Monday, August 25, 2008

Outside Lands: Good Music Is Popular Again

This past weekend, we here at H.A.D. had the good fortune to attend the Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park. While we tend to be skeptics on the festival front, we decided to go into this one with an open mind. After all, it was the birth of a truly monumentous San Francisco music festival. Moreover, the selection of bands was at once confounding and exciting: we didn't really know what to expect. In the end, we're glad we took it on, because it ended up being quite a treat. Moreover, it made us come to a stunning realization: Good music is popular again.

The first thing that catches one's eye about Outside Lands is the decision to hold it in Golden Gate Park. The decision is at once a brilliant and questionable one, as there are many challenges to be faced in using one of the city's most notable landmarks as a concert venue. Specifically, taking a park that is highly populated by the homeless, often prone to fog banks, and has limited access seems a bit questionable. However, the festival organizers managed to fall on the good side of the fence: the weather was totally acceptable (even fabulous at times), the homeless population didn't appear to cause any trouble, and the location in the park was a beautiful spot to enjoy some music. Perhaps the only sore spot was a dearth of MUNI busses, but it's obvious enough (and truly tragic) that that issue is not specific to the festival.

In choosing to host the festival in San Francisco, the Outside Lands promoters were entering a community that is heavily oriented around local identity. Chains are few and far between in the city, and local sourcing of jobs, agriculture and businesses is a popular local issue. So it was with great insight that the promoters managed to rope in local businesses to participate in the festival's catering and amenties. Sure, there was your usual festival Heineken and fries, but there were also a true variety of San Francisco originals. Local pizza, fish and chips, beer, wines, and sausages, all graced the festival's paths. It was truly awesome to be able to have a real selection of food options, and know that you weren't just eating fried nastiness. Kudos to whomever thought up this brainchild: local sourcing is something that all festivals should really consider.

The combination of fantastic location and amenities served to deliver the one thing that can really make or break a festival: a truly happy crowd. There seemed to be a generally positive vibe in the air at all times. Even when trying to get through massive crowds, or move from one stage to the next, everyone was good natured. There were plenty of toilets, plenty of event staff on hand, and a general sense of common well being. At one point we overheard someone say "Look at all these faces coming towards us, they're all smiling, everyone's having fun!". That's not something that you get for free. It's the mark of a level of organization and planning that somehow manages to get 50,000 people into an enclosed space and enjoy that which is truly the focus: the music.

The artist selection at Outside Lands at first caught us a bit off guard: the roster seemed to be all over the map, and not really catering to any one specific niche. However, we soon realized that this confusion was less a result of anything of substance, and more rooted in the fact that we've been highly conditioned by festivals that cater to niche markets: jam festivals, indie festivals, alternative festivals, etc. In fact, what Outside Lands managed to do was transcend these niche markets, and create one of the most diverse festival crowds we've ever seen. Moreover, it brought upon us a revelation that we may now be at the apex of a musical arc that has been building for quite a while.

We witnessed a selection of musicians, in a wide range of genres, who all delivered the best their genre could offer. There was indie rock, mainstream rock, classic rock, soul, hip hop, jam bands and more. What's more, there wasn't just great music in each, but there were tons and tons of people watching. It wasn't like you had to stretch to get a crowd for these bands: every stage was packed with people excited to see both emerging and established artists. There were no undervalued indie acts with absent crowds, and there were no mainstream acts that drove away the skeptics en masse. It was difficult not to recall the festivals of the sixties, when the acts that participated were not just hugely popular, but musically and culturally relevant as well. On Sunday, as we sat among the tens of thousands of people watching Wilco, it dawned on us that a precedent unrealized for years was once again true: Good music is popular again.

H.A.D. will be featuring some more highlights from Outside Lands shows over the coming week. Stay tuned!


Adrian said...

If we're just talking about "good" music and not necessarily great music, I'm not sure how it took you this long to realize this, with all due respect.

Arcade Fire debuted at No. 1 last year. Postal Service went gold a couple ago. I walk into movie theaters and hear Two Sheds and I hear Andrew Bird at airports. Sigur Ros took over Youtube for a day. Practically every indie band's been on late night TV shows.

(Granted, exposure doesn't equal popularity, necessarily, but there's a pretty strong correlation.)

I remember in the late 90s Sooyoung Park of Seam saying that if they sold 15,000 copies of an album they were doing pretty well. A lot of bands have been selling 10X that for three or four years.

sfmusic said...

Yes, you're right that "indie" rock is getting a lot of recognition and success. The point here is that there is success and recognition across a wide range of genres. That being true is what allows a festival like Outside Lands to not have a genre-specific lineup, and still have a great festival. If you look at the great festivals of the sixties, they were a mix of genres, but all the musicians were top notch. We're finally at a point where that's happening again.