Viewpoints

Festivals are red hot in California. Will the bubble burst?

Hands are in the air for SNBRN on the Sahara stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 21, 2017 in Indio. Festivals, large and small, have proliferated in the state to the point that Californians could spend every waking hour attending them this summer and still not get to every one.
Hands are in the air for SNBRN on the Sahara stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 21, 2017 in Indio. Festivals, large and small, have proliferated in the state to the point that Californians could spend every waking hour attending them this summer and still not get to every one. TNS

The next bubble to burst in California might be the festival bubble.

The festival economy is growing so fast that it may overheat. Even after expanding from one weekend to two and increasing capacity to 125,000, the Coachella Arts and Music Festival still sold out in just three hours this year. Its cousin, Stagecoach, is the world’s biggest country music festival. Then there are spinoffs, like the massive Arroyo Seco Weekend, debuting this month at the Rose Bowl.

And those are just the big-ticket festivals. This summer, Californians could spend every waking moment attending smaller festivals – hundreds of regional events and thousands of community ones celebrating arts, food or some combination of the two – and still not get to all of them.

Coachella sold out in just three hours this year. Stagecoach is the world’s biggest country music festival. Then there are spin-offs, like the massive Arroyo Seco Weekend, debuting this month at the Rose Bowl.

Festivals have long been part of the California story, from the Monterey International Pop Festival during the Summer of Love, to the 1996 Organic Festival in San Bernardino National Forest, which popularized the rave scene.

Today, festivals proliferate because they match the promotional needs of many California institutions. Festivals provide the ready-made audiences that allow our creative industries to support artists. Cash-strapped local governments see festivals as cheap economic development tools. And festivals fit this cultural moment. Given how hard it is to build anything in California, the impermanence of festivals is attractive. Festivals are designed to be photographed, hashtagged and shared to produce the maximum amount of FOMO among one’s friends, who won’t get their own chance to attend.

All of which makes festivals both red-hot – and vulnerable. How many can we really support? Will we still have the cash for $5 bottles of water if the state’s other bubbles burst?

A shakeout may be underway among bigger arts festivals. With so many successful events seeking the same artists, performers’ fees, and ticket prices, are up. Major festivals in places from Oregon to Tennessee have seen attendance decline.

Corporate consolidation is another factor. Many bigger music festivals are owned by just a couple of companies, making them vulnerable to shifting economic winds. Paul Tollett of Goldenvoice, which produces Coachella, Stagecoach and the new Arroyo Seco Weekend, has publicly expressed concern about threats to festivals from terrorism to botulism.

“There are big ships that go down over small things. You’re riding high, but one wrong thing and you’re voted off the island. It’s scary,” Tollett told The New Yorker.

When the shakeout comes to California, which festivals will endure? The fastest-growing events are smaller or boutique gatherings that allow people to immerse themselves in a particular world. Among these are the High Sierra Music Festival, a family-friendly gathering (entertainment includes a morning kickball game) in Quincy. The West Coast “transformational” festival scene – a movement producing hippie parties with lots of costuming – is strong in California; its crown jewel festival, Lightning in a Bottle, is in tiny Bradley in Monterey County.

The state’s best festivals have a strong sense of place. No matter how many boring Googlers move in from faraway places, it’s hard to imagine San Francisco street events like the How Weird Street Faire ever shutting down or leaving town. And California’s most enduring festivals have developed a deep web of ties to their local communities.

Take the Monterey Jazz Festival, which has a robust education program. Or the Gilroy Garlic Festival, which supports over 140 local nonprofits, provides a venue for local performers, awards a college scholarship to the winner of the Miss Gilroy Garlic Queen Pageant and relies on more than 4,000 community volunteers, including many high school students who complete their community service requirements by working at the festival.

Sure, you could have seen Lady Gaga at Coachella this year. But she’s also playing L.A., San Francisco and Sacramento in August alone. The only place you can find that much garlic is in Gilroy. And the taste lingers.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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