A Rational Conversation: A European's View On Coachella And U.S. Festivals
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone or whatever with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Floppy hat enthusiasts and lovers of $11 grilled chicken sandwiches rejoice! The American music fest season jumps off this weekend with the start of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Over a decade ago Coachella helped show audiences and promoters that genre-spanning, multiday, multistage open-air festivals could be a success in the United States and not end in a riot. In ensuing years like-minded and slightly divergent events have appeared around the country and built their own legacies: Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, Outside Lands, Pitchfork, FYF, Governor's Ball, Hangout ... at this point they are legion. Others, like Intonation and ATP New York, have come and gone.
Coachella and its kin, of course, took much of their inspiration from the festivals in Europe that have been going strong for decades. One of the most beloved festivals for music fans from around the planet is Primavera Sound, held each year around the end of May in Barcelona, Spain. Primavera started in 2001, the same year Coachella really got on its feet. This year's festival features well over 100 acts, including Caetano Veloso, Kendrick Lamar, Boogarins, Deafheaven, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sun Ra Arkestra, St. Vincent, Slowdive and Television performing their album Marquee Moon, as well as some bands that are also playing Coachella, like Arcade Fire, Haim and Neutral Milk Hotel.
Ducker spoke with Pablo Soler, founding partner and general manager at Primavera Sound, to get an outsider's perspective on what he thinks is working for this generation of U.S. festivals a decade in, what's troubling about them and what differences remain between events like these in North America and Europe.
What's your history with music festivals? Did you grow up going to them? Did Spain have many of them?
There were a couple of festivals that came in the '90s. Starting in '95 there was Benicàssim Festival; a little bit earlier there was another big festival called Doctor Music. I went kind of late; I was already in my 20s. I used to be a lawyer. I worked as a lawyer for four years, then I really realized I didn't like it so much. I had a couple of clients who worked in the music business. One of them had a small label where I became a partner. I was running that for a couple of years, but it probably was not the best moment for labels, and I was not so good anyway.
Then these other clients I used to have worked on the Benicàssim Festival, but they were not very happy with the work they were doing there. I told them we should start something together. In 2000 we started looking for a venue, and in 2001 we did the first Primavera Sound. It was just one day. We had 3,000 people or something like that. There had been previous Primavera Sounds early in the '90s; one of my partners used this name to do shows in different venues, mostly Spanish noise bands, but then he stopped using the name. We got it back for the new festival we were working on.
Europe has this tradition of festivals that goes back decades. Were you drawing inspiration from them or did you want to do something different?
The typical European festival would have a big camping site. A typical European festival would be an English festival, mostly Glastonbury. We're based in that same model because we have several stages going at the time in an open-air venue, but the biggest difference with Primavera Sound is that we don't have a camping site. It is on the beach, but it's inside Barcelona, so we don't have space for a camping site and there's also plenty space to sleep in the city. We respect camping sites of course, but we try to do something inside the city, and [camping] would make the experience a little less accessible. Also, as we meant, and continue to mean, to be all about music, we tried not to do any other things that are not directly related to live shows and music and records.
I associate music festivals with youth culture and a very young crowd. What's Primavera's age range?
If you don't have a camping site, you have to pay for a hotel or a hostel or whatever. That makes the audience typically more interested in music than in the festival experience. That definitely draws a more mature audience, or a little more grown-up. Partying on the beach — we don't have that. I'd say the average festivalgoer's age at Benicàssim would be 19 or 20, and at Primavera it's going to be 28 or something like that.
This iteration of Primavera Sound started in 2001, which is basically when Coachella really got going here in the U.S. It's been Coachella that's started the festival movement here. Were you aware of it as it was beginning?
We were aware of Coachella, but we've felt more related to it over the last few years. Coachella is a much bigger festival than Primavera Sound in [terms of] capacity and you have this huge audience that wants to go, but in Spain it's not so easy. On the other side, Coachella used to be a festival with mainstream lineups, meaning Paul McCartney played Coachella not so long ago. It was closer to a Glastonbury model than it was to us. Now we feel more related because over the last two or three years, they've bent the lineup to be more, at least from a European point of view, indie-based with headliners — like Arcade Fire kinds of acts or big hip-hop acts.
It's funny to hear you say that, because now you get people here who say that Coachella has changed and that it's become too popular. People forget that even in its first years, the headliners were bands like Oasis and Rage Against the Machine. They might have had indier small bands during the daytime, but they always did have huge acts at night. Maybe it's that now in the U.S., these indier bands are able to draw bigger crowds. It's interesting that you as an outsider think that they've gotten more indie, when a lot of people who used to go to Coachella say that it's gotten too mainstream.
The model of selling music has changed so much over the last eight or 10 years that the way people approach artists is different now. It used to be rather under control. Now the big acts have a more indie approach. So yes, Coachella has become more mainstream and more indie at the same time.
Have you been able to come to the U.S. to check out the festivals that are happening here?
I've been to Coachella, South by Southwest, All Tomorrow's Parties in New York, Osheaga in Montreal. I've never been to Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo or Sasquatch, which happens around the same time as Primavera.
Have you gone to Pitchfork?
Yeah, of course. I've been to Pitchfork in Chicago twice.
From your firsthand observations and from afar seeing the different lineups, what's your perspective on what these festivals are doing right and what they are doing wrong?
In Spain we have a cultural heritage, which is flamenco and local traditional music, but we have this big influence from the United Kingdom, from France, from the U.S. We have to deal with this local music and other foreign influences. In the U.S., things are happening there. Your perspective is actually very local. Some of the things that work there wouldn't work here or in the U.K. or in France so much. I really like Pitchfork, Coachella is a wonderful festival — it's amazing how it's produced and the lineup is usually very good — but from outside you can see how your market sensibilities are different
What works in the U.S. that doesn't work at Primavera, and vice versa?
Hip-hop is not so big in Spain. Snoop Dogg would play a venue here with two- or three-thousand people. It's not just hip-hop. In an American festival it's hard to find European acts. There are now some French acts that are very popular and some English bands, but festivals usually are very focused to U.S. acts. It's the same if you go to France — they'll have much more French acts than Spanish acts. That's really more because of a lack of Spanish acts that we can sell overseas than a lack of interest from American festival programmers. It means that we have a wider view of what's going on outside of Spain.
You're saying most countries are predisposed to feature their own acts, as long as they have enough acts that can support those spots?
All these global artists are usually from the U.S. or England, and the promoters over there don't have to search so much. The biggest are from your country and are the ones that the audience wants to see. Of course it makes lineups bent to local acts, who are also big global acts.
My disinterest in a lot of the U.S. festivals that are popping up is that now they seem to be booking the same bands. There's so much overlap in the lineups that they're losing their identity or they lack a distinct one to begin with.
Of course a good promoter will always be a music lover and then will be very interested in discovering new acts and featuring them for his audience. If you're a lazy promoter, you just have to copy a lineup that worked last year. The new paradigm of selling music has changed so much that there's all these promoters that used to do mainstream acts. Now these best-selling acts are the indie bands that 10 or 15 years ago used to sell very few records, comparatively. That promoter that's been working with indie bands for 20 years will still want to book indie bands, but all these other promoters that have a different business sense will go to the same bands. That makes all these festivals look a little bit the same.
What we try to do is pick bands that aren't so obvious or bands that influence the bands that are selling a lot now or selling out huge venues. There's a lot of musicians in Africa or in Europe or in Asia that have a very, very good quality or they've been running for lots of years, and what they have to offer is very interesting. If you put in some effort and attention, it shouldn't be so hard to make a distinctive lineup. If you have good taste and a wide view of music, it shouldn't be so hard. There are so many bands now and there are so many ways of approaching music.
This year in the festivals in the U.S., the big story is OutKast. They're probably one of my favorite groups of all time, but all the dates they are doing this summer are festivals. They've already announced 18 festivals they're playing, and they say they are going to play 40 of them this year. That makes it seem not special at all. I wouldn't want to go to any of those shows. I'd rather see OutKast play to a smaller crowd at their own show. They're using their festival circuit as their reunion tour, and I don't know if that bodes well for the future of booking at festivals.
I agree, but each band has a strategy. I don't think it's good to have such big exposure in festivals. There are some very cool festivals, but some of them are not so cool. For your fans, it's harder to go to a festival to see the show.
We know as a festival that we're part of the strategy of the artists in presenting their product to the audience and in selling their records, and so we try, at least at Primavera, to negotiate our point of view to the [booking] agencies. Many times that point of view involves that the artist doesn't have such big exposure at all these festivals. But it's not up to us. Of course if they are doing many shows in Spain, we probably are not going to do the show, but many of the artists at Primavera do a show in Madrid, in Bilbao or Valencia when they are on tour, and that's fine, as long as they don't make another festival with the same artists [that are playing Primavera] in Madrid.
I wish we could have had OutKast this year, although they're not so big in Spain.
How would you like to see festivals change, both within your own festival and on a global scale?
For Primavera we've reached an interesting size and we have to develop better services to the audience and make the festival more comfortable and keep our own personal approach to the lineup. Spain as a country is not in a very good moment, but it looks like it's going to be improving in the future. We still have to work a lot to get better known outside of Spain, to the people who really appreciate music in that kind of festival environment.
In musical terms, the more agendas we can touch, the more different each artist is from the other ones, the crazier the ideas we can put on a stage, that is what I want to see now and what I will want to see in the future. We should try not to settle and to keep moving and keep searching different influences and different music.
I'd like to see festivals without so many sponsors. That would involve one big sponsor who would pay not to have any other sponsors, plus them not having their own branding everywhere. That would be interesting.
How feasible is that?
I don't know. I love my sponsors, I have to say, and they help us a lot in our goal of achieving a festival that's comfortable for the people. Thanks to them we do spend more money in talent and in production. But of course we are very careful in trying to have the stages clean from branding, and if there has to be branding, it has to be black and white to try to make the stage a place just for the artist with no distractions.