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Mumford & Sons have one song*. Closer to 30, technically, counting their singles, bonus tracks and two studio albums, but take a step back from the speakers and it’s really a single very effective production. It’s the one with the elephant-sized guitars, the leonine vocals, the banjo that gallops like the horse in that Spielberg movie you almost rented. Then it gets quiet, the calm before the storm strums back in. It’s too big for a club to contain, too young and fresh for an arena. It’s festivalcore. And it might be the last hope for the future of rock music.
From chillwave to seapunk, we’ve seen our fair share of unfortunate genre names in the last few years—forgive me for coining one more. Festivalcore’s easy to define: electric post-punk tones or chugging acoustic chords; vocals rugged enough to chop a season’s firewood; choruses best described with flight metaphors; staggering sincerity; lots of dudes. Probable, but not necessary: Beards. Whoa-oh-ohs. Top billing at Coachella. Its patron saints are Bruce Springsteen, U2 and (shhh) Bon Jovi. Arcade Fire are festivalcore – they practically invented it. So are the Kings of Leon and My Morning Jacket. The Killers are, when they’re not singing about being human or dancer. Midlake should be. The National and Fleet Foxes come close. Bon Iver doesn’t. Essentially, festivalcore acts combine indie rock’s outsider allure with raw pop ambition, their songs shaped by the outdoor stages which have become the altars of the American summer’s most sacred musical ritual.
As crucial as authenticity is to popular musicians – note, especially now, major label pop singers’ insistence on being dubbed “artists” – their work has always been molded and edited by its modes of dissemination. Recorded songs didn’t cross the three-minute barrier for years thanks to the limits of 78 RPM singles and the related expectations of radio; vinyl LPs and then digital compact discs, which fattened to a potential 80 minutes, established similar standards. When a number of ‘80s indie acts cleaned themselves up for major labels, it was as much to reliably get their records on shelves as it was for the money.
The Internet’s advances now means most of the past century of recorded music can be heard on demand, instantly, all the time. Songs are still three minutes, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be 30. (Recent R&B breakthrough Frank Ocean previewed his album with the 10-minute “Pyramids.”) Bigger indie acts routinely compete with pop divas and hip-hop heavyweights on the streaming charts and the Billboard 200. Format and distribution have given way to the necessities of attention. How can an act best reach a mass audience if it can’t make the dangerously skinny playlists of radio and MTV? In the U.S., the answer has emerged in multi-day music festivals from California’s Coachella to Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, events which have become the essential document of American live music for hundreds of thousands of annual attendees. With record sales a non-starter for many, the business of being a working band is on the road – and there’s no better stop, for audience or paycheck, than a festival stage. As the room’s grown to previously unimaginable sizes, music once played in boozy clubs and local basements has had to evolve.
As European events such as Glastonbury continued in a proud tradition, at the turn of the millennium, American music festivals were in transition. That’s generous: they were dying off. Alternative rock’s commercial and generational relevance, championed under the banner of Lollapalooza, was flattened under the backwards baseball caps and unfathomable anger of the rap-rock and nu-metal bands flooding MTV. Lolla wrapped up its initial seven-year run in 1997 without a single major act that could be dubbed “grunge,” though unlikely Total Request Live kings Korn made the bill. The first run of Lilith Fair, a much-needed female answer to the hard rock scene’s sausage parties, was just 3 years old when it wrapped up in 1999. Woodstock 1999 traded in its ’69 ancestor’s peace and love for destruction, rape and Limp Bizkit. It was a fucking disaster.
‘90s-born rock festivals – Lolla, Warped Tour, Ozzfest, Lilith – focused on genres, with Warped Tour becoming a dependable hub for punk and Ozzfest, led its bat-eating namesake, a home for metal and hard rock. Lilith Fair embraced a handful of R&B and hip-hop artists – in 1998, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Queen Latifah each played the main stage, a bill that should get its own festival – but stuck largely to the folk and country-inflected music of artists like founder Sarah McLachlan and Shawn Colvin. With limited diversity, however, came limited audiences; the idea of a cultural moment like Woodstock coming once again to the U.S. seemed impossible.
At the same time, the ‘90s also saw the indie underground shift and expand away from its punk and hardcore roots into thoughtful, less abrasive sounds, thanks to acts from the wry, wordy Pavement to Elliott Smith, an artist whose whispered folk spun 180 degrees from the Dischord-style rock he’d practiced with Portland’s Heatmiser. By the decade’s end, the indie world had grown broad enough to accept and encompass lo-fi guitar heroes (Pavement, Guided by Voices), ‘60s-indebted psychedelia (the Elephant Six collective), sad-bastard folk (Cat Power, Smog) blistering emo (Sunny Day Real Estate, At the Drive-In), idiosyncratic auteurs (the Flaming Lips, Bjork), vague, sublime post-rock (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros) and transcendent Britpop (Radiohead, Blur), among others.
The pathways to adventurous taste were expanding beyond the counters of record-store nerds or plugged-in scenesters. With social, streaming-based sites such as MySpace and P2P pirate enclaves, taking a chance on something new went from Vegas odds to a no-stakes game, requiring only time, ears and a broadband connection. Until EDM took over youth culture a decade later, no genre grew online faster than indie. The Internet’s financial repercussions for the music industry are a separate debate, but the benefit to consumer tastes was priceless. For many, wide, insatiable listening became the new normal. Getting back to the garden began to seem like a good idea.
Like many great religions, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival began in the desert. Its first event, a two-day 1999 experiment spread across five stages, didn’t quite escape Lolla’s shadow – ’97 alumni Beck, Tool and Lolla founder Perry Farrell himself made the bill – but it shone with an unprecedented range of music. The main stage saw performances from Beck, electronic stars the Chemical Brothers, former Smiths frontman Morrissey and prog-jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, among others – the kind of spread you’d be hard-pressed to find on most alt-rockers’ CD-R mixes. From the beginning, Coachella embraced electronic artists, giving over a separate tent to DJs including A-Trak and Mix Master Mike, as well as paying attention to underground hip-hop (Jurassic 5, the Roots’ Rahzel) and indie rock, represented by Pavement, Modest Mouse and the Super Furry Animals.
That was just the warm-up. After a year off, Coachella returned in 2001. And 2002. A cult began growing in the Indio desert, strengthened by lineups that honed in on breaking young indie, electronic and hip-hop acts and funded the reunions of disbanded heroes; going to Coachella became an annual trip to America’s coolest record store. With inhibitions loosened by drugs, dehydration and the promise of the year’s most epic weekend, hipster snobbery had no choice but to take a few days off. The festival’s Sahara stage earned another name: the dance tent.
Along the way, a handful of boutique festivals took their best shots at the West Coast: the U.K.’s All Tomorrow’s Parties parted ways with California after 2004’s event aboard the Queen Mary (led by Modest Mouse, the Walkmen and the Shins), while 2005’s Arthur Magazine-sponsored ArthurFest was a lone, wonderful hippie weekend with appearances from Devendra Banhart and the Black Keys, the latter still years away from headlining Madison Square Garden. But gathering a few thousand people wasn’t enough of a party. Coachella’s two days are now six, with one weekend’s bill copy-pasted to make room for another quarter-million fans.
Coachella and its five stages and hundreds of thousands of fans represent a mass experience that’s communal but not mainstream – a key distinction for its individualist attendees. In recent years, though, every zip code seems to have sprouted a festival with increasingly familiar lineups. Coachella’s found colleagues most notably at Bonnaroo – the stomping grounds of festivalcore heroes My Morning Jacket – and at events from Sasquatch to Bumbershoot, ironically making each fest a part of the trends some initially sought to subvert. But geography and costly ticket prices seem to have kept fans from being bothered by the repetition. Lollapalooza’s even mounted a comeback.
Woodstock’s misguided revival aside, some of the half-imagined festival magic never went away. Outdoor shows and a strong community have long been the lifeblood of jam bands, from the Grateful Dead to Phish and dozens of lesser-knowns. But the thrill of a Dead show was its unique experience, the promise of hours of unpredictable musicianship built like jazz architecture over a familiar rock foundation. The thrill of festivals – and festivalcore — is that of a shared experience, the one that lives on in memories and Instagram forever. You don’t need to see it 100 times. You just need to see it at Coachella.
Which brings us to festivalcore. In 2004, as indie began to explode over from bittorrent folders and college campuses into Natalie Portman movies and venues with seats, the Arcade Fire led the charge. A universally cited Pitchfork review helped break both them and the indie-centric site to the mainstream, but the band’s larger-than-life show made them unstoppable. In L.A. alone, they leapt from a Spaceland debut (capacity: 260) to a three-night run at the Troubadour to their first Hollywood Bowl appearance, opening for former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – in seven months. That may be a record. But their biggest date came at Coachella 2005, a thrilling 10-member performance even the New York Times called “one of the weekend’s most anticipated sets.”
The Arcade Fire’s music, performed with the volume and intensity of a stage-filling ensemble, driven by fearlessly passionate refrains, propelled by electric guitars, untouched by the cadre of mastering engineers that ruin every modern rock album, was the perfect fit for the festival. They grew together: the band’s played Coachella twice since, headlining in 2011 just weeks after winning indie’s greatest-ever mainstream honor, a Grammy for the album of the year. Their success, and their sound, did not go unnoticed.
If 2005 marked the birth of festivalcore, Coachella 2011 was its early Bar Mitzvah. The Arcade Fire, now craggy veterans, headlined; so too, did the Kings of Leon. For a band once dubbed the Southern Strokes, the Kings understand something Julian Casablancas and his leather jacket brigade didn’t: urban cool, the kind that never boils over, never sounds as good past the city limits. The Strokes’ own Coachella set, though capable enough, is largely remembered as the hour before Kanye West. On the festivalcore nostalgia playlist we’ll make in 10 years, the Kings of Leon’s 2008 breakthrough “Sex is On Fire” is track one. A howling anthem burly enough for modern rock radio but edged with angular guitars, it’s perhaps our invented genre’s most popular song. But Coachella’s geared as much toward discovery as expectation, and 2011’s biggest surprise was a British group named Mumford & Sons.
The band emerged from the London nu-folk scene that spawned Noah and the Whale and Laura Marling, who like Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon before her, would take her pick of the scene’s men and musically leave them in the dust. Yet it’s the Mumfords who have conquered America. 2010’s Sigh No Morehas sold over 2.4 million copies, a ridiculous number for anyone in the post-Napster era and a practically unbelievable one for Glassnote Records, the indie label that’s home to sleek indie/electro acts like France’s Phoenix. Though the presence of festivalcore’s leading producer, Markus Dravs (post-Funeral Arcade Fire, stadium-era Coldplay), has no doubt helped, there’s no secret to their sound, just execution and enthusiasm. It’s music that sounds its strongest under the stars, at thunderclap volume, the energy of thousands crackling and palpable in the desert air. It requires no tricks.
With Of Monsters and Men, the Head and the Heart and numerous acts with “and” in their names trailing in their wake, there’s been no shortage of shaggy, rustic belters to chose from—but Mumford & Sons’ singular importance in rock’s current moment cannot be underestimated. The band sold 600,000 albums in a week this September, second only to Taylor Swift, arguably the biggest musician in America, and more than any rock group since AC/DC in 2008. And they did it on Glassnote. For context: Nickelback is the top-selling rock band of the last decade, with over 21 million units moved in the U.S. alone. Their best weeks top just over 300,000. But against all odds, Mumford & Sons are still the kind of band your friends might not know if you ask, the kind that feels like a secret. That’s an incredible power.
In some ways, festivalcore’s a Trojan horse, hiding mass-appeal bands inside the authentic wood of indie’s cred and sonic sensibilities. Mumford & Sons’ crucial draw is to occupy the rare space between pop star saturation and underground obscurity. It’s a generational baton only a few bands have ever passed. Radiohead held it from Kid A to Hail to the Thief; the Arcade Fire did pre-Grammy win. Dave Matthews Band had it in 1999, when the unreleased Lilywhite Sessions demos occupied a Case Logic binder in every dorm in the country. And now Marcus Mumford holds it the highest of all, but he certainly won’t be the last.
A word of admission: Mumford & Sons’ music, as rousing as it’s engineered to be, leaves me cold. I hear Marcus Mumford as a Thanksgiving turkey given the sudden, liberating gift of flight, all pebbled throat and boundless gratitude. He can’t make me feel anything. I felt the same way about the Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, a record of distant tragedy that might’ve used more of the weird, intimate textures of Funeral. But those are criticisms for recordings, and ones I had to put aside in 2011, as Win Butler’s band rained Flaming Lips-style bubbles on the crowd and coaxed their career-spanning set into an undeniable flame. I walked my sick girlfriend back to our rental house early that night and watched it on YouTube. Assuming that the Dismemberment Plan will play L.A. again someday, it is the great concert regret of my life.
The arena rockers of old once wrote music for baseball stadiums – a Coachella sunset can’t help but be better inspiration. If festivalcore’s ascent has sacrificed some nuances upon the altar of mass appeal, so be it: let them die so rock may live on among EDM and hip-hop and pop. The indie rock that defined the twilight of the ‘90s – Elliott Smith’s whispered lo-fi, Modest Mouse’s existential dread – was intended for bedrooms and headphones. No longer. Folding our arms, blank stares, the paralyzing fear of dancing, that’s all over now. After all, in a crowd of thousands, no one can hear you sing along.
*It’s “Bartender” by Dave Matthews Band.