Six Music Festival Predictions to Start the 2020s

As climates, trends, and tastes evolve, so does the American festival scene

Bonnaroo, photo by David Brendan Hall
Bonnaroo, photo by David Brendan Hall

We’re only a week into 2020, and America’s first music festival of the year is already upon us: billed as “the largest group ski trip of its kind in the nation,” the 35th annual MusicFest pairs the snowy peaks of Steamboat Springs, CO, with a week-long lineup of country and Americana performers headlined by Nashville legend Lorrie Morgan.

Although there’s really no such thing as “festival season,” it’s still worth pausing within this traditional lull (defined here roughly as the period between the close of Austin City Limits in October and the opening of Coachella in April) to consider both where we’ve come from and where we might be going. As I noted in our coverage of 2019’s best live acts, festivals remained resilient in 2019, led by our Festival of the Year Bonnaroo’s first sellout since 2013, and they look to remain that way in 2020. Will they still be that way in 2030?

At the beginning of a new year and a new decade, let’s explore some of the lessons and innovations of the last few years that might prove prophetic in 2020 and beyond. Like all predictions, they’ll probably be wrong in ways we’ll never even guess; if they’re right, I’ll be accepting pats on the back inside my digital nutrient vat on December 31st, 2029.

Click ahead to see our predictions…

European Invasion

Primavera Sound Los Angeles

By now, American music fans are used to seeing international outposts of our biggest festivals. In 2020 alone, fans will attend Lollapaloozas in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Sweden, France, and Germany; in the latter two nations, those fests will even have competition from fellow Chicago festival Pitchfork.

This September, this cultural exchange will finally move in the other direction as Barcelona’s Primavera Sound makes its North American debut at the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Assuming the lineup remains consistent with Primavera’s best-in-class reputation, a success seems likely. If that’s the case, might other international heavyweights try their own expansion? Could we see Glastonbury channel the spirit of Woodstock in upstate New York or Fuji Rock unfold in the shadow of Seattle’s Mt. Rainier?

The Hybridization of Festivals

Inkcarceration Six Music Festival Predictions to Start the 2020s

Inkcarceration in Mansfield, Ohio

From live Fortnite at Lollapalooza to wine tastings at Outside Lands to Bonnaroo’s increased emphasis on its curated camping plazas, the music festivals of 2019 placed nearly as much emphasis on the spectacle as they did the artists on stage. Music will continue to share top billing with experiential happenings as promoters seek to differentiate their brands and take advantage of their location’s natural and civic resources.

Aside from even more activities and amenities at established festivals, we’ll likely see some more genuine hybrids emerge, ones that cater to everything from high arts (FORM Arcosanti, Pitchfork’s Midwinter) to popular culture (Inkcarceration, the new music and tattoo festival held at the Ohio prison featured in The Shawshank Redemption). As the long, slow death of the monoculture further atomizes the niches of fandom, we’ll see even more opportunities for festivals that add a little music to their hyper-specific concerns.

Festivals Get Political

Rage Against the Machine reunion 2020

Rage Against the Machine will reunite in 2020, photo via Wikipedia

The last half of the ’10s found Americans as politically engaged and culturally polarized as they’d been in a generation. While the spirit of protest occasionally surfaced in the material of our major musical artists, that same sense of activism hasn’t been quite as prominent on our festival stages; aside from Ezra Furman lambasting Coachella owner and conservative mega-donor Philip Anschutz at Coachella in 2017, Kacey Musgraves calling for action on gun control at last year’s Lollapalooza, and some scattered bookings for Russian agit-prop group Pussy Riot, these major cultural events have been mostly free from the kind of political speech that extends past the festival grounds.

Enter Rage Against the Machine, who’ll headline Coachella in what promises to be a vicious election year. With the biggest platform in the festival world at their disposal, will these legendary firebrands take the opportunity to make a statement? More importantly: will their viability as festival headliners encourage the booking of like-minded bands across festival lineups?

Click ahead to see more predictions…

Exploring Audience Hierarchies

VIP wrist bands

Depending on your feelings about hot temperatures, body odor, and MDMA, the worst part of your festival experience might just be your fellow fans. Previously, most festivals’ only option for avoiding the wild teenaged horde involved shelling out the cash for a VIP experience, but a couple of festivals are experimenting with alternatives that might give fest veterans a break. The higher profile of the two, Governors Ball, is making the more drastic change: in November, New York City’s premiere festival announced a new 18+ age policy aimed at curbing the influx of unaccompanied minors. While the new policy is welcome in terms of festival quality of life (it reportedly came about courtesy of fan feedback), it remains to be seen whether or not such a move dents the festival’s attendance figures.

Eight hundred miles away in Michigan, the organizers of Electric Forest are are taking a different tack. Also in November, the festival introduced a loyalty program designed to reward fans for their continued attendance. According to the fest, fans who register their wristbands each year gradually accrue more and more “Loyalty Status,” which allows them access to additional perks in each subsequent year. Right now, the program is mostly being leveraged for early ticket access, but such a system could also grant access to tiered amenities like private bathrooms and less crowded food and drink vendors for the festival’s most die-hard fans. It’s an easy system for rewarding repeat attendance without the exorbitant cost of VIP status, and I’d be shocked if more festivals don’t adopt some form of it.

Festival Sustainability

Billie Eilish at Austin City Limits 2019, photo by Amy Price

Billie Eilish at Austin City Limits 2019, photo by Amy Price

As I write this, parts of Australia remain under a state of emergency, as wildfires continue to rage with an intensity and scope not seen in decades. The fires have claimed at least eight lives and consumed countless swathes of wilderness and wildlife. They’ve also forced the cancellation of Falls Fest, the New Year’s music and arts festival held in Victorian city of Lorne. The scrapping of a music festival pales in significance when compared with the fires’ greater tragedies, but the story of Falls Fest also points to the changing realities facing festivals at the start of a new decade.

As climate change worsens, festivals will be forced to adapt, both to the extreme weather events that occur with increasing frequency and to a ticket-buying public finally waking up to the ecological impact created by such large-scale events. It’s something most major festivals started grappling with in earnest during the ’10s; a 2017 report by Vice details the environment efforts of major festivals that range from biking and carpool initiatives to carbon offsets and reductions in single-use plastics, while the Live Nation Sustainability Charter announced in 2019 includes benchmarks for aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel usage by the company’s festivals. Expect more promoters to follow, and to enlist festival artists (like Billie Eilish, who’s offered fans free 2020 tour tickets in exchange for verified climate action) for added clout.

’00s Nostalgia Has Arrived

Just Like Heaven

One of 2019’s most promising festival debuts succeeded in large part because bookers pretended it was 2009. The blog-rock energy was palpable at Long Beach’s Just Like Heaven last May, where, in between sets by The Faint and Tokyo Police Club, a whole bunch of thirtysomethings had the same thought: oh shit, it’s our turn to get nostalgic. After a surprise Saturday sellout last year, Just Like Heaven has a mandate to return even stronger this year, and other festival bookers have the go-ahead to start scrolling through old Fluxblog posts in search of interesting gets. If anyone out there’s listening: if you can guarantee me a lineup with Voxtrot, The Cloud Room, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I will give you all the money in my wallet.