Can the Festival Boom Save America’s Cities?

Image via Getty Images / Jeff Kravitz
Image via Getty Images / Jeff Kravitz

43 years ago, when asked if he wanted to host another Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, Bethel, NY farmer Max Yasgur respondedas far as I know, I’m going back to running a dairy farm.” Amazingly enough, it should be noted that even in the face of significant public angst, the Woodstock Festival only had one drug-related death and with the release of a documentary film about the festival more than made a profit. However, Max Yasgur thought it a more financially sustainable and socially acceptable move to return to the life of raising dairy cows. How then, in an entirely similar situation, did this summer’s EDM-fests the Electric Zoo Festival and TommorrowWorld escape the chopping block, gain political support, and the appearance of a mainstream stamp of approval for the future of EDM in America? In arguably a case of a nation being more interested in money for survival than being shaken by the presence of fear, areas willing to accept EDM (and the company it apparently willfully keeps) has become the next great development in dance music and culture’s fight for sustainability in the United States.

Festival culture’s last American wave didn’t exactly end so well, but current attempts at trying to create a corollary to the past may actually fail. The rock & roll-inspired boom in America was never a greater case of an explosive boom and imploding bust than in 1969. Mid-August’s Woodstock Festival was three days of love and music. However, by the first week of December and the brutal stabbings and beatings by Hell’s Angels hired as security at the Altamont Festival, the tone had noticeably changed. In many people’s eyes, that era of rock & roll ended at that festival. Similarly, two deaths attributed to the use of ecstas at the 2013 Electric Zoo Festival, and subsequently, media outlets were arguably able to paint the recent Tomorrowworld Festival with the broad stroke of being a dark den on iniquity controlled by uncontrolled substances – not unlike a solar eclipse of a neon sun. However, at the end of the day, there’s New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg not cancelling Electric Zoo forever, but instead saying that “it is almost impossible to keep [drugs] out, even though we have done a pretty good job of reducing the number,” and Fulton County, Georgia commissioner Mike Pitts praising “molly-laden” Tomorrowworld for “[having] no fights, attendees from all over the world staying in the fancy hotels in the city, [and] ultimately bringing a positive force to the county.” While, yes, social mores have changed in 44 years, is it the larger driving factor of finance that is changing the socio-political tone regarding festivals? This may indeed be the case.

Indio, California’s Coachella Festival and Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest events, coupled with EDM’s extraordinarily bright financial outlook may hold the answer as to why politicians are so quick to placate dance festival culture. Starting in 2014, AEG-owned Goldenvoice-promoted Coachella will be giving $5.01 per ticket in revenue to the city of Indio. With a 90,000 person capacity-filled two-weekend festival, that guarantees the city $900,000 in revenue even before anyone has set foot into the city. With Goldenvoice also holding the 75,000 capacity country-leaning Stagecoach Festival there as well (giving $2.33 per ticket), there’s a potential for $1.5 million in earned revenue. If both New York City and Atlanta can cultivate similar relationships with the $20 billion global beast that EDM culture has become, it stands to create a revenue stream that, if coupled with other events, bolsters both areas during an era of unprecedented national economic flux.

Hyper-liberal college town (the University of Texas at Austin is there) Austin, Texas’ SXSW must be considered as well. If major areas like NYC and ATL can excel with festivals, then Austin, using nine days as the epicenter of global progressive culture in the middle of March to aid in their rise in economic prowess and population growth, is entirely possible for similar mid-sized liberal locales nationwide. Accomplishing this goal with, say, EDM coupled with the quick-rising mobile tech sector, is certainly possible, too. If SXSW 2011 pumped an estimated $205 million into Austin’s economy, for a similar locale, it’s arguable that dealing with EDM’s negative effects is well worth the positives of economic stimulation.

There may be those who would consider that rap’s cultural dominance, and fewer issues with relatively unknown drugs killing festival attendees, would make it an equal as a choice for festival consideration for cities insofar as economic sustainability. However, the recent Rock the Bells event cancellations in Washington, DC and New York City show that though rap is culturally dominant, even a lineup featuring all of the major players on urban FM radio, plus holograms of legends Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Eazy E, and a plethora of living legends can’t sustain ticket sales. Plus, EDM’s successful adoption of rap’s tropes into many of its various genres – when coupled with the sound’s portended economic success – certainly makes it appear as a far more inviting option to consider.

Given current estimates, 23% of the $20 billion white-paper valuation of EDM ($4.5 billion) comes from global festival revenue. When rock and roll first was king, vinyl was pressed, and stores were built. When Run DMC showed that rap fanatics would buy adidas sneakers, the effect touched every avenue of casual to formal fashion in a commercially explosive manner. Now that EDM is showing itself to be impervious to a woeful American economy, can it serve the function of helping cash-strapped or concerned cities have an unexpected revenue stream to solve key local and state issues? Possibly. However, is it possibly also akin to shaking hands with the devil? Certainly. Seeing the presence of DanceSafe at Tomorrowworld was excellent. As well, there needs to be further integration of education initiatives and long-term plans for events (as is the case in Atlanta). Are dance festivals the best solution to solving finance issues? No, but, then again, nothing really is right now. But as a progressive stopgap, it may be time for cities across the country to break out their dancing shoes.