While everything in society and the music industry has been turned on its head over the past decade, festivals haven’t become particularly innovative; just bloated and pricey. And over time they have started to look similar — really similar — with virtually identical headlining acts. Most have lost their sense of discovery and curiosity.
But there is so much to be curious about, to seek to understand and change — or at the very least to acknowledge — as young people cope with the turmoil of our era. This is the era of kids getting gunned down in schools, of skyrocketing suicides and drug-related deaths. It’s an era of women finally being heard about rampant sexual abuse, of racist police brutality getting caught on video, of a society-shifting battle around LBQT freedom and of a government that no longer even attempts to hide its ugly lies.
While music defined previous generations, the current era sees music festivals largely divorced from our real lives. You could argue that the greatest festivals of the last decade were not Coachella, South by Southwest or Outside Lands, they were the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter.
I remember being a kid facing down turmoil and music was my salvation. In high school I was depressed, awkward, friendless, bullied and got terrible grades. I got kicked out of school for poor performance. I turned to punk rock, goth and grunge. I refused to give up, grew up and eventually landed a “real job,” but sitting at a desk didn’t suit me. So, like any dissatisfied punk rocker, I made my way into the entertainment world, a place where I could be more of who I was.
Five years ago, I founded a festival called Life Is Beautiful with Zappos founder Tony Hsieh as my backer to help with his mission to redevelop downtown Las Vegas. I named the event after realizing my own close friend was battling a decade of depression. She was struggling to come out of the closet and was becoming isolated from her family, which, as first-generation Pakistani-Americans, was pretty conservative at the time. I wanted her to see the world like I do, to see that life is beautiful even when it’s very hard. I had faced my own struggles. I had a heart attack at age 23 and spent four years in and out of hospitals thanks to a rare blood clotting disease, and had seen this for myself.
At the same time, I also wanted to make a festival that didn’t gloss over the real social troubles of our day, that favored real human interaction over meat markets and VIP status grabs. My partnership on Life Is Beautiful dissolved because of differences, including my intention to make the festival one that primarily connected young people through shared stories of resilience and pain. I spent the next 12 months researching all the emerging music events in existence and why so many people were dissatisfied with them. The music business has changed 100 ways, but these festivals meant for discovery and celebration have stayed the same. I found what is missing is the emotional relationship people have with music and the relevance to their life experiences.
I looked at the last 80 years of music history and every time emerging music has spiked in popularity, it’s tied to social unrest. The rise of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin‘s voices in the late ’60s and early ’70s came along with the massive protests of the Vietnam war. The rise of N.W.A and Public Enemy came alongside the rise of urban tensions around racism in the 1980s. Then in the era of New Kids on the Block and the C+C Music Factory, Nirvana and Courtney Love broke into the scene like a Molotov cocktail smashing through a mall window.
With the democratization of the media — from blogs to Twitter, from YouTube to podcasts — every musical or social impact movement can blossom without gatekeepers. But at the same time, as niche communities have grown online, it’s become tougher and tougher for a strong social impact message in music to reach the levels they did in the mass-media broadcast era.
I would argue that the last song of protest to reach mass scale was Eminem‘s “Mosh” that he released during the George W. Bush era, which includes the line “Fuck Bush.” At that point in time, it didn’t matter if you were into hip-hop, if you were connected to a radio or TV you probably heard that song. If he were to release that song today, Eminem fans and hip-hop fans would hear it, but everyone else would be hiding out in their silos and not know about it. Even Childish Gambino‘s powerful video for his chart-topping “This Is America” probably got missed by a large swath of America.
At the same time, today’s protest movements have evolved into actual brands most people can identify. When you say March for Our Lives, the Women’s March, Occupy Wall Street, #MeToo, Pride and Black Lives Matter, people know what you’re talking about and people will remember those for a long time. But why is there no soundtrack for those movements?
Now is the best time ever to rebuild the relationship people have with music by making festivals relevant to their actual experience, not a distraction from it. Picture having dinner and cocktails with Rosa Parks, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a live show, savoring the music and the experience while diving deep into what might transform our lives for the better. Imagine inviting your favorite nerds talking about their unique expertise alongside today’s emerging and outspoken musicians, people who have the confidence and mission to stand alone, but today are at a party together… with you. Perhaps it’s the social impact version of Art Basel, a wild but thought-provoking spring break for the activists.
That’s the festival I want to see with you.
Rehan Choudhry is the founder and CEO of ABeautifulPerspective.com, a media company with the mission of connecting readers to issues that affect their lives and encouraging them to think critically and form their own opinions. ABP meets their community at live, one-of-a-kind events including monthly gatherings in New York where the audience joins the conversation and the Emerge Festival in Las Vegas May 31-June 1, 2019. This year’s festival will include Andrew Bird (performer), David Hogg (speaker: gun control), Laura Jane Grace (performer: transgender rights), Leikeli47 (performer), Talib Kweli (performer) and Patrisse Cullors (speaker: Black Lives Matter), among others.