The past few weeks have seen a steady stream of summer festival announcements, from Movement in Detroit and Dekmantel in Amsterdam, to Sonar in Barcelona and Timewarp in the Netherlands. These are just the first in what will be an endless deluge of multi-day events seeking to attract attention in a festival market overflowing with options. With each announcement, the dance music media will dutifully report on every utterance coming from the event organizers, while on social media, the echo of opinions regarding the line-up will resonate for days. The question then becomes, how to decide which festival is right for you. And in answering that, we have to ask, does the line-up even matter?
Fact, the number of name-recognition performers for festival season has grown with each passing year. This is necessary, as the sheer number of festivals has driven the demand for draws through the roof. It doesn’t matter how many private jets are chartered by the biggest name DJs, there’s simply no way to gather a quorum in every city where a major event is taking place each weekend.
However, promoters and fans need not fear for lack of talent. There are always ample artists on the cusp of stardom who individually might not draw huge numbers, but collectively can call upon thousands of fans in any given market. This is turn gives a larger platform for these emerging acts to showcase their stuff, thus increasing their visibility in a self-replicating feedback loop where festivals help to create stars who can then headline more festivals.
This might sound like a cynical market mechanism, but there is a long history of packaging performers to maximize growth and exposure — from the Motown bus reviews of the 1960s to the Minus bus tours of the early ’00s, it’s (music) business as usual. And leveraging an apprentice system to promote greener acts does not compromise the artistic merit of these endeavors. In fact, most artists find themselves at their creative peak immediately before achieving top billing. Just look at the discography of most of the biggest names in dance music. It’s easy to see how their salad days were the most productive in terms of creativity. It seems decades spent on the road 40 weekends a year is not conducive to maintaining a steady flow of artistic inspiration.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that the standby superstars are lacking behind the decks. Unlike the traditional rock model, which forces artists into an endless cycle of writing and performing their own compositions, almost inevitably leads to a stumble in creativity or stagnation of the fan base. Eventually everyone makes a shit record.
DJing, on the other hand, offers a dynamic that insulates veteran performers from exactly this sort of career recession. Any DJ can draw from an endless pool of new and old music, effectively diversifying the artistic portfolio, and creating is a much stronger foundation for longevity. So while a steady stream of new names reach star status each year, there is little attrition of the bigger names who can stay on top for decades without having to create their own hit records.
This enlarged pool of talent, and audience willing to support it, is by almost any standard a positive development in the overall health of dance music. One place where it creates challenges, however, is in developing a festival line-up that truly stands out. Looking at any major festival line-up, one is challenged to find many big surprises. Movement turned a lot of heads by the amusing inclusion of DJ Snoopadelic to its roster of otherwise impeccable house and techno. The long-running Detroit event has long sought to balance its mandate to respect the historical roots of Detroit techno, while still appealing to the regional tastes, which in the American Midwest requires a large degree of populism. But beyond Snoop, the line-up is solid in it’s offering. Some reacted by calling the it safe, but with the exception of infrequent club events in the city (often thrown by Movement as well), there is rarely an opportunity to hear artists like Ben Klock, Dixon and Recondite anywhere around Detroit. These global stars may make the rounds in Europe frequently, but for fans across the Midwest, Movement is likely the only opportunity to catch these acts.
All three of the previously mentioned artists are also appearing at Dekmantel this year — which is less exciting if only because they all play for the Dutch audience every few months. However, the upstart Amsterdam festival, now in its third year, makes its mark by concentrating on several heritage acts that are unique within its boutique festival niche. From the return of IDM legends Autechre and Detroit techno godfather Model 500 (aka Juan Atkins), to a performance of the seminal proto-techno work E2-E4 by Manuel Gottsching and a performance by funk icon Roy Ayers, these are not names that will appear on many fliers throughout the festival season. The highly clued-up Delmantel audience are therefore left with no option but to attend, lest they miss their only chance to see these adventurous bookings.
The other two events in this analysis, Timewarp and Sonar, fail to take any such chances, instead relying on a time-tested formula of talent. Each event has a well-established brand, which assures that regardless of who performs, the experience for the visitor will be a quality one. As long as Sonar happens in beautiful Barcelona, and Timewarp offers up it’s epic production standards, there is no reason for fans to not enjoy every moment. It’s merely a question of novelty vs. consistency when deciding what matters to consumers. And these stalwarts choose the latter. It’s a luxury they’ve earned by throwing high-caliber events for decades.
This is, of course, only a small sampling of the dozens of large festivals that will happen worldwide this summer. But it’s safe to expect that, just like every year, there will be smattering of surprising bookings amongst mainly predictable programming. It would be easy to dismiss this trend as the disappointing result of promoters playing it safe.
Occasionally a new dish will wow the pallet. But rarely is it as satisfying as an old favorite. Either way, there is certainly a lot on the menu to choose from.