The Big Four Shuffle: All Hail the New Music Festival Kings

It's time to start planning your year around these names

Photo by Heather Kaplan

Coachella. Bonnaroo. Lollapalooza. Austin City Limits.

For years, these festivals constituted the unofficial “big four” in the American festival world, a collection of untouchable festivals that you’d be stupid (or foolhardy) to go up against. However, success often breeds complacency; over the course of the last few years, as the festival scene has expanded and homogenized, it’s become increasingly difficult, outside of wristband colors and the occasional shock headliners, to tell these four apart from one another. That’s why it’s time to dethrone them (at least for now), and declare a new era in the music festival world.

The festivals that follow are our new picks for the most important music festivals in America. That doesn’t mean that they’re all rejecting the winning formulas (or even the repetitive headliners) that made the original four so successful. However, each one does offer a certain tweak to the expected festival script; whether it’s success in an unexpected geographical market, ambition in terms of booking and event planning, or staying true to their roots in the face of industry pressure, the festivals that follow all stand out from their peers for the 2018 season.


Riot Fest

Staying True to Their (Leather-Clad, Safety-Pinned) Roots

Chicago is the music festival capital of the midwest (and, if not for the continued existence of Austin, probably the rest of the United States), but the city’s best festival isn’t its biggest (Lollapalooza) or its hippest (Pitchfork) but its scrappiest. Launched in 2005 as a club weekend hosted at Logan Square’s now-defunct Congress Theatre, Riot Fest now welcomes old punks, young rockers, and whatever you’d call Fishbone to a full-fledged three-day festival in the city’s Douglas Park.

The venue may have changed, but the mission hasn’t. During a decade that’s seen other corporate-run festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo sand away the quirks and edges of their personalities in pursuit of a more lucrative (and more homogenous) festival experience, Riot Fest remains one of the few that’s not only been able to hold onto its original identity but thrive because of it.

In a recent e-mail interview, founder Mike Petryshyn, aka Riot Mike, told me that the decision to stay true to his original vision has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with enjoyment. “Our intention has always been to have our favorite bands and artists play,” he explains. “That’s the plain calculus at work here.”

Luckily for festivalgoers, Riot Mike has excellent taste, especially where headliners are concerned: From the Replacements in 2013 to the Misfits in 2016 to Jawbreaker last year, Riot Fest has consistently landed the kind of oh-shit! reunions and exclusive headliners that used to be the highlight of festival announcement season. While Riot Mike calls these newsmaking gets “a mindboggling feeling,” he also reveals that “the soul of the lineup is always from line two down.”

“Each year, when we are nearly done with the lineup, I print out a copy of the poster and put my hand over the first three bands,” he says. “If that part of the bill excites me — which it has since we moved outside—I know others are going to be stoked like I am.”

Those smaller-font bands are always on Riot Mike’s mind, a passion that extends to his festival crew. Riot Fest remains one of the only festivals in the country to sponsor a year-round slate of shows in local clubs around its home city. It’s a more hands-on connection to the scene that helps Riot Fest cultivate its cult of true believers.

Photo by Heather Kaplan

“The fans are about the music. We are about the music. And guess what? So are the bands,” he says. “Riot Fest may very well be the most intimate 45,000-person festival because everyone attending, playing, and organizing is there for the same reason.”

Governors Ball and Boston Calling

Turning the Northeast into a Festival Destination

Just a few years ago, the idea of starting a new major music festival in the month of June was naive at best, and a serious waste of money and resources at worst. Bonnaroo ruled the month, and any competitor hoping to dethrone it was going to have to bring something pretty splashy to the table. In 2011, Governors Ball brought more than a splash, it brought a New-York-shaped tidal wave.

Today, the June festival pecking order has shuffled considerably. While Bonnaroo remains a major player, Governors Ball has grown from a small one-day fest headlined by Girl Talk to a massive three-day blowout that not only meets and exceeds the expectations set by that older festival, but in America’s biggest, most culturally important city.

The importance of that under-the-radar first year isn’t lost on festival cofounder Jordan Wolowitz, who credited the festival’s humble first outing with its later exponential growth in a 2013 interview with Consequence of Sound. “Twenty thousand people came to Governors Island, so we were profitable in our first year,” he explained then. “That set us on a nice course on developing the festival organically.”

Photo by Killian Young

That development hasn’t just benefited Governors Ball itself (which, in 2018, will likely welcome upwards of 150,000 people to its more spacious home on Randall’s Island for sets by Jack White, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, N.E.R.D., and others), but the entire Eastern seaboard. Less than a decade after the failure of All Points West left those within the industry wondering about the East Coast’s viability as a festival market, Governors Ball is now the biggest (and often best) of a thriving group of Yankee fests including NYC rival Panorama, Delaware’s Firefly, and, of course, Boston Calling.

Of those three, we’re highest on Boston Calling. Now in its second year of consolidation into a single-weekend festival (after four years as a bi-annual event), this year’s edition features a politically charged lineup (artists on the bill include St. Vincent, Pussy Riot, and Eminem, who, despite his over-saturation as a festival headliner, will be playing his first Boston show since 2005) and a few pleasant throwbacks to the wild-west days of touring festivals.

That spirit’s best felt in the festival’s comedy and podcast lineups. Cameron Esposito leads a deep bench of jokers that also includes Jenny Slate and Max Silvestri, while neo-drive-time stalwarts Pod Save America will hold down the podcast world’s highest-profile crossover into music festival bookings. The fest will even welcome Natalie Portman for some as-yet-unannounced programming designed to replace the Harvard alum’s scrapped film festival project from last year.

This ambition from the smaller festival, coupled with the mad growth of its NYC counterpart, leaves us hard-pressed to choose a favorite between the two. So, we’re picking them both, not only because the two festivals are equally excellent, but also because their continued health ensures that the East Coast has once and for all broken the stranglehold of the West and South on the major festival world.


Shaky Knees and Shaky Beats

Reinventing the Two-Weekend Festival

A three-day pass to a single weekend of Coachella without parking, camping, or fees factored in will cost you $429 in 2018. Tickets to the four-day Bonnaroo, meanwhile, currently run at $362.40, and that includes walk-up camping, but if you want to bring your car, that’ll run an extra $64.15. Everybody knows that hitting up a music festival is an expensive proposition, but when you see it written out like that, those dollar signs appear even bigger.

Festival sticker shock is real, but don’t tell that to Shaky Knees or its hometown of Atlanta, the city that’s now home to the best two-weekend bargain on the entire festival circuit. For a little over $400, any omnivorous music fan with five vacation days and a couch to crash on can live out the following week this May: head to Central Park for Shaky Beats ($169 plus fees), the sister festival to Shaky Knees that’s devoted to all things hip-hop and EDM (including, this year, a hometown set from none other than Ludacris), take four days to explore Atlanta (and eat as many slaw dogs as the Varsity is legally allowed to sell you), then return to Central Park for Shaky Knees ($179 plus fees) to close out the week with the Distillers reunion (as well as sets by Franz Ferdinand, Tenacious D, Queens of the Stone Age, and a bunch of other solid rock-leaning acts).

In addition to being a great deal (one that, with the addition of a joint ticket in future years, could be even greater), this back-to-back booking philosophy also helped founder Tim Sweetwood redefine the viability of both destination and dual-weekend festivals. While there’s no data out there to reveal which attendees opt for both festivals, the sheer fact of their proximity (and the tourist-ready explorability of Atlanta) gives these twin fests the air of travel-worthy adventure that the other major players lack.

There’s also the size factor: As Sweetwood told us in a 2015 interview, “If you could combine all the hip elements that come with, say, Coachella with the intimacy of the Newport Folk Festival, and put me right in the middle of all that, that’s sort of our end goal.” That goal is within reach; smaller crowds combined with big-league booking has the festivals (neither of which existed prior to 2013) in the conversation for the nation’s best, a buzz that’s helping Shaky Knees and its sister festival pull the center of the south’s festival universe down I-75 and away from Manchester, Tennessee.


Outside Lands

Kid-Tested, Parent-Approved

It’s fairly simple to imagine the platonic ideal of a major American music festival: A scenic-but-easily-accessed location is a must, as well as a booking philosophy that incorporates both eyebrow-raising surprises and head-nodding curatorial prowess. You’d also want enough of a party to satisfy a horde of sweaty college kids, but enough seasoned performers to lure out hip (and high-spending) fiftysomethings. And since it’s 2018, and people are already conditioned to spend way too much money on these events anyway, a few nods to high-end local food and drink options aren’t out of the question.

If it feels like I’m reading a checklist from the Outside Lands website, you’re not too far off. As the country’s fourth-largest music festival, the San Francisco festival can now also claim the title as the country’s best big music festival. You know, the kind where you don’t even have to be into the music to have an enjoyable experience, and one where you’ll also be equally rewarded for paying attention to the tiny type on the poster.

The appeal of Outside Lands begins with its location. Golden Gate Park provides one of the most scenic festival backdrops in the world; it’s so essential, in fact, that Allen Scott, Head of Concerts and Festivals at Another Planet Entertainment, calls the park “the foundation on which Outside Lands is built.” That importance isn’t simply cosmetic; as Scott puts it, “[Outside Lands] has zero sound bleed between stages, as the trees and topography mitigate the sound traveling between meadows.”

Photo by Philip Cosores

Scott is also quick to tout the festival’s other connections to San Francisco, including innovations that have now become industry standards. “Outside Lands was the first major music festival to curate its food,” Scott says, noting how the idea of sourcing concessions from local brick-and-mortar restaurants used to be “a foreign concept” in the industry. He’s also proud of his festival’s deep connection to the wineries of Napa and Sonoma, as more than 40 now populate the festival’s Wine Lands section. “If you really wanted, you could spend the entire weekend just doing wine tastings at the festival.”

Of course, a nice cabernet and a day in the park isn’t the only reason people come to Outside Lands. There’s also the little matter of the music. Last year’s schedule serves as a perfect example of the festival’s ability to reach beyond demographic groups; while The Who and Metallica drew in the deep pockets of older festgoers, burgeoning acts like Lorde, Solange, Thundercat, and Foxygen ensured there was something to keep the youngsters coming, too.

“We try to book what we consider ‘career artists’ and not necessarily purely ‘of-the-moment’ artists,” Scott says. “When you look back on our lineup in three, five, 10 years, we think it will still be relevant.”

Photo by Philip Cosores

The desire for cross-generational contact is a sentiment echoed by co-founder Rick Farman. In a 2017 interview with Consequence of Sound, he laid out the advantages of booking across genres (and years) in regards to the 2014 festival.

“You had people in their 40s or 50s who had teenagers, and they could go see Tom Petty while the kids could be seeing Macklemore or Tiesto,” he explained. “I think we still have that element in a very strong way right now. It’s different than a lot of the other national festivals, where one age bracket is like 95% of the event. That’s not what exists at Outside Lands.”

A festival that caters equally to kids and parents, in one of America’s best-looking urban green spaces? That’s a feat worth celebrating.


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