A steep and wooded hillside separates the polo fields in the western half of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park from a nearby meadow. The best way to traverse the hillside for the better part of a week in early August—when fences rise, gates are erected, and when much of the public park becomes a private venue for Outside Lands, one of the country’s biggest and most profitable music festivals—is via a set of stairs.
Entering Outside Lands costs $150 a day, or $325 for a three-day ticket. But to use the stairs—the quickest path from one act to another—costs $795. That’s the price of a VIP ticket, holders of which were—for the first time in my experience—granted exclusive stair access during this year’s festival.
These rarefied stairs are a good of a place as any to begin a story about the shameless orgies that go on at Outside Lands, Coachella, Bonnaroo and any other of the increasing number of music festivals that go on in the United States. Music festivals are some of the most revealing happenings in the country. It is at the music festival where class differences emerge in stark and undeniable focus. Music festivals are outre celebrations of privilege—the privileges of money, of race and of gender, which are often exercised to their fullest socially acceptable extent—which is to say, they go very far and cross lines that are not tolerated outside of the festival. For these reasons, I submit to you, they are actually quite bad.
Music festivals are some of the most unequal places in America, and so, of course, they are wildly popular and profitable. Over the past decade, music festivals have exploded in size and in frequency. There are festivals in remote corners of the California desert and in Tennessee farm country, but now, many major urban areas boast festivals as well. About 32 million Americans attend at least one festival per year, and in addition to plunking down a hundred to a few hundred dollars for a ticket, the average attendee also travels 903 miles to get there.
Festivals are good for festival organizers, for the public venues that host them—Outside Lands nets San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department almost $2 million a year—and they are extremely good for brands, who are doing everything they can to present nice for the young people with disposal income who flock to them. This is an environment in which a two-bit hustler can bilk $1.2 million from investors with a sham festival.
These numbers add up to something. They are proof that attending a music festival requires a significant investment. But merely existing at a festival requires further capital. Festivals are 10-hour affairs, and you are 100 percent at the mercy of the merchants within festival grounds. Add up lodging, transportation, food, drink and the cost of the ticket, and you are not far off from the $1,000 mark.
One thousand dollars, remember is more than what 57 percent of Americans say they have in their savings accounts. That is to say, you must have significant privilege to attend a music festival. You must be richer than a majority of Americans. And if you attend several a year, or—and I know people who do this—one a month, you are in rarefied territory. You are the one-percent of festie-goers.
In this way, the music festival is yet another example of how America is becoming less equal and how classes of Americans are becoming literally and figuratively demarcated. But as the conquest of those stairs by the Outside Lands VIP ticket-holders show, there are hierarchies within this hierarchy.
Would you like a clean bathroom? It will cost you more. Would you like a place to sit near the music with an unobstructed view, away from everyone else? It will cost you even more. There is the VIP, and then there is super VIP. Your “importance” correlates exactly with how much money you are willing to spend. For these pop-up luxuries, there is no shortage of buyers.
If you were an alien demographer from another planet, looking for a place that embodies America’s racial divisions, you should go to a music festival. Music festivals are where white people feel comfortable enough to “dress up and play Indian,” dancing to EDM wearing ersatz tribal headdresses. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, if you’re at a music festival, you are a pale-skinned person; if you’re working security, you’re a person of color.
On the Friday night of this year’s Outside Lands, at the festival gates after the music ended, I watched a black security guard try to convince a white festival-goer, completely off his head on whatever, to exit through the clearly marked gates rather than jump a fence. The security guard was overmatched; the festie-goer pressed forward and up and over a fence, crashing into a crowd of people on the way over. “You all see that?” the guard said. “You gonna call the cops on him?” Silence. “You would if it was me who did that,” he said.
To get critical, festivals are fascinating social experiments in that they present what appears to be a state of exception—you can drink, you can do drugs, you can wear tribal clothing or hot pants or nothing at all or various other things you would not wear to work or to Whole Foods—within a tightly controlled environment, patrolled by police and private security, access to which is highly regulated. There is the appearance of no rules, or less rules; there are in fact more rules. Here’s one example: Marijuana is legal in California. It is not legal at Coachella or Outside Lands—both located in California—where festival rules outlaw it, and where security guards confiscated my two-gram stash.
Music festivals are also a safe space for the patriarchy and all of its trappings, chief among which is the debasement of women into objects of conquest, the transformation of the female form into playthings within a man’s dominion. After all, he paid to be here. As Vera Papisova reported earlier this year for Teen Vogue, if you are a woman who attends Coachella, you can almost guarantee that you will become a sexual assault survivor several times over. If you are lucky, you may escape with mere harassment. (Coachella is the largest-grossing music festival on earth; the 2017 edition netted just shy of $115 million.)
The grinning young man aware of and comfortable with his surroundings to wear a T-shirt gleefully celebrating rape culture hasn’t popped back up, but make no mistake: this is his turf. As Papsiova wrote, “a festival environment and setup feels like an invitation for men to behave this way, sometimes in groups.” This should ring familiar. Is there any accident that a Venn diagram of the men who attend music festivals, who can afford to attend musical festivals—that is, the privileged—include the same kind of men who can expect to drink and grope their way towards Yale Law School and the Supreme Court?
At music festivals, the music is often good. (Solange’s set, at Outside Lands in 2017, where she and her band continued to play past curfew, even after festival staff cut off her sound, was a religious experience.) So is the food. You will pay dearly for both, sometimes with your body, and always with your soul.