It's that time of year again. When swarms of music junkies shake off the winter cold, emerge from their bars and seedy venues, and converge at public parks, stadiums and racetracks all over the world. There's no doubt about it; summer belongs to the music festival.
This year will be bringing us as many as ever. Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Hideout, tours like Warped and Rock the Bells, all bringing hundreds of today's most dynamic acts to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.
This plethora is especially significant this summer, where we are guaranteed to be hearing about the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock. In the world of summer music festivals, Woodstock is undoubtedly the granddaddy. Its youthful exuberance and spirit of freedom is what every major concert promoter attempts to capture in today's fests.
But the core legacy of those legendary three days is relived in today's festivals questionably at best. Another particular issue for this year's fests is particularly poignant: who exactly will be able to afford to go to them?
As the current economic crisis develops, there will undeniably be a smaller pool of ordinary music fans able to pay the hefty price for these events, which can often be at least a couple hundred dollars. Promoters have already reported a decline in sales for concerts since the recession began last fall. If you thought the presence of trust-funded frat boys as these shows was annoying before, just wait until they're the only ones there!
It's a basic contradiction in the formulation of the music festival: all the freedom and rebellion they are supposed to embody is chained down by the hold of the industry. People come to festivals to experience something that can't be duplicated: a connection with their favorite groups. With countless people losing their homes and jobs, that connection may prove to be reserved for the relatively well off.
It gets to the heart of a potentially explosive situation. The entry to these festivals isn't the only exorbitant cost. CDs, t-shirts and other souvenirs are pricey too. Promoters are even as bold as to charge outrageous prices for essentials like food and water. It raises a question: how long will fans tolerate being treated as little more than cash machines?
This question isn't out of thin air. Ten years ago, many music journalists were shocked perplexed as Woodstock '99 ended in mass riots and vandalism. Some blamed the artists. Other, more savvy commentators pointed to the high ticket prices, too few port-a-pots and lack of access to clean water.
What this head-scratchers forgot, though, was that the original Woodstock wasn't everything its myth portrays. Woodstock started out as a corporate music festival like any other, complete with the paltry accommodations, exorbitant prices and chain-link fences that made it feel more like a prison than anything else.
The difference was that in 1969, kids had lived through the uprisings of the '60s. They had marched for civil rights and been inspired by the Panthers. They had occupied their campuses against the Vietnam War. And countless had been radicalized by the insurgencies of 1968. These were young people who had no compunction standing for their rights.
It was this radical and youthful energy that brought the fences down at Woodstock and attracted hundreds of thousands to the festival who couldn't be bothered to pay for their right to music. It wasn't just chaos. In many ways, it was a reclamation.
Ultimately, that is what makes Woodstock so legendary today. For those three days, a music festival captured a tiny bit of the liberation that young people craved. Today, it's worth asking whether we can tear down a few gates of our own and hear our music without waiting for permission from industry parasites.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for SleptOn.com and the Society for Cinema and Arts, and a regular contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.