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Top 10 Music Festivals in North America: Summer 2014 Power Rankings

on July 03, 2014, 12:00pm
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Photo by Ben Kaye

Welcome to Festival Outlook, a new supplemental column that will provide more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, Michael RoffmanFrank Mojica, and Carson O’Shoney adjust the power rankings on this year’s Top 10 North American music festivals. Agree or disagree, let us know in the comments below.

Michael Roffman (MR): “We’re gonna build something this summer.” Craig Finn’s words of wisdom are all I can hear while assembling our latest round of rankings. Yes, it’s officially summertime (even if it’s felt that way for months now), two of the Big Four fests are behind us, and we’re only just kissing July. Oy. We have a lot of work cut out for us, gentlemen.

I guess the first thing to discuss is our Spring No. 1, Bonnaroo. It’s now been a few weeks since The Farm shut its doors, and yet we’re still reeling from the four-day extravaganza — and I didn’t even attend! So, what do we think? Was it a success? Does it deserve No. 1? Sure, it was by far the safest installment in the fest’s history, but Kanye’s set wasn’t the heroic comeback it needed to be, Frank Ocean didn’t debut any new material, and maybe it’s just a lack of social networking, but I don’t think people walked away from Elton’s set as “changed” as they were from McCartney’s.

Still, according to our own Alex Young, Jack White put on one of the best sets of his career and of the festival, and as Carson pointed out (and several readers agreed), Nick Cave might have done the same thing. I think there’s a lot to discuss here, and I’m certainly not the authority considering I spent that weekend watching comedians at AV Club’s comedy festival and my team fumble their fourth NBA Finals appearance. So, what say you, Mr. O’Shoney?


Bonnaroo // Photo by Amanda Koellner

Carson O’Shoney (CO): Bonnaroo just keeps getting better somehow. The event has changed so much since I started going in 2007, and it’s (almost) all for the better. It’s a finely tuned machine at this point, firing on all cylinders. Getting there isn’t as much of a chore as it used to be, the lines to Centeroo have been cut down considerably, water stations are now plentiful, the grounds have expanded and remain beautiful, the Food Truck Oasis/Kalliope Stage setup was perfect this year, and it really helped that they removed the center division at the What Stage pit. As you mentioned, it was the safest Roo ever, and what’s more, the weather cooperated and kept everyone cooler than normal. All in all, it was easily one of the best festivals I’ve personally attended. No lie: Bonnaroo’s “Radiate Positivity” mantra really did translate into a good vibe at the fest, even amidst the persistent “Fuck Kanye” graffiti.

Sure, Elton John didn’t leave the crowd ‘changed’ like Macca did in 2013, but maybe people don’t have an emotional connection to Elton like they do with Paul. Instead, they were just there to sing along and have a good time, which they did by the tens of thousands. Throw in Jack White and Nick Cave and the countless other acts who knocked it out of the park this year, and you’ve got a lineup that stands up to the best lineups in the past — both in theory and execution. There were very few disappointing sets, and even those were seemingly disappointing to a very small, albeit vocal, minority (ahem, Kanye, which I personally loved). Let’s not forget about all the SuperJams this year, which you won’t find anywhere but Bonnaroo. From top to bottom, this year was an absolute success, and if you only took the lineup into account, I think Roo would still be top two at worst. Factor in everything else, and it really cements its place as No. 1 in our power rankings.


Jack White at Bonnaroo // Photo by Amanda Koellner

Frank Mojica (FM): I really wish I could have gone to Bonnaroo this year. It isn’t often that I actually watch all of the headliners at a festival, and the lineup was solid from top to bottom. Also, a lower emphasis on EDM is always a good thing.

It wasn’t entirely surprising that Yeezus was figuratively nailed to a cross by attendees. Seriously, children, get over 2008, already. As for Sir Elton, I would love to see him and his hit-stuffed set sounded like a blast, even if it didn’t pack the same oomph as McCartney. But then again, what does? Bonnaroo’s SuperJams are a welcome break from the usual festival fare and are once-in-a-lifetime sets, really. I mean, where else can you see Warpaint covering “Pump Up the Jam”?

Speaking of which, I must say, they goofed by not giving Warpaint a longer set. They would have actually taken advantage of the extra time with their penchant for extended jams. Nevertheless, the webcast sounded incredible. It’s disheartening to hear that only a hundred or so people watched Nick Cave, though. At some point, festivals are surely going to stop booking people like Cave if people don’t start actually watching them, so let’s enjoy these bookings while they last.

MR: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Slow down, Frank. We all know how insane you are about Warpaint. You’ve gotta remember, they’re still a rising, young act. I’m actually surprised they were even a part of the SuperJam, so I’d consider them lucky by Roo standards. Also, maybe I just caught them amidst some weird SXSW malaise, but I’ve yet to go bonkers for them on-stage, and I actually enjoy their albums. ANYWAYS…


Vampire Weekend at Bonnaroo // Photo by Amanda Koellner

I guess when it comes down to it, Bonnaroo really does offer a perfect mix of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I was going to start this off by discussing how they place such a precedence on the veterans, but really, that’s just not true anymore. They gave Skrillex a SuperJam set entirely to himself, while Elton John, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Lionel Richie are the only real greying veterans at the top of their lineup. Hell, Vampire Weekend is listed as fifth — fifth! — pitting them ahead of Arctic Monkeys, or Skrillex, or even the festival’s beloved Flaming Lips. Granted, plenty of other fests have done the same thing (e.g., Governors Ball), but Bonnaroo is arguably the weightiest of the colossal Big Four. It just speaks to their eyes and how they’re not looking pre-2000 as much anymore, and that should help as the lineups get more and more difficult to piece together year after year.

lollapalooza 2014“But Lollapalooza did the same thing this year, didn’t they? They booked Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Skrillex, Eminem, and OutKast, who all claimed their spotlight post-2000,” you might argue, and you’d be right. But here’s the difference: story. With the exception of OutKast, who by then will have played over 30 sets, each one of those acts have played Lollapalooza in the past few years, and even worse, they aren’t supporting anything new. Each of their albums will be almost or a little over a year old, and while seeing how Arctic might fare as a headliner is intriguing, it’s not enough of a narrative to really pull you in. With Bonnaroo, they had a heroic return (Jack White), a rematch (Kanye West), the induction of two legends (Lionel Richie, Sir Elton John), and well, just go look at the lineup… it goes on and on. I think that’s what’s really necessary of the Big Four at this point; you need to have a narrative, a story, or at least character. And yeah, I’d have to agree, Bonnaroo did that again.

Here’s what I’d argue, though. Edge vs. narrative. In that department, FYF Fest wins hands down. This is a festival whose idea of a veteran is an act that’s either been dismissed (Interpol) or relatively out of the spotlight (The Strokes), where reunions require a short trip down memory lane (The Blood Brothers, Slowdive), and the greatest acts of today get the banner space they deserve and could host (HAIM, Grimes, Flying Lotus). Personally, this is the only lineup of the year that had me run to the bathroom to see if I actually did pee in my pants just a little. (Of course, I didn’t; it was just green tea.) I’m still taking my leftover Xanax in hopes to feel better about myself for missing this. And have you been to FYF? It’s one of the only festivals I know of where you can easily smooth over the conflicts by running to and from stages. Son of a bitch, how am I missing this?

Please talk amongst yourselves. Topic: How does FYF fare against it’s little cousin FFF? Are these small-scale reunions overhyped or just chances for the lesser known to get their due applause?

FM: Most people don’t care, sure, but for those that do, there’s little more exciting than the prospect of finally catching that beloved band that’s finally back together again. FYF really nailed it this year. Phoenix and The Strokes secured the attendance of the masses, and having several esoteric reunions guaranteed continuing support from their base of regulars. No wonder the event sold out.

Caleb Followill, Kings of Leon_13042024033_l

Kings of Leon // Photo by Amanda Koellner

MR: Hmm, it would appear as if that’s a common thread of any successful festival — especially a juggernaut like Lollapalooza. A few anchors move the tickets out the door, and the rest, well, they’re colorful shipmates. Going off that measure, do we value the anchors or the shipmates? Are we going in circles here? Look at last week’s news about C3’s Big Day Out! What happens when there’s a lack of anchors? Does the ship then drift away into nowhere? Or do the shipmates stand up? Sorry, apparently last night’s viewing of Master and Commander struck a nerve. Oh, that Russell Crowe.

CO: Going back to FYF/FFF — even though I just sang the praises of Bonnaroo, smaller fests like these are really where my interests lie these days. They don’t need as many ‘anchors’ since they don’t have to attract a small city to their gates. That also gives them freedom to make interesting bookings that aren’t part of your average festival lineup. FYF snagged Slowdive and Blood Brothers, while FFF got King Diamond and Judas Priest, among many others at both. Some of my favorites lineups in the recent past have been put together by Moogfest/Mountain Oasis, Big Ears, Pitchfork, Hopscotch, and other smaller festivals.

In general — to continue the metaphor — early in your festival-going life, I find you’re more likely to be drawn by the anchors. That’s how they draw the masses in, and hook the first-timers into going to their festival. But the more you go to festivals, the more enamored you become by the shipmates. Some of that has to do with the fact that there are only so many headliners to go around, and while some festivals do a solid job of keeping the top of their lineups fresh, others (*cough* Lollapalooza *cough*) seem content to just keep trotting out the same batch of anchors. In cases like that, you have to start getting more into the shipmates; otherwise, it’s pointless to keep going to the same festival to see the same bands over and over again. Even if your festival(s) of choice aren’t recycling their headliners in that fashion, as you get older and go to more festivals, it just feels natural to be more drawn to the smaller, more intriguing acts.

Big Day Out

On the other hand, Big Day Out and countless other failed festivals prove the need for big anchors. There are always going to be huge music fans that get pumped about the bottom half of the lineup, but they are far outnumbered. No matter how established a festival is, or how good of an undercard they have, the masses are mostly just looking at the top two or three lines when making a decision on what festival to attend. They don’t care that Ty Segall is playing a late-night set. They don’t know or care what Mogwai represents. They’re there to party and see the bands in big bold letters at the top of the poster. If you don’t strike a chord with them there, you might be shit out of luck. Like it or not, it’s those type of people that make or break major festivals.

MR: And that’s a tragedy in itself, Carson. I recall in my early days of Lollapalooza — around 2005 and 2006 — I’d be riding with folks who wanted to hit up the festival early to see what they were offering, and I thought that was really open-minded of them. For one, they weren’t the biggest music fans, meaning they didn’t hit up the boards or obsess over songs the minute they surfaced, but they wanted to make every dollar of their purchase count. I don’t know if that’s a good way of thinking, but I imagine it’s led to some great discoveries on their part. Still, like you said, they wouldn’t have bought that ticket if Weezer or the Red Hot Chili Peppers weren’t on the lineup. But maybe one experience is worth an annual tradition regardless of the top-billed talent? Probably not.

Keeping this going, I’d like to re-address the story angle of festivals. What festival works off a powerful mythos this summer?

FM: I think the story of the summer could be Pemberton. The first, and only, edition was apparently well attended but plagued with logistical issues such as traffic and a limited capacity dance tent. These issues have been addressed by the new organizers, though. It will be interesting to see what happens with Pemberton’s reboot because I think it has the potential to be the next true North American destination festival due to its beautiful setting and impressive lineup.

pemberton full

And how about that lineup, eh? Truly something for everyone.

MR: It’s definitely a great lineup and one that also gives a fair shake to a variety of genres at the top level. As we saw with Sasquatch! this year, Soundgarden isn’t exactly a genuine sell, so it’s nice to know they’re getting another shot, albeit behind NIN, OutKast, and Deadmau5. The undercard is pretty brilliant, too. Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Modest Mouse, and, um, Randy Newman? Come on. That last addition is the sort of creativity every veteran spot should warrant. Hell, they even nabbed Norm Macdonald in the comedy tent, which should account for 65% of the ticket alone. What do you think, Carson?

CO: I love it when major festivals book something completely out of left field. I’ve already talked about some of the more niche fests and their unique bookings, but seeing names like Randy Newman on a huge lineup makes me smile. Hell, just a few years ago we would have scoffed at the notion of Lionel Richie playing prime-time spots at these types of festivals, but now he’s killed at both ACL and Bonnaroo. Plus a vet like Norm and even someone like Tom Green (both at Pemberton) makes a comedy lineup a lot more interesting than your average festival. More bookings like those, please.

moogfest 2014 Top 10 Music Festivals in North America: Summer 2014 Power Rankings

MR: If we’re talking about intriguing stories, I have to bring up Moogfest. Their soft return earlier this year kicked our heads with one of the most unique lineups we’ve been able to appreciate in North America. But ultimately, it was a failure, having lost $1.5 million in the process. Here’s the breakdown, according to Asheville’s Citizen-Times:

Moogfest ticket sales totaled more than $712,000, with food, beverage and merchandise sales at around $29,000. Expenses totaled more than $2.7 million. The majority of the festival costs came from talent. Festival organizers Moog Music spent more than $1.5 million on artists and artists travel, hotel, and meals.

Moogfest 2014, touted as a new economic development tool to coax more technology talent to the area, received $90,000 in funding from the county and $40,000 from the city of Asheville, along with another $50,000 in in-kind services

Ouch. Odds are it’s not coming back after that. Granted, we’ve seen some resilience with troubled festivals in the past years — Langerado and DeLuna, to name a couple — but with no sign of a return from A/C Entertainment’s Mountain Oasis Festival, it would appear that Asheville is off the map for festival season. So, could we really justifiably call this year’s Moogfest a top festival?

Based on creativity and originality, yes. But from an economical standpoint, perhaps, no. Is this another lesson to what we’ve been discussing all along: the importance of anchors? Or is this a premature conclusion, especially since most young festivals lose money in their fledgling years? Sub-question: Is Moogfest really a young festival anymore? Let’s tackle these and then we can hit up our lists.

Moogfest // Photo by Cap Blackard

moog factory 1 - By Cap BlackardCO: To answer your question, yes Moogfest is still a young festival. It shares a name with an older festival, but there’s no relation otherwise. They can go through the same growing pains that any other young fest would go through, especially between year one and year two. I will say that Moogfest definitely gets points for trying something different. Not only did they put together perhaps the most unique lineup of the year, they decided to go five days long and have a “day” lineup of presentations and panels, and a “night” lineup of music. It’s a dream festival for anyone who is into that scene on more than just a musical level.

The problem is, by stretching it out to five days, you’re limiting your audience greatly. Anyone with a job and little to no vacation time is automatically out. Some that would have free time might not be able to afford staying in Asheville for five days. Any way you slice it, five days is a long time for a music festival, no matter what other kind of peripheral activities are happening around the music. I’m taking a stab in the dark here, but I’m guessing that contributed to the small turnout — when you’ve got a niche festival like that, you’ve got to make it more accessible to out-of-towners.

I think they need to find the right balance between their vision of Moogfest and AC Entertainment’s versions if they truly want the festival to be a success. I, for one, hope we haven’t seen the last of Moogfest, no matter where they go from here.

Ryan Hemsworth 1 Mon Moog

Ryan Hemsworth // Photo by Derek Staples

FM: Moogfest may have been our last shot at a truly original, one-of-a-kind festival experience. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great lineups this year, but they are all massive outdoor events short on esoteric delights. The intimate, specialized event for the discerning music lover is a dying breed. As was the case with ATP, we apparently can’t have nice things and you can’t pay the bills with creativity points.

I agree with Carson’s assessment that five days may have been a bit much for Moogfest, especially for an event in April. Bad timing probably killed the S.S. Coachella, and it may be a factor here as well.

MR: Timing is everything with festivals and, yeah, five days is just too much. It stopped me from being able to attend and this is my life. You can’t aim to be South by Southwest in the first go-around, which is sort of what they attempted to do, come to think of it. Despite the pitfalls, I think we all agree it was a success, creatively speaking, and deserves its spot amongst the best of 2014. It’s just a shame we won’t be using the term “blockbuster” at all.


Boston Calling: Spring 2014 // Photo by Ben Kaye

On the plus side, there are several young festivals that deserve that title already. Look at Corona Capitol! Or Boston Calling’s sister installment for the fall! There are a lot of great junior festivals refusing to pull their punches, and it’s working out well for them.

I think this is about as great a time as any to break into our list. Shall we?

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