Yes, Bands Should Be Judged by Their Festival Performances
Tell the Internet that you think a live act is overrated, like we did last week, and you're bound to get some passionate responses. Say that your assessment is based on a Coachella performance and people will really jump to the band's defense. "Of course it's not going their best gig," they say, "it's Coachella."
For some, bands seem to get an automatic pass when it comes to the festival gigs. They can outright suck in their headlining slot at the big festival and that's OK because you, the dedicated fan, should be seeing them in a more intimate space anyhow.
But these bands don't deserve the excuses. If you're going to play a festival, you should be judged by your performance at it.
Last year, Rolling Stone covered the economics of music festivals. The article's primary example of a group's success on the circuit was OutKast, who were reported to make an estimated $60 million off of 40 festival gigs. The piece goes on to discuss reunited artists who make more at festivals now than they did on tours when they were actually recording and releasing music. It also notes that smaller bands are pulling in bigger paydays from festival gigs than club dates. In other words, music festivals can be a sweet source of income for the bands who play them.
For some bands, a festival gig can take a career to the next level. In today's festival-crazed climate, there are lots of artists who could point to these events as moments that brought in new fans, led to greater media exposure and brought about new opportunities.
For us concertgoers, we all have memories of the artists whose festival sets made us fans. I can't forget the first Coachella, when I tagged along with some friends to check out At the Drive-In. The band played with all the energy and excitement one would expect from a club performance. They were captivating enough to make me forget that there were other performers playing nearby at the same time. After the set, I bought a T-shirt. Once I was home, I hit up a record store and bought their music.
I became an At the Drive-In fan because of Coachella. For bands that really bring it at festivals, this happens all the time.
Festival gigs have their challenges. Bands may play shorter sets than normal. They're set up in a field or parking lot, someplace that's not designed for concerts. They're competing with every other artist playing in the same time slot on the grounds. They may be playing in daylight. However, those with enough of a draw to land a festival spot have certainly played worse gigs. Likely, they have put in time at dive bars, DIY spots, backyards and living rooms. They have probably played on dying sound systems with secondhand gear at gigs where the compensation was drink tickets and gas money. Certainly, they've been their own roadies and worked their own merch booths. Compared to the gig-life of less privileged bands, the festival players have it pretty easy.
For fans, heading to a festival to see bands they already love is a big deal. This year, the face value cost for a general admission Coachella pass is $375, which concertgoers can pay off over the course of a few months. Some might believe that's a bargain considering the number of bands one might see at the festival, but it's still not cheap, especially when you factor in the added costs of travel, food and lodging.
While Coachella's reputation has evolved into more of a party for the young, fashionable and moneyed, there are still die-hard fans of specific bands who attend the show. Think about that latter group for a second. These are the people who are going specifically for a few bands who probably won't be playing Southern California outside of Coachella. (Goldenvoice, the concert promoter behind Coachella, makes most bands on the bill sign exclusivity clauses — a few play gigs at other Goldenvoice venues in the week between Coachella's two weekends, but most can't play any other regional gigs for months around the festival.) Those people deserve nothing but the best sets bands can perform.
There are plenty of bands who can play just as well at a festival as they do in a proper venue. My mind immediately jumps to artists like Kraftwerk, Underworld, Basement Jaxx and LCD Soundsystem, all of whom I have seen both at Coachella and in another setting. They brought their A games to Indio and should be commended for that.
Of course, as L.A. Weekly music editor Andy Hermann pointed out when we discussed this, some live acts don't do well in the festival setting. I agree, but with the caveat that this is something musicians should consider before signing the contract. Can performers adapt their sets to fit into this kind of environment? Is it worth it to play the big, outdoor festival, or should they be focusing on smaller, theater and club-based events? If they choose to go the festival route, then the audience members can, and should, make a judgment based on that specific performance. No excuses.