People love to argue about which music festival is best almost as much as they love to speculate their lineups. With SXSW officially ushering in festival season next week, we thought it'd be a good time to lay the arguments to rest. Having an obvious bias towards Northside
(what what), we figured it'd be best to leave the regional fests out of it and shuffle through the big national names — and only those who've announced enough of their lineup in which to judge, i.e. no Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Austin City Limits, etc.
Below are five of the best, ranked in descending order based on six criteria from a New Yorker's perspective on this year's lineups alone
. For each category, 5 points represents the most ideal; 1 is the least. The scores were added up and positions were determined. If you only travel to one festival this year, it should be...
June 7-10, Manchester, Tennessee
Ticket cost: 4
Even with four tiers of advance ticket options sold out, the remaining $259.50 four-day pass means you’re still just paying about $1.73 per act, thanks to Bonnaroo’s sheer scope and size of more than 150 bands, DJs and comedians. There are fees on top of the general admission price, of course, though as long as you’re down with sleeping in a tent, camping and parking are included (a RV pass starts at an additional $180), as is access to such weird, lovely, only-at-Roo attractions as the silent disco, an air-conditioned cinema tent, a 40-foot waterslide, yoga classes, your average belly dancing workshops and more.
Travel expenses: 3
You could brave the 14-hour drive from NYC to the Manchester, but for most of us that means renting a car, and gas is crazy expensive, so this $302 round-trip flight from JFK to nearby Nashville on June 7 (arriving back on the 11th) that we just came across on KAYAK.com might be your best bet. Keeping with Bonnaroo’s initiative of reducing its carbon footprint, the fest provide shuttles for the last leg to the grounds at $60 round-trip, which we like to think involves a sing-along of “Tiny Dancer” and communal snacks.
The 700-acre farm that magically blossoms into Tennessee’s seventh largest city overnight is about as Field of Dreams
as these things get: Superfly Productions built it, and people came… and keep coming… But their need to accommodate some 80,000 people understandably limits their locale options. A humongous field has got nothing on, say, Coachella’s palm trees or Sasquatch’s majestic views, and doesn’t do much for your vantage points of the stage, either. Also worth noting: Tennessee is really hot in June, and a farm isn’t known for its shade.
One of the most eclectic festivals as far as top names go, you can pretty much pool the headliners’ fans into four distinct corners. With the exception of the Beach Boys, whose reunited lineup and general pleasantness will likely elicit some crossover appeal, the average Phish fan doesn’t necessarily strike us as a Red Hot Chili Pepper diehard, who in turn isn’t known to clamor for Radiohead, leaving each of the three to attract only a sect of the festival’s attendees. With this in mind, perhaps you’d be best suited to stick around home: Phish is slated to play Jones Beach in the coming months, Chili Peppers are scheduled for two shows at the Prudential Center, the Beach Boys hit up Beacon Theatre in May, and, gasp
, your pals in Radiohead just announced they’ll also be swinging by the Prudential Center on their way to Tennessee.
The certainly isn’t anything to scoff at — Big Deal bands like Bon Iver, here ranked as a second-tier act, are headlining comparable festivals throughout the summer — and with only 85 acts announced thus far of the promised 150, a significant rollout is still to come. As of now, though, it’s sorta what you’d expect from any big shindig in 2012. We suppose there are a handful of anomalies: Skrillex, Ludacris, Ben Folds Five. Alice Cooper?
Annually drawing 80,000 bros, hipsters, hippies, gray-haired folks, kids and anyone and everyone in-between to 10 stages over four days, it truly is the granddaddy of them all as far as American festivals go — the closest thing we have to competing with the European megas. The water fountain at Centeroo ubiquitous in photo recaps, the people painting themselves, the hippy dippy vibes… that’s all part of it. It’s a capital “E” Event, which is much of its appeal, and, for 20-somethings, probably the closest we’ll ever get to Woodstock. But the huge cross-section of humanity also makes it, well, a bit grubbier than some of its contemporaries. Your Mom will spend the weekend convinced she’ll never see you again.
TOTAL POINTS = 16
April 13-15 & April 20-22, Indio, California
Ticket cost: 1
Because people are completely batty when it comes to Coachella, stand-alone passes are already sold out, even with the festival duplicating itself over two weekends this year. (As it stands, there are badges still up for grabs with purchase of the fancier, more costly Lake Eldorado camping package, but that’s about it.) And it’s not like these things are cheap. The bareboned option will set you back $285, plus a mandatory $3 charity donation, a $9 facility fee, and a $29 service/convenience charge, for a grand total of $326. Taking into account the 139 artists set to play over the course of three days, and you’re shelling out $2.35 per band — not too shabby, though a big price disadvantage is that a pass doesn’t include camping as it does with Bonnaroo and Sasquatch.
Travel expenses: 1
Coachella’s website details all sorts of travel and accommodation packages to choose from. You can live civilly in a hotel with shuttles running to and from the grounds; you can increase your chances of hanging out with Drew Barrymore and drop $3,350 per person on the fanciest, furnished, air-conditioned tent you’ve ever seen (seriously, look at these things
), you can settle for the aforementioned still-rich-but-not-superstar-rich Lake Eldorado option. Or you can be a regular person and pay $82.50 (plus $10 service fee!) to set up a tent. So now you have a plot of land to rest our heads, the discussion turns to you’re going to get there. The cheapest round-trip flight from NYC to Palm Springs over the April 20 weekend is going for $529, plus the price of a taxi for the 23-mile sprint to Indio from the airport. To cut Coachella some slack, though, they are one of the only fests where outside food and beverages are permitted into the camping grounds and even offer free shuttle runs to a local supermarket. Say hello to a weekend full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Setting up a music and arts festival in the middle of the desert does not sound like a million-dollar idea, but Coachella somehow pulls it off. Scheduling it for April is a good move (the average temperature high in nearby Palm Springs is 88 degrees in April, compared to 104 in June), and overtaking the pristine Empire Polo Club grounds (Coachella sorta whiffs of money, don’t it?) keeps things clean and organized. The grass in all the pictures always
looks green; the tents always
We don’t think we’re alone when we say seeing The Black Keys on top of that much-speculated-upon poster seems underwhelming, right? (It’s not what the rumors said!) And now with Radiohead’s just-announced local shows, that leaves just Dr. Dre & Snoop as material for you to return home and brag to your friends about.
What the 2012 edition may lack in headliners, it makes up for in the rest of the lineup. Pulp is playing this thing. So is Mazzy Star, At the Drive-In, Refused. Bon Iver, Girls, Wild Flag, tUnE-yArDs, M. Ward, M83, Explosions in the Sky, Destroyer. The Weeknd (in his first U.S. appearance), Azealia Banks, EMA, A$AP Rocky and a whole hoard of names you’ll know soon. Plus, keeping with Coachella tradition, a few random-but-awesome pickings: James, Buzzcocks, The Hives. Sure, why not?
Call us old-fashioned, but this year’s festival loses some of its value by doubling up on dates. The thrill of participating in an “once-in-a-lifetime experience” isn’t quite the same when, well, you could redo it the following weekend. Even still, Coachella is perhaps the highest regarded of the big-name fests, in no small part from catering towards the needs and desires of its target audience. It’s the Williamsburg of festivals, complete with a pop-up farmers market onsite, a sit-down restaurant, Wi-Fi centers, dodge ball tournaments, celebrity sightings, and sculptures and other works of art dotting the grounds. It’s the fancy Whole Foods to Bonnnaroo’s neighborhood bodega.
TOTAL POINTS = 17
All Tomorrow’s Parties: I’ll Be Your Mirror, curated by Greg Dulli (of The Afghan Whigs) & ATP
September 21-23, Asbury Park, New Jersey
Ticket cost: 2
Since only a partial lineup is announced, we’ll go ahead and anticipate the number of artists performing based from previous years: It looks to be about 40. Using that number, then, and a $199 ticket price (plus Brown Paper Ticket fees), you’ll be paying roughly $4.98 per artist. While these smaller-scale festivals have a lot of pluses, it’s hard to compete with Bonnaroo and the big boys when breaking down the cost per band (and $199 is the early-bird price, mind you).
Travel expenses: 4
Hey! New Jersey! That’s not too far. No flight need, just a friend with a car or a round-trip train ticket from Penn Station at about $30 a pop. ATP provides shuttles from the station to the main venues, though you’ll likely want to splurge on a hotel room. Looking over the list on ATP’s website, it looks like an average room runs about $100 a night (cram a few people in there, yo). Easy breezy.
Though the sleepy and surreal Kutshers Country Club seems to still be the preferred backdrop for the fest, ATP will set up shop at last year’s newly minted location in Asbury Park, again diving time between the Convention Hall and the Paramount Theatre. For some, not having to deal with weather and crappy soundsystems make the indoor venues choice; for others, it takes away the festival “feel.” To those people, we point out that a boardwalk serves as a central hub.
It’s probable that, come September, the Afghan Whigs’ return will have lost a tad of its luster after seeing/reading about their Coachella and Primavera performances, though we can assume Dulli and co. will bring no less to the table.
ATP hangs its hat on being the rare festival able to bring bands out of the woodwork. While its early still early in the game, none of the bands announced, save for maybe Sharon Van Etten and The Roots, are ones you see playing around town too often. A rare performance by Louis C.K. (oh, yeah, there’s a comedy tent too) is enough to push people over the edge.
According to NPR, “The wall between fans and fame is mostly stripped away, as is corporate sponsorship. In terms of vibe, it is simply the best music festival there is,” and an awful lot of people share the sentiment. It’s true, this is one of the most unique festivals out there, one that creates an alterna-universe where eyeglasses and beards thrive, everyone doodled band logos on their notebooks in high school, and you can rub elbows with Steve Albini in a poker room.
TOTAL POINTS = 19
May 30-June 3, Barcelona, Spain
Ticket cost: 3
Taking into account what Google says is the U.S. dollar’s current exchange rate, the 190€ ticket to Primavera comes out to about $250 (plus what Spaniards charmingly call “booking fees”). Divide that by the 145 bands playing the fest, including those bookending with pre-and-post shows on May 30 and June 3, and that’s a measly $1.72 per band — remarkably, the cheapest of the lot. Europeans, man, they know how to live. More good news! Children 14 years and under accompanied by a legal guardian are granted free admission, so if you look young and have a friend who looks old, good luck with that. As good of a deal as this seems, though, we hesitate bumping up the score to four, as camping is a no-go in this setting, and therefore sleeping accommodations are not included in the ticket price…
Travel expenses: 0
…Which means this isn’t going to be pretty. Chalk up $919 for a round-trip flight to Barcelona, meals on a weak U.S. dollar, a buck or two for a postcard, and, yikes, hotel reservations. The festival lays out several options for that last point, the cheapest of which comes to around $164 (125 €) per night for either a single or double room. It’s called Hotel Front Maritim, is about a 15-minute walk from the festival site, accessible to the airport via public transportation, looks clean, and has palm trees out front. Let’s just say it’ll be pricey week, but also an awesome one.
The obvious upside to this is hanging out in a city where siestas are a thing and famous buildings look like drip sandcastles. Barcelona marries the old world with the cosmopolitan and the exotic, making for a musical excursion unlike anything back in the home country. As an urban festival, the crux of the shows take place in the Parc del Fòrum, a plaza of open spaces and auditoriums resembling a souped-up Williamsburg Waterfront; here, facing the Mediterranean.
In what’s perhaps keeping with an European communist mentality, Primavera typically lists bands alphabetically on promotional materials, therefore obscuring clear-cut headliners (a detail I personally wish more festivals would copy). Someone has got to play last, however, and a perusal of the lineup reveals that this year’s heavy hitters — Bjork, The xx, The Cure, Wilco, Jeff Mangum, Justice, M83 and Franz Ferdinand among them — offers New Yorkers a healthy batch of bands that haven’t made their way to our coast too recently (scratch Bjork and Mangum, but we have a feeling you’d see them again if you could). Downside: We’re not over Justice yet? C’mon, guys.
Primavera excels at cherry-picking talent from all phases of hype, allowing for on-the-verge breakouts to share the stage with the just-broken-out and those who paved the way. Balancing out Pitchfork’s curated stage of upstarts (The Weeknd, Danny Brown, Real Estate, Iceage, Trash Talk, AraabMuzik, no way, Grimes is playing) are those in it for the long haul (Melvins, The Afghan Whigs, Death Cab for Cutie, Archers of Loaf, Refused, Spiritualized), plus some steadily going standbys (Girls, Atlas Sound, Kings of Convenience, Black Lips). New Yorkers in particular are treated to those routing in from the European festival circuit. No St. Vincent or tUnE-yArDs here, but Saint Etienne and The Olivia Tremor Control make for more unique options. Add in Brooklyn newbies Friends, Milagres and The Men for a taste of home (and Kleenex Girl Wonder, because they’re just good) and a dose of foreign-language acts, and the end result is an impeccably curated picture of indie-rock.
Though annual attendance is 100,000 strong (bigger than Bonnaroo, if you’re keeping track), the urban setting avoids making concert-goers feel like they’re corralled into a pen, despite the mass amount of people. At the hands of the Europeans, it feels a touch cooler, more sophisticated, than a lot of the big camping festivals in America. An entry on Primavera’s FAQ webpage asks, “Can I buy cigarettes on the festival site?” Why, yes. Yes you can. Hey, here’s a glass of red wine to sip while watching Spiritualized with the sea breeze gently ruffling your hair.
TOTAL POINTS = 20
May 25-28, The Gorge, Washington
Ticket cost: 2
With 128 bands, DJs and comedians spread across five stages over four days, a $315 festival pass means you’re paying roughing $2.46 per artist, which is not a bad price to see Jack White, even if you’re convinced he’s not totally human. (The ghost of Edward Scissorhands, probably.) A pleasant surprise in the age of hidden fees, there are no additional charges that creep up on you come checkout (other than fancy delivery methods if you so choose), and the cost of a badge includes standard camping — even parking.
Travel expenses: 3
A quick search on KAYAK.com landed us a $350 round-trip flight from NYC to Seattle, departing on May 25 and returning May 29. Not exactly cheap, though we expected worse. From here, the festival provides round-trip shuttles, as well as from Ellensburg, Vancouver and SeaTac airports, to The Gorge for $90-$150, depending on departing location ($90 from Seattle), to rid the hassles of renting a car, paying for gas, getting sidetracked by a Cracker Barrel and winding up lost. If you do opt for car rental however, a badge permits re-entry to the grounds this year, so, theoretically, you could leave to grab dinner each night and keep the food vendor gouging at bay.
Yeah, it’s hard to beat this. The lawn-terrace seating has you perched over the Columbia River, and the stages look like they’ve been dropped into panoramic postcards of the canyon below. Not a bad view to be stuck staring at for four days. Plus, with the sloping lawn, you might actually
find yourself staring at it, as opposed to the back of some guy’s head in the middle of an open field. Sasquatch!’s Northwest climate is perhaps the most optimal for camping — there’s photographic evidence of people in hooded sweatshirts as dusk looking perfectly comfortable — as long as, you know, it doesn’t rain. Even still, it’s a long way from the urban hustle and bustle of New York to help make it feel like an actual vacation. It’s also the nine-time winner of Pollstar Magazine
's “Best Outdoor Music Venue,” and, as we know, magazine rankings are always right.
You’ve got one of the first big festival appearances of Jack White’s new solo venture, one of the first post-Grammy appearances of Bon Iver in the U.S., and the return of Beck to the stage (who, yes, is playing the Governors Ball
much closer to home, but we once saw him pogo during “The New Pollution” while singing into a megaphone, so he’s probably worth checking out twice). So much of this comes down to personal taste, but if white guys in indie-rock is your thing, this pretty much takes the cake.
Sasquatch! excels at honing in on a certain indie-centric demographic, and essentially building a fest just for them. So if you’re part of that said demographic, which we’re going to go ahead and assume you are, things are looking pretty good here. The roster brims with Radio City and Terminal 5-ready acts (Spiritualized, The Shins, Feist, St. Vincent, Childish Gambino, Beirut, M. Ward, The Roots) that would cost you a fortune to see individually in New York. There’s a big helping of 2012 blog essentials (Santigold, Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs) with a focus on local Sub Pop players and other Northwest bands (Dum Dum Girls, Shabazz Palaces), plus plenty of quirks along the way (Tenacious D, Charles Bradley, Todd Barry, John Mulaney, and the geographically appropriate Portlandia
With 20,000 in attendance, it’s more of a regional festival but with a national draw, largely thanks to its location. There’s still the sticky shower situation as with all camping fests, and maybe a higher ratio of hacky sack diehards than at some of the others, but the relative small population makes the vibe seem more relaxed, while still eliciting the type of experience that allows for things like this
to happen. It’s something you’ll tell your grandkids stories of — when you were young and free and danced with strangers on rolling hills.
TOTAL POINTS = 22
Follow Lauren Beck on Twitter @heylaurenbeck.