Music festivals as a sociological case study

    It’s week 10 of spring quarter at Northwestern, and although we can finally dig out the shorts from the bottoms of our drawers, many of us are still stuck inside, staring resentfully out of windows as we study like good little Wildcats. But this weekend, we will shut our laptops in defiance and come together for the cross-campus chaos of Dillo Day, getting a brief taste of freedom before buckling down for finals.

    For Weinberg junior Nathan Frazer, however, this one day of musical euphoria each year just wasn’t enough. Inspired by a longing to hit the road and an in-class discussion of the “Deadhead” community of Grateful Dead fans, Frazer came up with the idea of traveling across the country to various music festivals, looking at the relationships and communities that emerge within them. One Undergraduate Research Grant application later, Frazer had $3000 at his disposal to take his dream trip: seven music festivals across the nation in the course of two months.

    “I was like ‘I don’t really know what to expect, I don’t know how this is gonna really turn out, so I’m just gonna go into the field and see what happens, and try to learn as I go’,” Frazer said.

    His schedule was a sort of inverted workweek: Monday through Thursday were travel days, while “work” took place over the course of a new music festival each weekend. Starting at his home in Milwaukee, his winding drive took him from the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts for the Solid Sound festival, to Chicago’s Pitchfork in the urban greenery of Union Park, to the West Coast sun of Outside Lands in San Francisco. He camped or found friends to stay with in each city, and brought a few with him to the shows. Most of his plans were made on the fly; usually he bought his ticket just three days in advance.

    Despite Woodstock’s hallowed place in Sixties lore and the fact that Dillo Day has been disturbing the peace in Evanston since 1972, the American music festival scene has only bloomed over the past twenty years. One of the first was Lollapalooza, which, starting in 1991, toured the country each summer with a handful of rock, alternative and hip-hop acts, as well as a range of counterculture experiences. The festival puttered out in ‘98 with the decline of alternative rock, but as other events began taking root, it reemerged in 2005 in Chicago, where it’s been hosted since. Today, websites like Music Festival Junkies list over 100 U.S. festivals scheduled between May 2014 and January 2015.

    The music industry has been shifting significantly alongside this explosion of musical gatherings. The age of MP3s and iPods has led to a rise in digital music purchases and a steady decrease in CD sales. Physical recorded music revenues since 2008 have decreased 45%, while digital revenues are 55% higher, according to data from market analyst PricewaterhouseCoopers. The music industry has filled this gap with live concert sales, which surpassed recorded music revenues in 2009 and are projected to continue rising. Music festivals provide a large chunk of this cash, with the majority of tickets running at well over $100.

    So what makes people so eager to empty their piggy banks? First off, there’s the lineup. At larger, established festivals, legends and chart-toppers often come together to create a bill that would make any music-lover’s heart skip a beat. Kid Cudi, Outkast and Foster the People topped the list at SoCal’s Coachella this year, while Tennessee’s Bonnaroo boasts everyone from Elton John and Lionel Richie to Kanye West and Skrillex. The thrill of seeing all this music is what first drew in Alex Beer, a Weinberg junior who’s been to four different festivals since high school.

    “There’s something really remarkable about sitting on a patch of grass for like three hours watching your favorite bands just play one after another,” said Beer. “It doesn’t get better than that.”

    Each festival Frazer attended boasted a lengthy menu of artists, from hipster-seducing alternative groups to electro-psychedelic jam bands. Festival sizes were just as diverse. There was the intimate 3,000-person Frendly Gathering in Vermont, where attendees gathered around one stage at the base of Magic Mountain. On the other hand, Outside Lands, which sprawls across Golden Gate Park, attracted 65,000 fans to wander the grounds between its seven performance spots. But no matter the size, when people come together to rally around the artists they love, they become part of a new community, one which many festival-goers embrace just as much as the shows themselves.

    “I think there’s a lot of value to be learned from how people from all different walks of life can come together and build relationship and a community based on a shared appreciation for music,” said Frazer. “It was always very humbling and heartwarming, the kindness that I experienced.”

    And in an increasingly digital world, the fact that people are coming together at all can be a thrill. Michael Kramer, a Northwestern history professor who has studied the cultural effects of both rock music and digital technology, said the popularity of these events could possibly be found in the desire for an “interruption” of the norm.

    “Festivals remind us that even in the age of virtual, disembodied communication, networks, and media consumption, people still long to assemble with their bodies in the same place to experience music,” said Kramer in an e-mail. “There is still a desire and a hope that some new kind of self and community might arise from these temporary, intensified, and powerful encounters.”

    Of course, the motivations behind Dillo Day are often a lot less complicated, said Beer, with a collective focus on “total inebriation.” But students on Dillo Day can still find common ground, even with their motor skills slightly impaired.

    “It is as much about what it means for students to be part of Northwestern as it is about arriving at a festival of pop music,” said Kramer. “Everyone knows that the 'community' of Northwestern students in general is a temporary one, coming together for a set amount of time only to break apart and fragment again.”

    Compared to the festivals he went to this past summer, Frazer said it’s harder to escape on Dillo among so many familiar people and places, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying.

    “Life can be stressful, but you forget all about that when you’re listening to music,” said Frazer. “It’s kind of removing yourself from the stresses of your daily college life, forgetting all about that, and just appreciating your friends, the community, the music, all together in one place.”


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