NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Put out of your mind the notion that outdoor music festivals are places where we can all come together as one. Sure, there are moments of transcendence when everyone seems to be riding the same wave, but most other times, we're all individuals with wallets and purses—and we all come together, accordingly, to test the value of our tickets.
Even if you have a tidy choice between enjoying VIP admission benefits and general admission benefits—as you will with many festivals—you're going to fight for space no matter what. And, the value of the overall experience is not about the benefits you paid for, but the spaces you claim.
Los Angeles's Fuck Yeah Fest (FYF) started as a dingy Echo Park bar hop ten years ago. Now, FYF is a mature music festival: multi-day, multi-stage, operating across 32-acres in L.A. State Historic Park next to Chinatown, and, if not featuring multi-platinum selling acts, then the festival is featuring acts that have street cred (and, basically, Pitchfork Media's stamp of approval): Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Bloody Valentine, The Breeders, Dan Deacon, Kurt Vile, Beach House, Eleanor Friedberger—all told, 56 different acts.
The FYF crowd has also grown in the number of attendees—and grown along a very large age spectrum. In 2003, you would have found a hundred sweaty 20-somethings roaming the darkness. This past August 24-25, there were a handful of infants and a handful of AARP card-carriers holding down the margins. In between? More than 20,000 Gen Xers and Gen Yers: Mollys, Mayas, Deans, and Dans (I met about ten each)— many wearing Minotaur hoof boots, some bouncing in velvet crop-tops, others brandishing vintage Brownie cameras, and a few swaying in candy colored hula hoops.
All of these people chose either a general admission tickets ($120) or a VIP admission tickets ($199), which grossed FYF organizers (by my estimation) something in the neighborhood of $3 million.
General admission gave me access to some pretty basic things—all four stages, a couple of biergartens ($7-8 per beer), a food truck village ($5-$15 per item), a merch tent (totes, $10; sweatshirts, $40), and an array of truly foul port-o-potties (the price of your dignity). VIP admission, on the other hand, gave me access to a cordoned-off area adjacent to three out of four stages, actual liquor, phone-charging stations, dedicated food trucks and tented areas with couches and ottomans, not to mention promotional quirks like an Airstream, or as I was told in soft tones, "a chill out zone so you can, like, relax."
Of course, two price points—and two sets of benefits—elicited an us-versus-them clamor from time to time. I witnessed at least three dozen non-VIP'ers sulk away angrily after feigning confusion about their ticket's worth to the VIP bouncer and being asked to step back.
But, after spending a lot of time moving between worlds—palm-laden, couchy VIP and the larger dust bowl beyond—could I quantify the difference? In the VIP area, did I gain enough access to Tito's Vodka ($11) and El Lucho burgers ($9)? Could I grab a seat once in a while? Did Yo La Tengo's drummer, Georgia Hubley, actually just elbow me in the ribs while we hung on the fence, waiting for the next band? Did those things justify the extra $79 on my ticket? Sure, yes, and, I'm also quite sure that 100% of my VIP colleagues would agree: the quantity and quality of their benefits were palpable. The governing factor—let's call it the VIP's value proposition—above all is personal space, though. Across the entire festival, space is the thing everyone seeks out, fights for, or gives up.
Nothing beats going to the very middle of the scrum to hear a band you like—not even gabby, polite vodka toasting on the sidelines.
But, the spatial politics in either world are identical.
Arriving 30 minutes before The Breeders were set to play the entirety of their 1993 album "Last Splash," I found my "space" (if it was even mine in the first place) infiltrated by sneaky, elfin hipsters who would crawl under everyone's legs, sit cross-legged in the dust, and make origami—only to pop up in groups of two or three to bogart my line of sight just as Kim and Kelly Deal mounted the stage.
I also saw it along a hill crest near another stage—reedy cormorants in corduroys fighting for patches of dirt by spreading out their floral-print backpacks in order to catch the Laguna Beach native Ty Segall cherry pick from his catalogue. Smaller backpacks were kicked aside to make room for bigger backpacks until, finally, someone came forward to commandeer space with his own, splayed body while his friends ambled to the toilets during final sound check.
It was no different in VIP, either. A man made almost completely orange from self-tanner and wearing a Polo shirt would lie along the length of a black couch while his wife in wedges tottered back with their nachos. I'd leave VIP and come back multiple times, but there they were, the same couple for six hours, squatting like it was a rent controlled West Village studio. But, it was their couch—just as a million dirt patches were claimed by others across the park.
And, after a while, it didn't seem to matter who paid what—everyone had to fight for their corner of FYF, no matter how much or how little their tickets cost.
--Written by William Richards for MainStreet