Well we’re officially in the thick of summer, and that means a lot of things including cookouts, heat waves, shandies, and large groups of women inexplicably turning orange. But by far the most important change it prompts is the return of music festivals: a constant, never ending parade of gigantic events that you absolutely have to attend because, holy crap, (insert artist here) is going to be there.
The most recent of such festivals to pass by the Philadelphia area was Dover’s Firefly, which just so happened to be my first of such events. And while I thought I was well prepared by the fact that I’ve been to events like Earthfest and folk festivals, I quickly learned that those are the sort of credentials a rock festival laughs derisively at and considers “pansy bullcrap”. So while Firefly was easily one of the coolest occasions I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, I was essentially wandering into it more naïve than a freshly birthed calf and walked out feeling even worse. In short, if you go to Firefly, or Coachella, or even Bonaroo, expecting anything comparable to a normal concert, you’re about to be severely underprepared for the one of the more intense experience of your life.
So now that Firefly is over and Delaware has begun the arduous task of rounding up the herds of stoned and confused teenagers who missed the van home, it’s time to take this experience and figure out how to grow from it in time for the next big event. So here are all the things I learned at Firefly: what to expect, what to avoid, and all the crazy stuff you’re going to see.
#1: Each Music Festival Has A Turning Point
The first piece of information you need to know is that when you attend something like Firefly you’re essentially signing up to experience a mini apocalypse. See, any large well-funded gathering of this sort is essentially the creation of a small, carefully crafted society. There’s the providing of basic services (Alcohol and places to go to the bathroom), focal points of communal gathering (the actual shows), and a variety of mechanisms designed to ease the strain on said resources (arcades, wine vineyards, and “hammock hangouts”). It’s really crowd control at its finest. And for the first few hours or so it’ll all go like clockwork and the whole thing will seem pretty close to paradise. Seriously, I witnessed frolicking– actual frolicking with dancing and flowers– within my first minutes of crossing the front gate.
But this little society is a precise one; it’s designed to manage as many people as imaginable with as few resources as possible, and that lack of excess means that there’s absolutely no buffer between a musical Eden and a Mad Max Style post-apocalyptic wasteland. Eventually more people will show up (in this case, the entire state of Maryland), and when they do the whole event will buckle, and you need to be prepared for it. This will probably happen around the third or fourth hour when the first big name artist came on; in our case it was the Alabama Shakes, who actually made a really fitting harbinger of the apocalypse. I genuinely nominate them for the role when the real Armageddon happens; hearing “Hold On” in the background while everything around you devolves into chaos and anarchy is actually pretty sweet.
And while what you’ll actually see is going to vary from festival to festival, in my personal experience it included: a thick fog of dust, mass-grave like piles of people who have collapsed from exhaustion or being too high to deal with things, crowds of people swarming the last place with margaritas Dawn of the Dead style, massive crowds charging in a single direction (when MGMT came on), and disoriented wanderers trudging through the mud and haze pleading “is everything cool? Everything is cool here, right?”
I’m not saying there’s any way you can solve it or even avoid participating in this madness, but you better be prepared both emotionally and physically for that stuff.
#2: You will go home poor
“Not me” you’re probably thinking, “I’m going to bring my own water, just see the bands and spend twenty, maybe thirty dollars tops” because you’re the kind of person who TV commercials have absolutely no effect on.
No, shut up. Just shut up, you person who’s probably wearing a Bob Dylan shirt. Listen to me: you are not the first person to beat capitalism and walk out of here with intact finances. And that’s what every music festival is deep down on some level: a well-oiled machine of pure, remorseless capitalism. All of your favorite artists have essentially gotten together and put aside a great deal of their time for the sole purpose of running train on your precious little wallet. We are the sort of people who drop up to 300 dollars for a chance to listen musician’s we can listen to at any time for free. The sooner that you can acknowledge that these people are taking a great deal of your money the sooner we can start minimizing the damage.
“But what if I just don’t bring any money?” you’re tentatively asking your computer screen. To which I would respond oh my god, don’t do that. They don’t let bottles in on the off chance you’re trying to sneak in booze, and water is 3 bucks at least. Unless you want your primary form of hydration to be an IV at the medical tent, I would recommend some cash.
The trick is (and I know this is going to sound counter intuitive) to drop as much money as you can as early as you can. Just do it on as little as possible. See, instead of getting 9 watery beers throughout the day, find the place selling whiskey within the first few minutes and go nuts. Eat a meal so big and expensive that you don’t want to even get near a hotdog afterwards. Spending money at these things is like ripping off a band-aid or making love to a grizzly bear: the faster you get it over with, the less it’s going to hurt.
#3: Be ready to leave someone behind.
Remember how this is kind of the apocalypse? Well what’s the first rule of any good apocalypse movie? I’ll answer for you: it’s all about the team. Just like any zombie outbreak, you’re going to end up in this situation with a few people (unless you’re some sort of crazed loner, in which case please disregard this section). And in both scenarios, how well you fare depends on your ability to assemble the right group and maintain it.
You need a variety of skillsets and musical pallets to really get the most out of any festival of this sort, but too many people and you’re bound to encounter problems. You’ll need someone who can drive, someone who can take pictures, someone who can be tricked into wearing a fanny pack, someone with disposable income, and in this case someone who can convince everyone else that they should give a shit about Tom Petty. But be careful with your group numbers; too many people and suddenly it’s going to start seeming like a good idea to split up, and if horror movies or Scooby Doo have taught us anything, it’s that that is a terrible idea. Once phones start dying (and phones will absolutely die) splitting up is going to quickly lead to you waiting several hours in the parking lot for half of your group to show up. I don’t care how bad someone wants to go see Edward Sharpe, you need to stick together like this is a horror film and Jason Vorhees is waiting out in the crowd with a machete.
Also, you should be totally secure with the fact that one of these people probably isn’t coming back with you. Going to a music festival is an adventure, and you can’t have a good adventure unless someone is tragically left behind. Sacrifices will have to be made. Seeing all your favorite bands means having an airtight schedule and moving between stages really fast. Sometimes that includes walking several miles at a time, and if one of your people can’t do that the whole group is going to suffer. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link (oh my god, the show Weakest Link just made sense to me) so hard choices are going to have to be made. Music is no place for weakness.
Here’s an example: We were going to see the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s perform; that was not an objective, it was a fundamental reality of the universe. But when the time came to book it to the main stage, one of our people was tired and hobbled by a leg injury. Now, did it feel good to abandon him by the noodle stand while is attention was elsewhere? Absolutely not. But it did feel awesome to get within 80 feet of Karen O, so I think it balances out. And besides, I’m sure he’ll turn up eventually.
#4: Some Artists Are Going to Suck
You know who almost everyone I went with was excited to see? Kendrick Lamar. He wasn’t on the top of anybody’s list, but he was almost universally close. And do you want to know who phoned their performance in like a stripper with food poisoning? Kendrick freaking Lamar. The man spent a majority of every single song holding the mike to the audience, so that almost every line sounded like “I am a_____ who will_______ lord_______ lord_________”. We sang so much of his content for him that the drunk people in the front row should probably have gotten top billing. It’s a good rule of thumb that if an artist spends more time telling you to put your hands in the air than actually performing, the show could probably be going better. And the tragic part is that while I was being severely underwhelmed, I probably missed at least two artists at the back stages playing their freaking hearts outs for a crowd a quarter of the size.
So the question is how can you tell when an artist is going to half- perform their set? Well from what I’ve seen, the formula is actually pretty simple. Just ask yourself could this artist feasible do so? See, Kendrick Lamar is an up and comer. He’s already pretty famous, and he’s going to continue getting more famous regardless of what people at this festival thought of him. This is in sharp contrast with ZZ Ward and Azealia Banks, both who I hadn’t really been familiar with beforehand and both of whom absolutely eviscerated their sets. Both of those women performed like there was someone pointing a gun at their families just off stage because both were playing for a huge group of potential fans that could have a considerable impact on their burgeoning careers. So when you plan out your expectations for each act you need to ask what the word “fan” means to the artist at this point in time and how much they’ll want to impress you. Kendrick Lamar didn’t. Azealia Banks did, and she danced so hard I was genuinely worried she was going to catch on fire.
The other half of the equation is money. Since Lamar wasn’t anywhere close to top billing, he probably wasn’t getting paid anywhere near enough to make this an important show for him. He was probably saving his energy and voice for an event where his name would be in much bigger letters and with a much bigger paycheck. In contrast, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were only slightly more prominently featured, and they played like this was the last show of both their careers and their time on earth.
And another indicator demonstrated by they Yeah Yeah Yeahs, particularly in contrast with the surprisingly mediocre Japandroids, is that you can sort of tell how good a band is going to be by how into it their drummer seems. In the former, the drummer was grinning like an 8 year old on Christmas and the drummer of the latter looked kind of hung-over. Since the drummer essentially defines the pace and basic energy level of the entire band at any given moment, you can get a basic feel for the quality of the show from how much they look like they’ve had their spinal cord hooked up to a car battery.
So in short, the equation to follow is this:
(how much they need to impress you)x(How much they’re being paid)+(drummer enthusiasm)= (how good the act is going to be).
#5: Pack Some Frigging Sunscreen
Can I prompt this advice with a very personal sentiment?
Ow ow ow [expletive], gohd [expletive] myback ooooowgahd [expletive].
Seriously, don’t just hope that somebody will bring sunscreen. Even if they do, it won’t be enough. You need a small oil tanker of sunscreen for personal use only. In the event that there is sun (and let’s face it, this is summer) then this is going to be to the beach, what a small Midwestern farm is to a slaughterhouse. You’re going to be standing very still for long periods of time in a place where all the fun stuff is very far away from the shade. You’re essentially painting a bulls-eye on your torso and daring the sun to do something about it; things are going to get burnt.
But my own personal agony aside, here are the other necessary items to be absolutely certain bring and the crap that you shouldn’t even both with.
–Blanket (place to sit that establishes personal space, a valuable commodity).
— Phone chargers (charging stations are present, but quickly overrun by tweens).
— Hats, bandannas and sunglasses (for the obvious reasons, but also because a lot of dust and weird smoke is going to be coming at your face).
— A paper copy of the show schedule (checking the lineup on your phone eats up the battery real fast).
— A blue cardboard cutout of Bob Saget’s face (saw someone walking around with one and never felt more naked in my life).
–Flasks, bottles, or any other form of booze (they will find it, unless you’re willing to go to some rather ridiculous extremes).
–Water bottles (like I said, these ain’t getting in).
–Anything metal or electronic (makes security go berserk, so only what you really need).
–A funny hat that makes you stand out (you know who isn’t amused about your quirky Indian head dress? The people directly behind you).
— You’re amateur CD that you plan on passing out in line (nobody gives a crap, Kevin. Leave your suburban rapping at home and save us all some embarrassment).
So that should do it. There’ll be more festivals of this sort throughout the remainder of the summer, and you should have a wonderful time at all of them on the condition that you treat this event like a brutal post-apocalyptic wasteland, except with a better soundtrack.