What Makes a Great Festival? Dean Budnick's IMFCON Keynote

posted by Marjana Jaidi on December 10, 2012

"A festival is an attitude, it's an experience, and I very much believe that it's a way of life," Dean Budnick said during his keynote presentation at the International Music Festival Conference last week.

Budnick knows a thing or two about music festivals -- every year at Bonnaroo, he publishes a free daily newspaper, the Bonnaroo Beacon, which is printed on-site. He is the executive editor of Relix Magazine, recently co-authored the book, Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped, and directed the documentary, Wetlands Preserved: The Story of An Activist Rock Club.

Most of Budnick's keynote speech focused on ways for music festivals to enhance the experience for its participants. Read on for three characteristics that Budnick associates with great festivals, and my take on which festivals fit the bill.

"The best festivals are national in scope but local in identity."

Most major festivals are already national -- or even international -- in scope. Artists typically come from all over the country, and in some cases, all over the world. The challenge then for festivals is not in scope, but rather in identity.

One festival that manages to achieve this balance Flow in Helsinki. The festival has an international scope (in 2011, artists hailed from 16 countries across four continents), and Finland is very much a part of the festival's identity. Finnish culture permeated everything from the music lineup, which featured over 20 local Finnish acts, to the decor, provided by Marimekko. I sampled Finnish tapas at Olo, a local restaurant that set up a pop-up location at the festival, and even the festival's main sponsor, Nokia, is from Finland. But Flow's most unique characteristic is its setting at the historic Suvilahti, a former power plant. Not only does the plant's architectural features add to the landscape, the festival uses the empty indoor spaces to create temporary restaurants, bars, and stages.

Sonar in Barcelona also makes good use of its setting at the MACBA in the Gothic Quarter, utilizing the building to offer film screenings, an art exhibit, and an additional indoor stage; however, while the festival is very international in scope, there is nothing specific to Barcelona or Spain that is tied to the festival's identity. There are very few local acts on the line-up, the food, while good in quality, gives no indication of the local culture, and the festival is priced such that most locals can't even afford a ticket (which is probably why everyone I met was from out of town).

Flow without Finland would be a completely different festival, whereas Sonar could be transplanted to any part of the world, and nothing about the festival would be lost in translation. Perhaps that's the reason why Sonar has been able to successfully expand worldwide.

"Festivals are destinations, not just places to see bands."

When it comes to summer festivals, the lineups don't generally vary much -- last summer, if you wanted to see Jack White, Santigold, or Explosions in the Sky, you had at least a half a dozen festivals to choose from. So a festival has to set itself apart by offering programming that goes beyond just the music.

Outside Lands in San Francisco executes this beautifully. Not only does the festival capture the spirit of San Francisco, it creates a magical world within Golden Gate Park with endless activities that go beyond the music. In addition to their extensive food and beverage offerings, Outside Lands features live painting, a comedy tent, body art, a Habitats for Humanity project, and so much more.

"Festivals represent a gathering of the tribes."

If you were in New York City during Labor Day Weekend, you might have spotted people walking around in eccentric neon outfits. An outsider might have thought these people were odd, even crazy, but to those in the know, these outfits identified fellow fans on their way to the Electric Zoo on Randall's Island.

In his book, Tribes, Seth Godin defines a tribe as, "a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea." Membership to a tribe is voluntary, and the members are active -- they do more than just show up. In the case of music festivals, tribe members are unified by music, led by the artists on stage. They dance, they cheer, they dress up, they participate in their surroundings. Each festival sets the tone for the tribe that gathers through its musical selection and the values that the festival represents. It is a festival's duty to create a safe space for these tribes to convene, a place where self-expression is welcome.

Though I've never been, Burning Man is the first festival that comes to mind in the context of a tribe. "People are craving vehicles for authentic experience, and we do nothing more than create a context for that to happen," Rebecca Throne, Burning Man's ticket manager, said in another IMFCON panel, Anatomy of a Festival: Burning Man. The festival isn't driven by headliners; it's a participant-driven festival, in which members ("Burners") take as much ownership over the community as the festival organizers.

Check in with us on Wednesday for an inside look at Burning Man, and our takeaways from the panel.

See Also:
International Music Festival Conference Returns to Austin December 2-4
Early Bird Tickets on Sale for Flow Festival
Save the Date for Outside Lands 2013