We Outside: The 2024 US Festival Market is the Canary in the Coal Mine for Music Curiosity

For the first edition of his new We Outside column, Pranav Trewn dives into the state of the US festival market in 2024 – filling IG with posters eager to grab your attention, but relying on mass...
By    March 11, 2024

Image via Pranav Trewn

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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

The recurring music industry narrative says that concerts are the only place left for artists to make real money. Of course, this says as much about the lack of financial opportunities elsewhere. In the streaming era, record sales have vastly declined, serving on a commercial level as glorified promotional material for an artist’s upcoming tour dates. The death of the music press and independent platforms has left for musicians a poor set of options for promotion: sign an exploitive major label deal to access their exclusive ties to playlisting, radio, and licensing, or try and game social media to score a viral hit. Meanwhile, every supposed “revolution” has either yet to fulfill its promise (crowdsourcing), or is almost certain to make things worse (AI).

Despite the downward trends elsewhere in the industry, there has been a very real rise in concert demand over the last decade, especially since the pandemic ended. Ticket buying has become so competitive that securing access to a hyped show can have lower odds than getting into Harvard – and cost half a month’s rent for you and a friend. If you’re unsure of your ability to attend a date announced months ahead of time, you’ll still likely have to front the cost and deal with selling it later on the secondary market if something comes up. Otherwise you risk being gouged on resale platforms.

Seeing the need to justify increased logistical pains and expenses, many artists have elevated their set design and setlists. Yet the music press, or whatever remains of it, no longer offers this facet of an artist the same critical consideration that it allocates to discussing their albums, singles, and personal lives. Once upon a time, features about live music were a robust form of cultural commentary, commonly printed across alt-weeklies, daily papers, and even monthly magazines. They offered deeper explorations of the ways an artist could expand on the world of their records in person. But over the last decade, they’ve slowly become another casualty of traffic harvesting.

We Outside, this new column for POW, is a small monthly effort to correct for this imbalance of coverage. This is not simply a space for concert reviews – which at their worst (and now unfortunately most common) are little more than the perfunctory price of admission for a writer to get onto a guest list. Instead, I want to dive deeper into the invisible forces that influence the events of our time, everything from the finances of charting a nationwide club tour to the behavioral patterns of fans that shape the decisions of promoters.

For this first edition, let’s dive into the state of the US festival market, which at this point has surely saturated your Instagram ads with brightly colored thickets of artist names in increasingly illegible fonts. Q1 of every year is dedicated to the deluge of posters competing for your summer weekends, racing to be first to capture your financial commitment before another festival can show you something better. There are a number of themes that emerge about the music business from the names you see popping up during this season, offering clues on who is primed to release new music (such as Justice and Gesaffelstein), celebrate old music (that Postal Service/Death Cab tour is still kicking for a second year in a row), or simply come out of hiding (Beth Gibbons fans what-up). But the meta-narrative that emerges from these announcements is who amongst the industry players have survived the competitive environment to make it another year, and which new entrants are here to shake up their strongholds.

The modern festival industry has been largely dictated by the dueling market powers of two companies: Goldenvoice and Live Nation. These behemoths helped cement the dominant format of the last two decades, in which fans could see a curated selection of performers over a weekend representing a broad cross-section of cultural scenes. They then raced against one another to duplicate this model nationwide across the various major metro areas. The competition was ruthless, and as a result the priority was to offer “something for everyone,” with lineups anchored by mass appeal names like the Foo Fighters and Eminem, but decorated with burgeoning talents in the worlds of indie rock, hip-hop, folk, and electronic music. Savvy talent bookers made a big difference in ticket sales, because locking in a unique and beloved artist to play your festival over a competitor’s or their own concert in a city was enough for a fan to justify buying into the whole package.

This is still the predominant template that independent promoters have copied, and even when they have a more niche theme or vision, they are largely still aiming for a “well-rounded” lineup that diversifies their customer base. Lollapalooza and Coachella led Founders Entertainment to launch Governor’s Ball in New York, Crash Line Productions started Boston Calling, and Another Planet Entertainment and Superfly host Outside Lands in San Francisco. On the smaller side, Pitchfork Music Festival and Kilby Block Party shoot for more critically acclaimed artists but still span a similar gamut from punks to pop stars.

But all of these brands are fighting an increasingly uphill battle, with many of their peers having gone extinct (RIP Sasquatch, Pemberton, Firefly, etc) over the last decade. The music industry is a magnet for constant disruption and cycles in consumer tastes. Recognizing the warning signs, Goldenvoice and Live Nation are now aiming to lead the pack in the next evolution of the music festival.

This year, it’s become definitively clear where they are placing their bets. Over these past few months, a key trend has proved impossible to overlook: the official takeover of the single-day, single-genre festival. Rather than apply variations of a broadly-curated lineup across the country, these new events aim to convene a single type of music fan to one destination. They’re spending their budgets on a compilation of stylistically-similar artists – more than should reasonably be able to fit into a day – to pander to crowds’ desires to relive their good ol’ days. Here’s a not comprehensive list of what’s taking place so far this year:

When We Were Young’s Warped Tour-replacement dedicated to full-album performances
Lovers & Friends’ late 90s/early 00’s R&B and hip-hop time capsule
Just Like Heaven’s play for those unwilling to let go of the blog rock era
No Values’ irony-ignorant corporate punk party
Fool in Love’s AARP-approved night of soul legends
Cruel World’s new-wave and goth rock field day
Best Friends Forever, which while spreading its second wave emo lineup across multiple days, has a more
concentrated set of names than many of the festivals listed above

With the arrival of these niche genre/era events, industry homogeneity has experienced its biggest fracture since the first Coachella. Part of this is a breath of fresh air, as anything new would be since all the established events have more and more begun to resemble one another. In 2024, the legacy festivals have mostly forgone any singular vision or nuance in their bookings, replacing tastemaking with an overly data-minded approach that seems more designed to hedge risk than inspire enthusiasm. This problem is compounded when they are all dipping into the same shallow wells of major labels and oligarchic booking agencies, closing the door on smaller independent artists who once could leverage festival bookings to grow into bigger stages in their career. Still, I view the new events with skepticism, seeing them as cheap nostalgia bait strong-armed into reality by corporate-backing.

But I might be in the minority. It’s hard not to notice that fan reactions to genre-specific nostalgic lineups would indicate that they’re increasingly abandoning the big players to see their identities more closely affirmed by the upstarts. Where we are going seems to be where listeners want to be. However, this shift in demand seems to reflect something bigger, and more unfortunate, about how we listen to music today than what those once mainstream festivals are necessarily doing differently.

As is true for most of the negative trends in our current climate, we can blame streaming culture. While promising us access to all that has ever been released (a false promise, as DatPiff disciples surely know), streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have done less to diversify music tastes than splinter them into narrow and narrower lanes. Algorithms, sold to us as engines of discovery, are really just funnels. They take in the endless curiosity a listener might start with and swirls it down to a recursive loop of homogenous mixes meant to maximize “minutes on app.”

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. If you’re in middle school today and use Spotify as your chosen listening platform and source for new music recommendations, then whatever you came into the service enjoying – likely some combination of commercial pop, your parents’ “oldies” (which may very well be the Killers and Blink-182 at this point), and the latest TikTok trends – will be the foundation for your Daily Mixes and Release Radars and Daylists (eyeroll heavily emphasized). If those playlists are your primary drivers of discovery (as they are for many of the average music listeners I know), then Spotiify will float back to you songs that are essentially xerox copies of what you put in. As you passively listen to their recommendations, the algorithm prioritizes finding new copies of those copies to send back to you, a cycle that repeats again and again. We know what happens when you make endless copies of an image, and the same is true for how these algorithms will sand down your taste into the equivalent of a low quality jpeg.

The efficiency of discovery is the platform’s main selling point, but let’s compare this process to the intentionality required from listening in the past. Let’s say you were interested in purchasing a new CD – how do you choose what to spend your limited allowance on? You might need to turn to a music publication (remember those?) or putting your faith onto a writer you’ve come to respect. Or you look to your cooler friend or older sibling to put you onto some game. They might suggest to you a band different from anything you’ve heard yet, and while your initial reaction isn’t immediately positive, you trust their judgment and aspire to like what they like, so you give it a second or third spin. That’s when you start hearing the music from new angles, and begin to open your mind to the idea that maybe you do like this jarring new noise-rock or trip-hop outfit. You’ve faked it until you made it, and your taste has grown as a result.

Which of the two types of listeners described above is likely to get excited about this year’s Coachella lineup – widely criticized as one of their worst in years and their slowest selling outing in a decade? If you grew up embracing the friction required to learn about new music, you probably attempted to like and then stuck with outfits like Blur and Orbital, have kept up with the hype around newer sensations like Peso Pluma and Two Shell, and are at the very least curious about international stars like Yoasobi and AP Dhillon.

But if you are the former listener, what more could you possibly muster than a lowercase “mid”? If you have sequestered yourself to the chokehold of Rap Caviar, you might get amped to see Playboi Carti proteges Destroy Lonely and Ken Carson on the poster, but that’s not enough to book accommodations in the desert. If your “taste profile” has tapped you as an Afrobeats aficionado, you have Tyla and Tems, but that lane would hardly have exposed you to other stars fluent in similarly vibrant and sensual soul like Victoria Monet and Erika da Casier. There is simply not a critical mass of any one style to appeal to the segmentation of listening streaming services have wrought.

If your tastes have been surgically identified and frozen in amber by machine learning, then why would you venture to a festival that would waste their budgets booking a lineup with as wide a range as the Aquabats to the LE SSERAFIM? Instead, as any stuck-in-time millennial has surely thought, why not just cram into one day your once favorite bands play their last relevant album from when you last heard from them?

I see this all as part of a larger movement in society, one in which friction in our consumption habits is at an all time low. If you are a knowledge worker with disposable income but a seeming atomization of your free time, then many of your decisions have likely become guided more by ease than interest. You walk across the street from your office to pick up your app-order from a VC-backed salad chain, attend a fitness class that sent you promo code via a partnership with some Instagram clothing company, and watch whatever TV show at home is the #1 trending “hit” on Netflix.

You may think you have enacted some agency in any of these choices, without realizing the vast hordes of money and marketing exerted to buy up your alternatives, undercut their existing business models, and leave behind the carcusses of mom and pop and independent enterprises. All of this has homogenized our downtowns and digital neighborhoods into a bottomless pit of fast casual and fast fashion, with your tastes being fitted to these options rather than these options tailoring themselves to your taste.

We have all been reduced, as the algorithms intended, to copies of the predetermined consumer profiles we were matched to. If you are the type to think all this “personalization” by tech is great, you probably haven’t even noticed that your tastes are anything but personal to you. Once you realize your friends also rock the same three minimalist clothing brands, have reservations at the same TikTok-approved restaurants in the next month, and are all texting you links to the same festival lineup that could have as easily been curated in 2009 as 2024 – you might question to whom you all have outsourced your sense of self?

Perhaps I’m giving too much credit to the previous iterations of music festivals, but as a high school senior attending my first just over a decade ago, I remember the experience as one of immense personal development. In 2013 I bought a ticket to Outside Lands, eager to see one of the remaining Beatles and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yet I dug into the many unfamiliar names throughout the poster in the months leading up to the event, and discovered through the process bands that I never heard about but have since made long-lasting relationships with – from hometown heroes the Soft White Sixties to then-rising star Kurt Vile. While I came for alternative rock, I brushed up against vintage hip-hop heads waiting for Jurassic 5, danced alongside attendees in their 60s during Hall & Oates, and opened my mind to the rush of live electronic music at Rudimental. Beyond the other surrealist thrills of a three-day festival, the best contribution is the one it makes to widen your worldview from what you walked in with.

This is why I am bummed to see the sign of the times that is the dominance of the segregated nostalgia market. This year, more and more festival attendees will stay at a remove from what’s going on in the broader spectrum of culture, a disservice to both fans and the artists themselves, who have been flattened to reductive keywords and presented to listeners as a frictionless and homogenized greatest hits mix, not unlike what we receive on our social media feeds.

I wish it was as easy as blaming festival bookers for getting it wrong. But given the sell-outs and second days added for these new festivals, compared to the meager sales of even their best curated predecessors, I unfortunately think the fault lies closer with us. While we are by any measure the victims of a late-stage capitalist leveling on the independent arts, we wake up each day and ourselves choose not to step out of our comfort zones, whether by ignoring savvy outlets like this one or by continuing to passively consume content without context. Soon our music media may resemble what’s happened with movies, in which only established IP will be able to fund and make money on new releases, and the innovative and exciting young artists that are the lifeblood of a healthy ecosystem will be further pushed out to the fringes.

Eventually, once the companies have squeezed dry our appetites for monotonous repetition, I expect there will be a reaction to push back against all our inaction. More of us will begin to feel accountable again for developing our own curiosities. How do you think we all came to learn of the Stinc Team, Griselda, or the excellence of 2020s Michigan rap? Algorithms got there last, and instead it was local scene coverage and experts with a keyboard who showed us something surprising that opened up our perspectives. Festivals that follow these threads are no longer getting kudos for doing so, and this time next year I expect to see even less of them than we already have remaining. Pay attention, the canary is dead. Hopefully we have enough time to get out of the coalmine.

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