
That seems like a stretch for them. Selling out isn't really discussed much these days, but people would more be like, What are you doing? Maybe the band fun.?
To me Kesha feels so much closer in spirit to the FYF vibe than fun. And FYF has a lot of spirit, spunk. Coachella doesn't have much spunk left.
What about Kendrick Lamar headlining?
The idea of Kendrick at FYF doesn't thrill me if only because he seems at this point to have played every festival ever, which makes each new festival booking (however cleverly intentioned) feel less special. But, I mean, yeah, it'd be a cool way for FYF to deepen its representation of L.A.'s music culture. Maybe FYF could do some cool one-off, like Kendrick sharing a band and tag-teaming with Earl Sweatshirt, or Kendrick jamming with Flying Lotus.
It's weird, a Smiths reunion was always Goldenvoice's dream booking for Coachella, and now I don't even know if that would make sense for them. If that was ever going to happen (it's not going to happen), it would probably happen at FYF now.
I thought about the Smiths at Coachella this year. They would've been like the Stone Roses in 2013, where lot of young concertgoers were like, Who is this band?
The Smiths have so much tied to them, especially in Southern California, that I have to imagine there would still be some excitement about them from Coachella audiences. But then again I never would have thought four years ago that a Replacements reunion would draw a tiny crowd.
Coachella: where sure things go to die.
I was surprised that Goldenvoice never got Pearl Jam to headline Coachella, considering that they found the Empire Polo Club venue in 1993 during the band's anti-Ticketmaster tour for Vs. But now, I don't think a Pearl Jam headlining set would do much for them. We might have seen that in Coachella's Paul McCartney, Roger Waters era of the late aughts.
The dark ages. Pearl Jam would seem very unexciting to me. It doesn't push the festival in any direction, not unlike Muse and Arcade Fire this year.
Do you remember when they had Tiësto headline the main stage in 2007, several years before EDM broke? It didn't go over that well.
Ha, forgot about that. I talked with people this year about how EDM fares on the main stage as opposed to in the Sahara Tent. Calvin Harris seemed perfectly at home on the main stage, but there's something about the Sahara environment that feels better suited to some of the other EDM acts. Obviously, it's like a super-sized club, though I'm not sure how many actual clubs Zedd has played in his day. The festival stage may be his natural habitat.
The only idea I can think of that might bring back excitement to a headlining rock booking at Coachella right now would be Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic doing a Nirvana revue with rotating female singers like they did at the Rock and Roll Hall Fame induction ceremony.
Wow, that's interesting. That might actually be something that would draw the youngsters, but totally turn off the oldsters. "You can't replace Kurt, maaaaaaan."
How about First City's future?
I feel like the smart move for First City would be to really integrate (whatever that dreaded marketing term means) the festival with its surroundings. It's what promises to set First City apart from the billion other festivals going right now. And, you know, the First City lineup seems pretty weak this year. It could be stronger, but maybe there's loads of people dying to see Mr. Little Jeans.