My name is Steph Bowen, and I’m a music festival addict.
It’s been one week since I returned from the Sasquatch! festival at the Gorge in Washington, and I don’t know if I have the strength to hold out until my next scheduled festival, in August.
My love affair with music festivals began in earnest in 2008, when I attended the ill-fated-yet-incredible Pemberton fest. It spurred me on to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, and prompted a weeks-long volunteer position with Rifflandia in Victoria in 2009. At one point I was so entranced by music festival culture that I attempted to conduct an auto-ethnography of my time at Pemberton for my graduate thesis. Then I remembered that I hoped to secure employment post-graduation.
My journey to Sasquatch!, which hosts 40,000 attendees and 100 indie-rock bands over Memorial Day weekend in the US, illuminated some of the motivation behind my compulsion. I have always been dedicated to music and a fan of live shows, but last week I realized that, like so many of my extracurriculars, my love of the festival actually boils down to a deep-rooted love of community.
Beyond merely celebrating artists, multi-day music festivals take you away from the ordinary of everyday life, strengthen existing relationships, fuse friendships between strangers, and contribute to an overall sense of oneness with the tribe.
This can occur in myriad ways, but there are typically three tiers of community development in action at any large-scale festival, as my experience at Sasquatch! 2010 demonstrates.
Tier 1: The Team
Generally teams consist of those you make the journey with, and are hence an extension of one’s home-based community. I was lucky enough to travel to the Gorge with my two best friends and one of their boyfriends. He was a good sport, too, only writing “Help Me” backwards on his window as a plea to other vehicles once along the way.
The four of us were a lean and highly mobile music-seeking unit, from the moment we threw down our backpacks and danced crazy to Broken Social Scene, to the final group sway to Ween as the festival closed.
Our sense of unity was remarkable, but not unusual. Your team keeps you fed, sheltered, and motivated. It provides comic relief in low moments and camaraderie in high ones. They are the individuals you will reminisce with post-festival, when you struggle to recapture the energy of the event in your day-to-day life. Your shared experiences will also strengthen and enrich the community you collectively belong to back home.
Tier 2: Camping Companions
I missed this crucial component of the festival experience when at Pemberton in ’08: there is nothing like being parked in a field, sleeping in a tent, cooking over a single gas burner, and not showering for four days to bring people together.
Our camp-based community began with an oversight, as we’d forgotten our Coleman stove and were attempting to cook meals for four people over a tiny hiking stove. The lovely Montana couple camping on our left offered up theirs, while the three Midwestern academics to our right provided highly coveted barbeque space.
During our four-day interaction we also shared beer, reviews of our favorite shows, and details of our lives at home with the freedom relative anonymity allows. By the festival’s final day we were sitting together on a grassy knoll at the main stage, passing around bootlegged drinks and laughing like old friends.
Tier 3: The Tribe
There was a moment during the LCD Soundsystem set when I looked up from in front of the main stage to the top of the Gorge’s natural amphitheatre and saw that the entire hillside had broken out into coordinated dance. The movement spread rapidly to the floor, and in seconds I found myself dancing along with the crowd.
More than being visually stunning, this kind of spontaneous, large-scale coordination creates a sense of oneness within an otherwise disparate group. It’s a visual representation of what’s going on just under the surface at any festival: individuals sharing the joy and beauty of art with like-minded individuals. You can’t help but feel at peace with your tribe when you’re all cheering, or clapping, or dancing perfectly in sync.
Be it with your closest friends, people you’ve just met, or a more universal crew of music lovers, the festival is ideal breeding grounds for community development. Give one a try. But be warned: you can get hooked your first time, and the effects may be far-reaching.