By Josh Hughes
Last year I wrote a piece concerning the politics and monopolization of music festivals, specifically Sasquatch! here in the PNW. In it, I addressed the rampant corporatization of festivals that has led to an eerily homogenous nationwide music scene. Last year’s lineups spread concerns of big companies killing the festival scene just as they had previously done with record labels. LCD Soundsystem and Florence + The Machine seemed to be on every single bill, and once-individualized events were becoming more and more like everything else. Yet here we are again, in 2018, and Sasquatch! is still here, and it seems to be doing better than ever. What’s happened in the last year to bring us to this next stage of music festivals in America?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is not a lot. Live Nation, one of the two mega-companies that buys out music festivals and manages them, currently operates over 60 festivals across the country. Some of these include Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and our beloved Sasquatch! out at the Gorge Amphitheatre out in Eastern Washington. This means that even “independently owned” festivals such as Sasquatch have a massive corporation behind them that handles ticketing, and most importantly, sponsorship. They also have a certain say in the booking process, but for Sasquatch!, founder Adam Zacks still dominantly handles this aspect of the event.
“[Sasquatch!] was always intended to be a reflection of the Pacific Northwest,” said Zacks on Seattle-based 107.7 The End’s Locals Only podcast.
“As the region changed so did the festival.”
This grassroots emphasis has always been important to Sasquatch!, as shown by headliners throughout the years such as The Postal Service, Modest Mouse and smaller acts like Thunderpussy and CCFX. Where festivals on a grander scale aim for the stars in their bookings, Sasquatch! tries to hone in on its regional demographic, which happens to usually cater towards early 2000s indie rock. Last year’s anomaly, where Twentyonepilots and Chance The Rapper headlined, proved to be just that, as the 2018 lineup went back to its roots. After poor ticket sales from 2016, the festival had to take a different approach that appealed to a younger, more diverse audience. While this sounded good on paper, the lineup alienated older, longtime Sasquatch! fans that expected a bill that fit their own expectations.
Although 2017 sales didn’t do as well as expected— the official attendance numbers are impossible to find, but estimations are between 7,000-9,000— the older Sasquatch! fanbase got their wish in 2018 with artists like Bon Iver, The National, David Byrne, Spoon and Modest Mouse. Early numbers say that around 12,000 attended this year, according to ifiberone, a Columbia Basin news outlet. The stark shift in both lineup and attendance can only garner speculative responses, but it’s evident that Zacks did a successful job in reanimating the festival.
All the same, the state of music festivals is ever growing in the direction of mega-corporations and conglomerates. Luckily for Sasquatch!, Live Nation’s influence has largely been relegated to sponsorship and marketing control, but the puppeteering threat that it poses still lingers. Afterall, it’s no longer revenue from artists that provides the festivals with the money to sustain themselves; it’s concessions, merchandise, camping, beer. Live Nation and AEG, the other dominant event company, handle almost all of this side of the experience of a festival.
Pemberton Festival up in B.C., which is overseen by Huka Entertainment, got cancelled just last year because of bankruptcy. As Zacks has pointed out in various interviews, costs for booking artists are increasing, and this is only getting worse with corporations that control multiple festivals and book similar artists. Pemberton happened to feel the immediate aftershock of this new wave of American music festivals. Sasquatch! prevailed another year, so here’s to hoping that it makes it through the next ripples.