The Festival Phenomenon: Beyond the Music

More and more, young people seem to prefer large-scale events with many artists, producers and DJs as opposed to smaller concerts featuring one or few headliners. As music festivals in American youth culture continue to grow in popularity, USC looks to explore the growing trend with “Music Festivals: Creating New Communities for a New Generation” a full-day Visions and Voices event that will include screenings of Monterey Pop, Wattstax, Electric Daisy Carnival Experience and a panel discussion.

To understand what a music festival feels like picture this: the date is June 8, 2012. There are no signs of racecars on the Las Vegas motor speedway. The track is hidden beneath shuffling shoes and bouncing bodies as 320,000 festivalgoers reclaim the arena as their 1200-acre dance floor. Bass is omnipresent, and a giant LED daisy sculpture is one of many larger-than-life art installations spaced throughout the festival grounds. That is a snapshot of Electric Daisy Carnival, the largest electronic dance music (EDM) festival in the United States and just one of many annual music festivals in America.

The festival’s unparalleled high attendance last year represents an increasing trend in the popularity of music festivals. It seems undeniable that in the past decade, the number and variety of music festivals in the United States has increased dramatically. For example, Coachella has grown from 25,000 people during two days in 1999 to crowds of 85,000 a day over two three-day weekends in 2012. Ultra Music Festival reached a record 165,000 attendees in 2012.

Much of this all-around experience can undoubtedly be attributed to the environment created by art installations, creative lighting, and large sculptures and structures. Dede Flemming, one of the speakers at the event is a founder of Do LaB, a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in creating such interactive environments at music festivals.

“What we do is create these immersive environments that are focused around art and interactivity, so you’re giving someone something visually stimulating to look at and be a part of and forget their surroundings, who they are, where they are– it transforms their experience,” Flemming said.

The environments they create function are escapes or safe havens from the troubles of real life, fundamental to the festival experience.

Another essential factor in the rising popularity of music festivals is the sense of community that such large gatherings generate. Being one of a quarter million hearts, all pulsing to the same beloved beat, creates an indescribable sense of oneness within a seemingly interminable sea of people.

Kevin Kerslake, director of The Electric Daisy Carnival Experience, said there is a sense of oneness, an almost a tribal gathering of sorts that music festivals bring. Electronic Dance Music (EDM) in particular emphasizes community; one of the key messages conveyed in the documentary is the love and warmth that characterizes the EDM culture.

The rising popularity of music festivals might be related to the desire for the unique sense of community that the festivals provide. Though people still have  their favorite artists, as Kristen Siefert, a USC biology major said, she wants more to her concert experience than that.

“ I would rather see my favorite DJ in the context of a festival with other stuff going on too, not just at a concert where that one performance is the entire show,” Siefert said.

Kerslake said that EDC excels in providing such an experience.

“EDC is like a 360 degree experience, where you’ve got stuff going on on the stage, but there’s also costumes and rides and art exhibits and installations and different happenings that are going on in the crowd, so what’s happening on the stage is really just a fraction of what Electric Daisy Carnival holds as an experience,” Kerslake said.

Music festivals, and EDM festivals in particular, offer attendees both an escape from the struggles of everyday life and a sense of community that can feel almost magical. It is clear that the appeal of festivals is about more than just the music: successful festivals offer carefully crafted experiences that appeal directly to the basic human need for connection and community. Here lies the heart of music festivals’ continued success and popularity among American youth.

Learn more about the music-festival phenomenon at the Visions & Voices event this Friday, January 25, “Music Festivals: Creating New Communities for a New Generation.” Organized by the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, USC Libraries and the USC School of Cinematic Arts, this all-day event includes several movie screenings and a panel discussion featuring Jason Bentley, Dede Flemming, Simon Rust Lamb and Amy Davidman, moderated by Josh Kun.