Outside Lands Festival Is Only Missing One Thing
Outside Lands has it all. A history of marquee headliners (Radiohead and LCD Soundsystem both played this year), specialty areas dedicated to local craft beer, wine and cocktails, food options plucked from some of the best establishments in the Bay Area and too many additional amenities and attractions to list. A festival with such high production value should offer options, right? In this regard, Outside Lands does it better than most, not to mention its pristine Golden Gate Park setting — a park that's larger than New York's Central Park and equally as historic and beautiful.
But throughout the weekend, in between sets, laughs and chugs of beer, there was one facet of festival culture that was noticeably missing from Outside Lands: A sense of community.
I'm not so sure if I would've noticed this gap had I not attended Bonnaroo (a Superfly production, just like Outside Lands) earlier this summer. You see, Bonnaroo operates under the guise of "The Bonnaroovian Code" — a simple, six-point code of conduct that intends to help everyone "make the most of your Bonnaroo adventure and possibly even help change the world (in a good way)." Its first maxim is to "Radiate Positivity," which seemed a bit crunchy to me at first, until I got onto the Farm where the festival takes place and its essence was everywhere. People are happy to greet each other, people respect each other's experience, and the festival breathes as one whole. What separates Bonnaroo from other music festivals is how every fest-goer exudes the principles of the code. They are truly living its ethos, and that, in turn, creates a community that feels ownership over the festival and the grounds where it transpires.
Fest300's Creative Director Eamon Armstrong said it best in his recent piece tackling "The Bonnaroo Vibe": "By striving for a certain way of being during a temporary, immersive environment, we are able to experience a togetherness and pull each other up towards a higher standard. Intention goes a long way with anything, but it is particularly felt in environments of personal experimentation and expression."
Enter Outside Lands, where any notion of a community code — let alone a resulting ethos from said code — is, well, absent. And no matter how amazing the lineup is, how unique the food options are, and how awesome the local craft beer is, etc., the longevity of this festival and the legacy it strives to build as it nears its 10th year of existence, will depend on its ability to develop such a code and a resulting sense of community.
As I walked from Twin Peaks stage towards the main grounds at Land's End on Saturday, I saw people bump into each other casually and one of them yell "Don't ever touch my friend again!' It was sad. On the first day of the fest, when I looked at the grass below me at the Panhandle Stage, I saw empty packaging for sandwiches that were brought into the festival strewn across the ground along with empty condiment packets. That too was sad – but not as sad as the fields of trash covering the festival grounds at the end of the night. You can only flash "Leave No Trace" on Jumbotrons following artists' sets so many times before it's clear a bigger issue needs to be addressed.
Shouts to Clean Vibes, the group that supports what Outside Lands claims to be an 88% trash diversion rate, aided by volunteer-run trash stations throughout the park. You can't walk 20 steps without running into one of these disposal/pre-sorting stations. But the prevailing attitude of the festival crowd sees it as OK to leave their trash for somebody else to pick it up before Clean Vibes works their magic. Where is the respect for your temple of fun? If we can't build a sense of ownership within the attendees who come back to Outside Lands every year, what type of community are we building? Is this just the proverbial "large empty field to to drugs in" that The Onion snidely alluded to years ago?
It felt like everyone was there in their own little bubbles. And that's fine — there's no rule that says you must interact with other people at festivals — but this ignores the innate power that festivals have to potentially create an incredible sense of togetherness that "pulls each other up to a higher standard."
We have plenty of places to go where we can spend hundreds of dollars for a weekend of fun, but festivals ought to foster a community vibe. Camping festivals and transformational festivals seem to have a better sense of this, perhaps because attendees live on the grounds for three or four days and the success of the community relies on respect for the space and the whole. But who says that the buck stops there? Establishing an identity as being the festival that offers everything — not just music — is great and all, but when there's an opportunity to build a vibrant and strong community through joy, celebration and inter-connectedness, it must become a core focus.
I had a blast at Outside Lands. I was there with some of my favorite people and saw some of my favorite bands. But festival culture — namely the future of festival culture — is important to me, and Outside Lands could stand to take note from its Superfly sister festival Bonnaroo and implement a similar code. Next year will be Outside Lands' 10th anniversary, and what better time than that to shift the paradigm? Because this isn't just an Outside Lands problem. There are many other festivals that could benefit from an organic code of conduct that simply asks everyone to treat the festival grounds the way they'd treat the rest of the roads they walk along each day.
The festival scene is booming, but it's also becoming saturated. We've seen a wave of smaller festivals dissolving and the big players in the scene rising into larger and larger productions. This is a call to Outside Lands — a music festival that has carved its way into the conversation as one of the best on the West Coast — to look beyond the party and to look within the community it creates once a year, for this could be its biggest contribution to both its legacy and to the future of festival culture.