So with the announcement of the Hellfest lineup this year there is, as with every major festival announcement, some controversy as to the quality of the lineup. Hellfest is of course one of the biggest events in the annual metal calendar and I want to use it as an inspiration to discuss what makes a good music festival lineup. I want to be very clear that I’m talking about festivals where the tunes are the main attraction and it isn’t crossed over with anything else. Of course the lineups you are going to want for say a wine festival will be very different from, say, the lineup you want for a beachside party festival. This isn’t what that’s about – this is about festivals that try to represent a scene or movement. With the blossoming of the American festival scene recently there have been more and more festivals that ended up being busts, obviously we need to work together to counteract that. There’s a lot to pick apart here so lets get right down to it.
First of all, you need to realize why people go to festivals. Most of the time it’s not to see bands that they could realistically go watch in a club for a tenth of the price. Getting a bunch of those in a room isn’t going to make it interesting for people. This goes double for fests made up almost entirely of local bands – their draws overlap. The difference in the amount of people you’re going to get for four locals as opposed to ten is minimal. The same goes for the amount of people you’re going to get in a four band touring package as opposed to an 8 band combo package. Yeah it could be cool if the headliners for both are huge and compatible, but most of the time you’re just going to be stuck with your thumb up your ass. People go to festivals to see a couple major badass bands and then watch their favorite smaller acts play a big stage. You need to have once in a lifetime offers with bands in environments you might never otherwise get a chance to see.
In other words, you need to pitch the experience. You need to show that it’s not just seeing some mid level touring bands in a room with a bunch of other mid level touring bands but rather a chance to see a really cool unique set of bands being supported by a bunch of mid level touring bands. That’s why something like Psycho Las Vegas works so well. Sure they have a bunch of small acts, but they also augment the lineup with groups who are playing in America for the first time or bands who people never thought they’d even get a chance to see. You need to layer in bands from times forgot, or groups who have a ridiculous amount of hype if you want there to be a real interest in what you’ve got going on. If you are limited by budget then try and put in a unique environment, like Shadow Woods which takes place in the middle of a childrens camp in Maryland. It’s a once in a lifetime experience and a unique place to see a show – which is why the festival has hundreds of people who swear by it.
Obviously this can all be helped by having a wide variety of bands too. Look at something like Roskilde Fest in Denmark which has a ridiculous amount of stages so that you can check out stuff across all genres. Even festivals that were meant to initially define one genre, like Hellfest, have started to evolve to show that they can embrace a 21st century mindset. People don’t just listen to one genre anymore, they want to be able to access a little more than just, say, underground Atlanta hip hop. Instead, in this example, a broader swathe of hip hop being represented might help. As sick as your lineup might be for a specific genre, every festival needs to be colored with extra bits and pieces that showcase a lineup that has enough diversity to remain exciting. Otherwise we wind up in an echo chamber and artificially limit how big our events can be. After all – there are only so many folk metal fans in the world.
Your average festival is going to be defined by what makes it memorable. Seeing a bunch of bands who hit the major markets twice a year is not what is going to make a festival worth going back to. While this can be fought to some degree by having an extremely high concentration of these sorts of bands, you’re still going to find yourself hitting some natural limits. It’s why a lot of these festival headlined by groups with eighty thousand Facebook fans don’t work out. Beyond that – what makes it memorable can’t be a bad thing. It can’t have a good lineup but then be impossible to get too. Destination festivals definitely do have a place in the music scene today but they have become highly competitive and almost impossible to get invited too unless you have a serious in. While destination festivals may be the future, odds are most fests you go to won’t have the funding to do that – so you have to step back and try to figure out what you really want out of that experience.
Long story short – there is a lot that goes into making a festival great and not just another day of standing up in to hot weather to watch bands you’ve already seen a dozen times. Going to festivals is a hard thing to do and it’s a lot to expect people to want to spend all day at it. So instead you need to figure out how you can incentivize people to come out. There’s a lot of festivals out there these days, it’s not enough to just assume that you can get some cool bands together, people need a bit more motivation than that in a crowded market and watching people come to terms with this frustrating and often brutal reality is going to be a truly fascinating part of the festival scene as we progress in the next few years.