Rock in Rio: Do we really need another music festival?

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
As Rock in Rio USA joins the circuit, it's time to ask: Do we really need another music festival?

In what's become a kind of seasonal migration, the country's most successful musical acts are heading to the highways to take their art to the people. After conferring with their booking agents, they'll plot courses, rent buses and hotel suites and fan out into America. If all goes well, your favorite act will be among them and will soon land on a stage near you.

In the last decade the migratory patterns of bands have changed significantly. Where once a tour involved weaving a web of dates in primary and secondary markets and building audience through persistence and repeat appearances, a great many popular artists will instead earn their money this summer in multi-act outdoor music extravaganzas such as Coachella, Stagecoach, Electric Daisy Carnival, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo.

If all goes well, the newest arrival, Rock in Rio USA, will join the club. Dubbed "the biggest musical festival in the world," the Brazilian-born event will take over the Las Vegas Strip the next two weekends. On the first, rock-themed weekend, acts including Metallica, No Doubt, Foster the People and Deftones will perform. Weekend 2 will feature Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Jessie J and a few dozen others. It's a relatively small roster, connected less by aesthetics or "curation" than by name recognition and label affiliation.

Just what we need, another music festival to add to the collection. How many is too many? With all these massives dotting the season, it's a question worth asking. Is this the best way to experience music? Are listeners well served by this model? One word answer: Nope. With a few exceptions, festival fandom is a bummer.

At base level, the least satisfying way to see your favorite act in most cases will be at a music festival. Although festivals serve a vital role as communal gathering places and cultural hubs, and they deliver one-stop shopping ease, the cost is a lot of people only halfway paying attention. The best way: surrounded by four walls, at night, with really good sound amid fans who didn't arrive by happenstance.

That's not a new revelation. More than 20 years ago, Scottish songwriter Edwyn Collins critiqued the festival life like this: "The overrated hit the stage / Overpaid and over here / And their idea of counter culture's / Momma's charge account at Sears." He wrote that about Glastonbury, England's long-running concert that has influenced many of the festivals that have followed. But despite his critique, the live music prototype that he described as "the truly detestable summer festival" in the ironically titled "The Campaign for Real Rock" has come to be the accepted way to do things.

It's a blueprint that encourages quantity over quality, of nonstop music from noon to midnight with occasional burrito and beer breaks. As Coachella has grown, the size of its roster has too. Five years ago, there were about 130 acts, and a three day pass cost $269.This year, there were nearly 200, and the general admission ticket price rose to $375. The first artists started at 11:15 a.m., and the place was predictably empty. Over the next 72 hours, dozens of acts played daylight sets to a mishmash crowd of early birds and sunburned devotees. There was great music throughout. Most weren't paying attention, though.

The artist who performs as FKA Twigs packed the Gobi tent, but the level of attention to what she was doing varied depending on proximity. A few hundred were scrunched up close and lost in her sparse beats. But orbiting outside were thousands carrying on like they were at a football game. Nortec Collective presents Bostich + Fussible, the big-beat Mexican dance band, could have stunned the masses with a better slot. Gigging at 1 p.m., the group stunned a few hundred.

The result at Coachella, as at its kin, is a kind of checklist fandom in which seeing a group and listening to a group are considered the same thing. They're not. One involves standing there for a few songs while chatting with your bestie, uploading a clip to Snapchat and nodding your head. The other involves pushing your way to the front, pocketing your phone and listening with intent until the music takes control.

It's way harder to do this when surrounded by partially interested attendees who are only there for Slightly Stoopid on the other stage. Just because your posse wants to see DMX with DJ Snake doesn't mean you do. As a result, chatter is the norm. Short attention spans rule, and the consequence is every musician's nightmare: an ambivalent audience. Who wants to see their favorite DJ while surrounded by people who don't care or, worse, are starting to get annoyed by your insistence on dancing?

For that matter, who wants to see at DJ at 3 p.m. or mosh to hard core at noon? Dance music owes its whole existence to after-hours life. Experiencing your favorite house DJ in the afternoon is akin to spotting a tiger in a cage and claiming to have been in the jungle. The experience requires walls, big sound and darkness pierced by organized light. It sounds better that way.

Want to know a secret? There's a reason why Deadmau5 and Daft Punk wear masks. They're average dudes who gain supernatural powers amid helmeted darkness. Daylight does them no favors.

Arguments in favor of music festivals are many, and some are valid. From a financial perspective, they offer a way to see a lot of music across a variety of styles and sounds. Instead of paying for a few dozen shows over a season for $30 a piece, fans can spend the money in one chunk and see a mix of styles over the course of a few hours. Ears get to hear both new and classic sounds as expressed through rappers, rockers, producers and pop artists.

Also, if programmed well, a festival roster can illuminate the bounty of contemporary music in the way that a well-curated visual art biennial, itself something of a rarity, can connect disciplines.

This year's FYF Festival, which will take place in and around Exposition Park in downtown Los Angeles, just announced a roster that's quite the curatorial accomplishment, featuring a well balanced selection including D'Angelo, Morrissey, Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs and Death Grips. The same can be said about Outside Lands in San Francisco; its headliners: Kendrick Lamar and D'Angelo. The maiden voyage of Rock in Rio USA? We'll withhold judgment until after the fest.

But like Edwyn Collins, I struggle against cynicism. I wonder how many fans will actually listen to the music, even if I wouldn't go so far as to describe, as he does, your average music festival as "the rotting carcass of July, an ugly sun hung out to dry." I just think it's important to experience great music in a worthy setting. Usually, that's not at a festival.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

Twitter: @LilEdit

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