Every year, some 32 million Americans attend a music festival. Billboard estimates that the average attendee travels up to 900 miles to attend a fest. But increasingly, many urban festivals have sprung up to compete, to a degree, with destination festivals such as Bonnaroo or Coachella. This year, I sampled two urban festivals — All Things Go in Washington, D.C., last weekend, and Outside Lands in San Francisco this August. The differences between destination and urban festivals can be interesting.
First, an urban festival is a local phenomenon. There is typically no camping allowed, so the lack of showers and trying to find a good night’s sleep is simply not an issue.
Second, it’s pretty easy to grab a bunch of friends and hit an urban festival — tickets don’t sell out as quickly, and there aren’t hundreds of miles to travel to negotiate.
Third, although brands seem to love all festivals, urban festivals tend to attract a more refined group of sponsors and vendors. At All Things Go, Bulleit Bourbon was all around the bars (including an antique bourbon wagon), and vendors sold sushi burritos, the current trendy fast food in DC. The festival was also held adjacent to the Union Market development in DC, which includes a wide array of restaurants and food choices. At Outside Lands, there were entire “lands” for craft beers, craft cocktails, and Napa wines at a stunning markup. Although destination festivals are also upping their food and drink game, the choices at urban fests seem a bit more upscale.
Fourth, stages can be smaller. At All Things Go, touring bands such as Foster the People and Bleachers seemed a little cramped on the urban stage. (This was less of an issue at Outside Lands, which had the entire Golden Gate Park as a resource.) One could imagine sound quality being a challenge in some urban venues.
Finally, acts can be segmented to permit attendees to select one or two days rather than a full three-day commitment. At All Things Go, for example, Friday was clearly EDM-heavy day and night; Saturday was rap and hiphop; Sunday was alternative. This provides flexibility for urban concertgoers who might not be interested in another genre. But it also undermines a terrific feature of festivals, which is the intersection of fans for various genres and the ability to discover entirely different types of music.
But then, there’s a lot that is the same — musicians come to play and engage with the crowd, and festival-goers just want great music. One might be tempted to assume that there’s less energy at a smaller urban fest, but my admittedly small sample (two!) did not lead me to that conclusion.
And, at the end of the day, a day at a festival is just a good day — regardless of where you might find yourself.