Amazing journey

Sam Weiner

The following article in PLAY incorrectly stated that Cameron Meyer was a former NU student. Meyer actually attended the University of Missouri. PLAY regrets the error.

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The days of summer play a unique role in American culture. Summer is accepted almost universally as the most “fun” time of the year. Baseball becomes America’s national pastime, beaches overflow and the concert season begins in earnest. In particular, summer festivals draw hundreds of thousands of spectators, often to remote areas of the country. This is a marked difference from the rest of the year, when most people attend shows at local clubs, theaters and arenas.

But traveling to festivals or individual concerts entails much more than seeing one’s favorite bands. The experience also requires careful financial management, adapting to unforseen circumstances and living in a culture vastly different from home life. Despite this commitment, thousands of people choose to make the journey each year.

Why do people go in the first place?

Nearly every major tour stops in Chicago, so one might wonder why people commit time, energy and money to traveling. According to My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, going to a festival presents a change of pace.

“I think people are always looking for an escape from reality and an escape from their normal lives,” says James, whose band will be playing at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival for the third consecutive year. “You can kind of come out and be a different person, forget about who you are and what you’d normally do.”

People who choose to attend single shows follow a similar line of reasoning.

“Going to a show in Chicago has lost the special factor,” says Weinberg junior Jessica Cohn, who travels at least one weekend a month to see concerts. “There’s something about getting in a car with your friends and driving for six hours. You don’t get a chance to see little towns in the middle of nowhere if you just stay on a college campus.”

One of these small towns, Manchester, Tenn., has hosted Bonnaroo since 2002, initially featuring acts from the jam-rock community. Over the years it has diversified its musical offerings, with this year’s artists including Joss Stone and Modest Mouse. According to Warren Haynes, frontman of Gov’t Mule and guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band, the people who attend Bonnaroo share a common bond, regardless of their individual musical interests.

“It’s all people that love music, that take music very seriously,” says Haynes, who has played at Bonnaroo every year. “And it’s also people that search for good music and don’t just listen to whatever’s being force-fed to them by the mainstream.”

Unlike most events geared to draw large audiences, some festivals focus on indie acts and thus are able to charge lower prices. Pitchforkmedia.com’s Intonation Music Festival will feature artists such as Tortoise and the M’s at a cost as low as $11 per day.

“I wish a lot of cities (would) do the same as Chicago, having festivals for next to nothing,” says Vasu Venkata, a Weinberg senior and former PLAY music editor.

How do we do this?

Once concertgoers realizes they can afford the ticket, they must solve two practical challenges: how to get there and how to pay for the experience. Additionally, they must plan for drastic situations. When attending Bonnaroo in 2003, Cameron Meyer, a former NU student, was fortunate to equip himself with an adequate supply of money and a swimsuit for the muddy conditions during Nickel Creek’s set.

But often things don’t work out this easily. “I didn’t plan things out,” says John Kosim, a Weinberg junior who went to last month’s Coachella Valley Music Festival, where he ate several meals consisting of fruit.

Kosim purchased his ticket and camping pass on eBay only five days before the festival. While he estimates that this saved him $35 off the $115 face price, he had to spend more on his plane ticket to get out to Los Angeles.

The cost of travel often encourages concertgoers to explore cheaper alternatives. Cohn rents cars from Enterprise for $9.99 a day on weekends. She has traveled as far as Toronto to attend a show and sometimes does the whole trip in one night.

Last year when driving to see Guided By Voices in Columbus, Ohio, Venkata and his friends similarly traveled to the extreme. He and his friends left Evanston at 3 p.m., arrived at 10 p.m. and returned to Evanston at 6 a.m. But Venkata says he usually goes to shows in cities where he can spend the night.

“I tend to fly to concerts more, usually where I have relatives,” says Venkata, who in 2003 attended the Field Day Music Festival in East Rutherford, N.J., a short drive from his sister’s home in New York.

But staying with a relative doesn’t guarantee a cheap trip. Buying food and drinks at festivals can be particularly frustrating. Kosim, who admits that $2 for a bottle of water at Coachella wasn’t a terrible price compared to his expectations, says the food was “overpriced as hell.” Venkata sees this as a deliberate strategy employed by those running festivals.

“When people go to festivals, they find that festivals are much more expensive than they originally thought,” he says. “A lot of that is concert promoters trying to recoup money that they didn’t get from tickets.”

Food at festivals may be expensive, but at least it’s guaranteed. When Cohn travels to individual concerts, figuring out how to eat becomes more difficult.

“On these trips it’s either nothing at all and then grabbing something locally after the show, or eating shit food,” says Cohn, who has more difficulty affording food now that she’s off-campus and not on a meal plan. Cohn works two jobs and spends less money during the week to afford her musical lifestyle.

“I’m not gonna go out and drop $50 at the Keg,” she says. “I don’t do a lot of the typical things that college students spend money on. It’s kind of living every couple weeks to replenish what I’ve spent.”

Even if one sets aside the right amount of money and figures out basic logistics, things can still go awry, as they did for Meyer when he went to Red Rocks Ampitheatre for the Dead’s shows in 2003.

“We drove two cars and one of our cars got towed, which had all of our of water, food and warm clothes in it,” says Meyer. “And it got cold at night, so it was a couple rough nights.”

Meyer and his friends made it back home with the help of a $100 gift from a stranger with the last name Blessing, a solution not everyone can expect.

Less obvious issues also can cause problems for travelers. Cohn says her weekend trips caused her to drift apart from her friends at NU, so they instituted a Thursday night dinner policy. “It’s hard to maintain a psuedo-travel life and a social life at NU,” she says.

Who are these strangers?

Attending a festival forces everyone to temporarily adopt a new set of neighbors. While staying in local hotels is sometimes an option, most choose to stay on campgrounds. This creates an ad-hoc community, which is not lost on those putting on the events.

“You’re really there for four days, living with people, living with the community,” says Richard Goodstene, a promoter for Superfly Productions, which puts on Bonnaroo. “It’s like literally setting up a small city on a farm in Tennessee.”

Some festivals and shows even attract people who don’t have tickets. Meyer had no ticket when he drove to Red Rocks and didn’t plan to attend the shows. He went “for the adventure” after graduating from high school and says he spent his time meeting new people. With thousands of attendees, one is likely to meet people from many different walks of life. But when a “small city” is set up, people like Meyer often have to deal with unforseen consequences, such as losing their friends.

“It took each of us about three hours wondering around to find our tent,” h
e recalls from Bonnaroo. “We ended up putting a flag on a stick and posted it up so that we could see where we were from a distance.”

Meyers says that he thought he saw drug use on the way to the tent — one of the few absolutes of festivals, save those of the Christian rock variety. With a high demand from concertgoers for substances to heighten their experience, drug dealers can make a living traveling from festival to festival looking for customers. And with so many drugs present, people can go to drastic lengths to obtain a high.

“Some guy asked me to punch him in the face,” Meyer recalls of Bonnaroo. “He’d let me punch him in the face if I bought him a hit of acid.”

It might be relatively easy to bring drugs into Bonnaroo, but at individual concerts, police and event staff often search thoroughly at the entrance. According to Meyer, however, getting caught with drugs doesn’t ensure a trip home with the cops.

“I heard that at the entrance to the gate (to Red Rocks), the police officers had a huge trash bag, collected drugs and let people in,” Meyer says.

Although there’s a strong police presence monitoring drug use, violence remains a danger to concergoers. Meyer recalls a girl being stabbed one night at Red Rocks. At Schwagstock, a festival in Missouri, a friend of Meyer’s was raped. Meyer says he sees this as a byproduct of today’s festivals.

“For the most part, everybody is real peaceful,” he says. “But with that many people and drug use rampant, there’s gonna be that stuff happening.”

What about the music?

With the large amount of planning, travel time and waiting necessary for a trip to a festival, it can be easy to lose track of one’s initial purpose. Many attendees come for the chance to get (insert intoxicated variant), but they wouldn’t be there in the first place without a love of music. Bands that play festivals like Bonnaroo may vary in fame and style, but nearly all of their performances are of a special nature.

“It’s a very big date for a lot of these artists,” Goodstene says. “For many of them it will be the largest crowd they ever play in front of in their lives.”

The nerves associated with these performances, along with the usually short set times, can lead to incredibly fast-paced concerts. These groups may play with a particular urgency because in a festival format there are nearly always several bands playing at once. Having concurrent sets can be frustrating for fans, as Kosim found when he decided to leave Nine Inch Nails’ show to see Aesop Rock.

At this year’s Bonnaroo, sets by the Allman Brothers, Herbie Hancock and B�la Fleck will cut into one other, forcing fans to make a difficult decision. One might think that having to choose between musicians is enough to deal with on its own. But this year, Bonnaroo will include a comedy tent, along with various shops and art displays, making the festival even more of a nightmare for someone with ADHD.

Bonnaroo also will be sponsored by Jack Daniel’s and Volkswagen. The addition of such corporate sponsors to a festival can leave concertgoers jaded, yearning for something from the past.

“Music festivals now are more commercial than anything else,” Venkata says. “Everyone goes to their first festival thinking it’s going to be like Woodstock and then realizes that it’s not like that at all.”

Wanna do this again?

Bonnaroo takes place in June every year. So after a festival, or even after just seeing the line-up, one can consider plans for next year. For Kosim, the decision to go back to Coachella will depend on the quality of 2006’s lineup. But for others, like Meyer, the days of taking road trips to Bonnaroo are a thing of the past.

“That was kind of like my high school summer deal, and I went crazy,” Meyer says. “I probably wouldn’t go to a music festival now.”

With U.S. music festivals at their most popular and profitable point since the late ’60s and early ’70s, more and more people will choose to attend festivals like Bonnaroo. A line-up by itself can be enough to convince a concertgoer to buy a ticket, but this purchase is just the beginning of one’s journey. Going to a festival definitely entails a serious commitment. It is the degree to which one makes this and deals with unexpected circumstances that makes or breaks a festival experience.

Weinberg junior Sam Weiner is the PLAY music editor. He can be reached at [email protected]