Photo: VCG / Getty Images
  /  08.08.2018

—by Keith Nelson, Jr.

Hundreds of people are grouped together, skin tattooed with sweat, feet coated with dirt, with live music and a deluge of indistinguishable conversation filling the air along with the scent of vodka, forestry, and marijuana. They are all in line waiting for one of the most consistently anticipated main attractions at music festivals this decade: technology.

The days of music festivals solely consisting of hopping from stage to stage, food vendor to food vendor, and relaxing on the grass for hours are slowly becoming extinct. Now, you’re as likely to see a selfie station as you are a water station. You probably entered into your favorite music festival by tapping a wristband with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips built in. Or, maybe you never even made it to the festival and are a proud “Couchella” member, livestreaming Coachella from the comfort of your home. No matter how you experience music festivals, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not notice the foundational changes technology has made to one of music’s longest lasting staples.

“When I was growing up in the ’90s, it was just you see a band on a stage, and that’s about it. You were so cynical when all of this peripheral stuff would never function,” 37-year-old, world renowned abstract artist Jonathan Zwada told REVOLT TV. “Nowadays, it feels like 50% of the festival is really all of this other stuff.”

Over the last six years, Coachella has had a 3D-projected pool, augmented reality clothing shop and, most famously, a Tupac “hologram” that people were still discussing half a decade later. Bud Light brought a 360-degree photo booth to Lollapalooza in 2015, and audio electronic brand JBL let Boston Calling festival-goers take a music-inspired Boomerang video in one of its booths earlier this year. All of these types of experiences are centered on capturing the moment, a trait that has pretty much become instinctual to generations of festival attendees thanks to one invention: social media.

“The younger generations, Gen Z, or whatever, being so visually driven through Instagram and those kind of channels, now everything has to have that kind of feel,” Brian Quinn, Director of Programming at the Northside Music and Innovation Festival, told REVOLT TV. “It changes the structure of how you create an event, because you want to create as many moments around that.”

It’s no coincidence that this decade’s inundation of technology in music festivals coincides with the fact the number of social media users has tripled since the start of this decade. Snapchatting Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation choreography at this summer’s Panorama Music Festival is more enticing than simply taking photos of yourself in a well-lit photo booth full of company sponsorships. But, which one requires you to push through dozens of rowdy teenagers to do so, and which one is as easy as going to the bathroom?

“We are moving now to the ‘experience’ age. People would like to get experiences, and we, as a technology company, believe that technology can enhance your experience by giving you something that without technology you can not get,” said Kobi Elbaz, HP’s Vice President and General Manager of the Americas Personal Systems Business.

For the past three years, HP has brought its gargantuan tech installation hub, The Lab, to Panorama Music Festival in New York City. The Lab is a collection of art installations using HP technology that have allowed attendees take some time away from the festival to smell sounds, take pictures in an intricate room full of mirrors and, most popularly, stare up at a visually stunning, abstract art video projected on a 90-foot dome.

At this summer’s Panorama Music Festival, HP let people digitally paint their faces and turn it into a gif, get right beside Janet Jackson while she performed live, in virtual reality, and watch two abstract videos based around music from Panorama performers St. Vincent and Odesza, on that gargantuan dome. It was an overwhelming success. “If you consider there’s three days of festival, about 75,000 people will go through the festival grounds. I’ll say, we’ll capture one-third of those,” said Emily Ketchen, HP’s Head of Marketing Services & Personal Systems Marketing for the Americas.

Even with that impressive showing, Ketchen doesn’t “ever” “feel that we compete [with the live performances].” But, here’s a widely-known fact about music festivals that makes that belief virtually impossible: most people at festivals are only there to see a small fraction of the artists on the lineup. Of the 20 concertgoers we surveyed at Panorama, 65% of them spent hundreds of dollars to see no more than three artists a day on the bill. None were there to see more than five artists of the 19 scheduled acts on that day, and all were waiting on line waiting to experience The Lab’s six installations instead of taking in early afternoon live performances from Lo Moon, Shannon and the Clams, and Supa Bwe.

Mid-day lines for The Lab installations ran 20 people deep and would take roughly 30-45 minutes before you could get in. Between waiting for, and experiencing all that The Lab had to offer, the average person would be spending 4-5 hours immersed in technology, and not the live music. “Technology may be hindering the actual music, the actual art itself. If this wasn’t here, I’d probably be going to see another artist. What if I really liked them? Then they just gained a whole new fan,” said Chad, a 21-year-old Panorama attendee.

It’s not all man-versus-machine; technology is liberating some artists from the shackles of convention. EDM is one of the biggest genres in music today, but the live performances are largely a detached affair. Aside from the artist momentarily stepping away from their laptops to get the crowd hyped, or the occasional fist pump, an EDM performance can be mostly identified by a bopping, half-seen face staring intently at a computer screen with a dizzying light show keeping the crowd in awe. Billboard chart-topping EDM group Glitch Mob is using technology to shift that paradigm.

“When you’re up there DJing, and you’re looking at a laptop, it’s hard to really connect with people. So, we tilted these touchscreens toward the crowd and started triggering all of our sounds off Ableton, which is the software that we use to write and perform it,” Glitch Mob frontman Justin Boreta told Digital Trendsin June.

At this summer’s Governors Ball Music Festival, Glitch Mob unleashed The Blade 2.0, a stage design that can only be described as a spaceship run by DJs. Powered by Dell Alienware 15s computers, The Blade 2.0 is comprised of numerous 27-inch touch screens that the band uses as midi controllers allowing them to precisely recreate their complex music, instead of simply queuing up the next song to be played, adding an extra level of customization for each show.

Odesza had a similar stage setup at Panorama, to equally as jubilant responses, displaying how the real-time customization technology offers has the potential to become a staple at music festivals that promise fans a special experience they can only get once a year. “With the musicians that I work with in their live shows, the idea is having live shows that aren’t just a scripted sequence of visuals, but are responsive to the musician, the performer, and to the audience,” Zawada said. “Creating something more dynamic and changeable, from night to night. It sort of becomes a bit more like the instruments or the music itself.”

Next time you take yourself to a music festival, try to enjoy it without technology. You’ll see before you even enter the festival grounds that that’s impossible for the foreseeable future.

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