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Musical Space: Festival Season

Music festival season is already underway. SXSW 2016 has already happened, and by June we’ll be in full swing. 

Festivals are the most efficient way for huge bands to connect with huge audiences. These multi-day blowouts can bring together more than 100,000 people. They’ve been happening for a long time, of course, but ever since Lollapalooza back in the early grunge days, they’ve changed from the one-off hippy gatherings of the ‘60s into big-money affairs with corporate management and commercial sponsorship. This makes me wonder if a modern music festival can have the same cultural relevance that Woodstock did in 1969.

The main question for me is how much of the music is truly new. The answer might be a little embarrassing, since the mega-festival model is now over a generation old and showing its age. People have been complaining for years that SXSW has lost its homespun Austin charm. The same can be said of Bonnaroo, the closest one to us since Wakarusa sadly won’t be happening this year. Looking at this year’s lineup, Bonnaroo seems to be living in the past, featuring 90’s throwbacks like Pearl Jam and Third Eye Blind. America’s biggest, Coachella, is even more backward-looking; long-dead bands like Guns and Roses, Rage Against The Machine and the Pixies have reformed just to play there this year.

But even though today’s big festivals aren’t the history-changing events they used to be, that doesn’t mean you won’t have a good time when you go. If you make sure to check out the obscure bands on the smaller stages and use plenty of sunscreen, you’ll be able to hear plenty of stuff you’ve never heard before. And at the same time you’ll get bragging rights to say you’ve seen the Pixies live. Festivals are now the best of both worlds, old and new: Come for the dinosaurs, stay for the young lions.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.