Welcome to Bonnaroo 2008: Where's the Fun in Festivals?

Nick Anderman will be posting dispatches from Bonnaroo in this space through Monday. He wanted a chance to introduce himself. Here goes.

photo from last year by Mark C. Austin

In the lead-up to Bonnaroo 2008, the four-day, multi-stage music festival that starts today in Manchester, TN, I’ve received useful advice from lots of people. "Be sure and see B.B. King–he’ll probably die soon,” my uncle said. Sound advice. “You shouldn’t go–festivals are shit,” another friend told me. “But I’ll probably get some free schwag at the press tent,” I countered. “Ok, well, you should pick up the promotional stuff, but don’t see any of the shows,” he said. “Festivals are shit.”

This seems to be a fairly common refrain from the types of people who actively and habitually read and write about music: I know people who think that seeing a band at a festival is cheating. It’s impossible to get the full live experience unless a band is playing a solo show, they argue, preferably somewhere indoors and relatively small. This attitude is the norm among critics at certain venerable weekly publications as well, as evidenced just a few days ago in this very blog: "Is it uncharitable to point out that the endpoint of M.I.A.’s world-town hustle and demographic three-card monte seems to be one outdoor festival show after another, providing the soundtrack to dodgeball games and mud-themed nudity in nearly every major city on the planet?"

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Most bands don’t like festivals either, and for good reason. Large chunks of the audience regularly wander off in the middle of sets, festival sound systems are notoriously cheap and poorly run, and audio regularly leaks between stages that are too close together. Is anything worse than catching snippets of Jack Johnson (who is headlining Bonnaroo, the mellow bastard) while you’re tweaking out to Fuck Buttons? I seriously doubt it. Additionally, the weather can be (and more often than not, is) a serious problem. At Lollapalooza a few years back, for example, Tegan and Sara had to leave the stage in the middle of their first song due to heat stroke. Glastonbury, the UK gathering that is billed as the “largest greenfield music and performing arts festival in the world” is arguably more famous for mud than music. Cancelling shows, sounding bad and/or playing to an unhappy audience, regardless of the circumstances, is not the way to build a devoted fan base, and bands know this.

That said, festivals are an institution in the US. Based on a poll I just made up in my head, we’ve got more than any other country in the world, and new ones pop up every year. Lollapalooza, Coachella, Sasquatch, Austin City Limits, SXSW, Bumbershoot, Pitchfork–these names mean something to the American music fan. They have cultural currency and value.

As I prep to leave for Bonnaroo, one of the oldest and largest music festivals in the country, I find myself wondering how to approach the next four days in the face of so much vitriol and suspicion from music critics and fans I respect, countered with the fact that festivals are obviously very, very popular. The fact is, I agree with the critics–festivals are not the best way to experience a live band. However, I can’t imagine a better way to experience a whole bunch of live bands at once. This is a see-the-forest-in-spite-of-the-trees situation, I think. With that in mind, I’m looking for spectacle at Bonnaroo. Corporate-sponsored spectacle, for sure (even the campground showers have sponsors, apparently) but spectacle, nonetheless. I’ll do my best to record it all here. Let the festivities begin.


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