Robin Hilton, NPR producer and co-host of All Songs Considered, seemed to be the perfect person to speak with. Given that NPR and All Songs Considered cover pretty much every major festival in the United States each year, we figured that Hilton, a Kansas native and University of Kansas graduate, is something of an authority on what makes a festival succeed or fail. He was kind enough to converse with us by e-mail last week.
The Pitch: You attend far more festivals than even the most avid concertgoer. Which ones have you attended thus far this year?
Robin Hilton: I actually don't get to as many as I'd like. I definitely hit South by Southwest every year. I've done Bonnaroo and Sasquatch. We've got the Newport folk and jazz festivals coming up, along with All Tomorrow's Parties and CMJ. I caught the Bleeding Kansas festival in Lawrence back in 2006 and thought they did a great job with it. I'd fly back for it if they did another.
Does a more focused lineup mean a better festival, or does variety add to what makes it worth attending?
I always prefer a diverse lineup. Festivals aren't always easy to get through. In fact, they can be a lot of work. You're often hot and exhausted and going on little sleep. But if you've got a broad lineup, you're rewarded with a chance to see bands you otherwise might not get to see anywhere else.
Really, though, people attend festivals -- and they're worth attending -- as much for the scene around them as the music. Each festival has it's own personality. Bonnaroo always has an amazing lineup, but it's got a reputation as jam-band festival. That's because early on organizers realized it was going to be super hot and humid and people would have to camp out for days, and they figured the kind of fan who loves jam bands would be more willing to put up with the environment. South by Southwest feels like Mardi Gras, with tens of thousands of people filling the streets and partying. Sasquatch is one of the most chilled-out festivals I've been to, in one of the most beautiful spots in the country.
There's often a lot of overlap between the various festivals in terms of the bands they get -- a lot of the same bands will play at multiple festivals. So one of the biggest and most important distinctions between them is the little world that rises up around the music for a few days.
Well, certainly the scene around the music as I mentioned. Otherwise (and this isn't a particularly romantic answer), but I'd say infrastructure. How well organized is it? How easy is it to get from one stage to the next? How well is the schedule laid out so that you can actually catch the bands you want to see? South by Southwest is insanely good, but one of the biggest problems is that it's spread out over a huge area and you can spend much of your time just speed walking from club to club, on opposite ends of town, and end up missing a lot. Sasquatch is in a gorge and you have to trudge up some enormous and steep hills to get from one stage to the next.
But really I'm mostly amazed at how well the producers of various festivals manage to pull it together. Basically they create a temporary city with restaurants, shops and lots of entertainment. There's medical care if you need it. Whenever I produce coverage of a given festival for NPR Music, I've got a million and one details to keep track of. But it's nothing compared to what it takes to actually pull off the festival itself. Makes my head spin just thinking of it.
How do you combat the fatigue that comes with dozens of hours of music in such a short period of time?
Adrenaline. Coffee. Lots of water. Good shoes. I stay away from alcohol because it slows me down. You also gotta give yourself breaks, especially to get off your feet. After standing for eight or nine hours straight, the knees start to go. Plop down in the shade somewhere to give yourself a break from the sun. You also need a plan so that you don't spend all your time just trying to figure out what to see, or all your time running from place to place. I always get a map of the festival grounds before hand and go through the schedule in advance so I can plot out where to go when to maximize the number of bands I can see.
And I choose a mix of artists I just love and want to see again and ones I've never heard of to allow for some surprises and discoveries. It's a battle of mental fatigue as much as physical fatigue, so mixing things up can keep you in it more. If the festival's over several days, sometimes I'll camp out at one stage or club on one of the days or nights just to see what happens, and to give myself a break from running around. Also, don't be a hero. Wear earplugs.