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Friday, February 03, 2023

Festival lineup tiers do more harm than good for the music community

The music industry thrives off of hierarchies. From billboard charts to reviews to album of the year lists, musicians become successful in the eyes of the public only once they enter discussions in which they are pitted against their peers. This perpetual competition forced upon the world of music, which reflects countless economic, racial and historical backgrounds, values approval from a few powerful tastemakers over inspiring those who don’t have as influential of a voice.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arrangement of music festival lineups. For the most popular of music festivals, the top three or four names on a lineup poster are seen as more valuable than the next 30 artists who are crammed farther down the page, fighting amongst each other for visibility. Some festivals have burgeoned so much over the years that their lineups now include an ambiguous phrase like “and many more,” which serves as an ambassador for dozens of bands deemed not popular enough to garner representation for the festival they’re being paid to attend and play. At the moment, such artists would take up the space on major festival lineup posters reserved for the eye-drawing superstars, whose presence at the festival is equal parts performance and advertisement.

The inevitable conclusion of such a curatorial arrangement is an emphasis from festival organizers to pour the majority of their resources into those first three eye-catching names. This was overly apparent in Lollapalooza’s 2015 showing, where festival organizers splurged on both Paul McCartney and Metallica for their coveted headliners. Mere inches below the rock gods’ names, a hodgepodge of EDM DJ’s, indie success stories and rappers were carelessly piled together, as if Lolla executives knew that their headliners would be worth the hefty price of admission alone.

It would be difficult to blame promoters alone for this behavior, as it’s firmly encoded in our data-driven society to emphasize headlines over content. The Internet survival instinct is to garner attention; clicks and buzz are major motivational factors for festivals to emphasize their headliners above all else. A recognizable name of a rock superstar gives blogs something to root their stories and press with, because “well-balanced lineup equipped with new and old artists alike” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Metallica takes Lolla by storm.”

There’s nothing wrong with people being preferential in their music tastes and being excited about supergroup reunions, but having festivals take on the form of a reverse pyramid, where lesser-known musicians bear the weight of established artists with infinite means and marketability, is unhealthy and unsustainable. Hierarchies aren’t meant to lift up and support artists; their purpose is to oppress, regulate and keep established artists in their places of power.

However, music thrives the most when it serves as a tool to disrupt the establishment. One of the greatest parts about music communities is their ability to create new structures to uplift those who have faced the worst consequences of oppressive structures in general society. DIY shows and parties which list their artists regardless of popularity give a chance for performers with less of a say to ride alongside those that have found theirs, as well as create a space that is as nurturing as it is empowering for both attendees and performers. Festivals that put emphasis on cramming as many people as possible into a field to maximize profits will never be interested in those that speak to their listeners on a personal level. Rather, powerful booking agencies will only seek out artists that can reach as many ears and social media feeds as possible, which are often the exact artists that do their best to keep the music industry stagnant and best-fitted for their own purposes.

Compare a troublesome lineup like Bonnaroo’s to Pitchfork’s pristine 2016 lineup, and the effects of a hierarchical arrangement become overly apparent. My first thought about this year’s Pitchfork was how the lineup was alphabetized for the first time since I started attending four years ago. Brian Wilson, the Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, was performing the entirety of Pet Sounds at Pitchfork this year, a performance that would have any veteran music fan drooling with anticipation. But on the festival’s flyer, his name was the same font and size as every other artist performing, sandwiched between indie synth artist Blood Orange and the cult 2000s rock band Broken Social Scene.

Instead of being in competition for visibility, Pitchfork’s alphabetized list had artist names mingling with each other as if they were meeting for the first time at a laid-back Friday night social. Footworking pioneer RP Boo and punk rockers Savages are at completely different points in their careers, but their juxtaposition on this year’s lineup poster celebrates their similarities as forward-thinking artists rather than the differences in their clout levels and finances.

I left last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival with a tinge of unease. The fear arose from the headlines of each successive Pitchfork, which kept getting bigger and bigger, both in their artists’ popularity and the physical text representation on their fliers. I worried about how long it would be before the festival had to move to bigger grounds, shutting out attendees who lacked the funds for an upgraded experience along with the artists who no longer carried the appropriate amount of fame to be called on to perform. I thought I was seeing the evolution of an intimate and empowering festival into a discount Lollapalooza, where tickets became more of a status symbol than a gateway to a community of artists and enthusiasts, and big-name acts pushing out those who deserve just as much of a voice on their stages, if not more.

Luckily I could not have been more wrong. This year’s unbiased lineup offers a hope that, once the ultra-hedonistic mega-festivals of today lose their appeal, we’ll be left with a trove of more intimate experiences that have artists from all different stages of their careers performing together as equals—creating the atmosphere of love and support that subverts the charts and rankings for which industry moguls want people to so desperately compete.

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